Choices vs. Options

Recently I made a post dissecting the confusing and misleading parts of Mark Rosewater’s podcast on Choices vs. Options. Now I want to talk about the important idea in the podcast that I believe got obscured.

Many game designers try to give players as much control over the game as possible. Let’s explore a rules tweak to MTG that mirrors a common early design mistake. Imagine normal MTG, but you have the ability to pay 3 mana and discard a card at any time in order to destroy a permanent.

Sound a little silly? Well. designers adore giving players extensive menus of possible actions. For example, it’s a natural tendency for designers of card games to work in a secondary use of every card. WOTC is not excepted. Kaijudo worked in the ability to use cards in your hand as resources (like lands). Pokemon has cards from your deck double as prizes you draw for defeating other pokemon. Scrolls allowed you to discard a card each turn to draw 2 new cards or gain resources.

Netrunner has cards in hand double as the Runner player’s life total (taking damage means randomly discarding cards, and you die when you take more damage than you have cards left to discard). That game also gives you an extensive action menu that requires a cheat-card to keep track of well into your tenth game.

Players like getting more options. Designers like providing options. My first reaction to hearing about all the options Netrunner provided me as a player was wildly positive. The possibilities exploded in my brain. Faeria had a similarly flexible action menu in its earlier builds. Like Netrunner’s hackers, you didn’t draw cards at the start of your turn – but you could draw them as any of your three action points.

This was a huge problem. Not only did it reduce the design space of card synergies, as combos could be rapidly assembled, but players naturally wouldn’t draw cards if they already had what they needed in hand. This meant players didn’t get a new card each turn to consider, which keeps players engaged. In The GM’s Guide, I’ve talked about how players need something new to consider each turn. Automatic card draw creates this.

Faeria has since provided the player with an automatic card draw each turn, as well as 1 action (not 3) to use on a variety of different options. The game feels much better. Removing the option to not draw at least 1 card, and instead use that action on something else, creates a much more positive experience for players overall.

Of course if you ask players how they’d feel about losing this option, you’ll almost always get negative feedback.

This, I believe, is what Mark Rosewater was trying to get across. The instinct of many new designers is to provide players with as many options as possible. However, doing so increases the comprehension and tracking complexity of your game and often reduces the satisfying puzzle of the experience itself.

Rock, Paper, Scissors is a balanced and functional game. Adding a fourth option, dynamite; which beats Rock, Paper AND Scissors is increasing the number of options in your game. However, all it does is make your game harder to learn and makes the choice of what to pick meaningless.

Don’t add dynamite.

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