Decision Space in Game Design

New Belgium Brewery offers a nice decision space! Photo via Flickr user quan ha @2009

Decision Space:

     – the range of options at the decision maker’s disposal

That simple definition is from a paper titled Supporting a Robust Decision Space from the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. It is a nice definition for what I mean by “decision space.”

Decision space is an important concept for game designers to consider when working on their designs. One of the best things a game can offer is a plethora of interesting decisions. One of the worst things a game can do is limit your decisions or take them away completely. There’s nothing worse in a game when it’s your turn and you only have 1 option. It’s as if you have become a robot just going through the motions.

Today I’m going to cover how game designers should consider Decision Space in their designs. At the forefront of game design is the notion that games are supposed to be fun. With that in mind, let’s cover 3 examples of Decision Space in your game can make it better.

  1. Unlimited Decision Space
  2. Limited Decision Space
  3. Tailored Decision Space

Some times it’s good to offer a lot of choices. Some times it’s good to limit a player’s choices. But the point of this article is that the decision space available to players is an important concept to consider in your game designs.

Unlimited Decision Space

Okay… first off, “Unlimited” is a bit of a misnomer. I do not believe there are any games with a truly infinite decision space. Rather, this is meant to point out situations where the decision space is so large that the players do not feel limited in any way. The world is their oyster, in essence.

Build as you see fit!

One great example of an unlimited decision space is the route-building aspect of the classic game Empire Builder. There is a huge map and you have your special little crayon. You can stare at the board and your cards for a long time while yielding the power of the unlimited. Where should you begin your route? Where should the route go? Should you cross the rivers/mountains or go around? How much track should you lay? There are a lot of decisions you could make about the route you want to build.

How is “Unlimited” Fun?

There is a nice liberty in having an unlimited decision space. Players often enjoy being able to choose freely, to mess up freely, to make an awesome move freely.

Consider utilizing an unlimited decision space in games where you want players to have full control and to be fully accountable for their decisions.

Limited Decision Space

Sometimes it is prudent to limit the decisions a player can make. These situations are common at the start of a game.

Starts “Limited,” ends “Awesome!”

Two great examples are Dominion and Eminent Domain. These are both deckbuilding games. In standard deckbuilding games you start with a very limited hand of cards. One your first few turns you will be limited in what you can do.

Limiting the decision space early in a game can be beneficial to help a player get used to how the game operates.

Another example of “limited” decision space comes from the popular game Ticket to Ride. In the game you have three options on your turn. You can draw more route cards, play trains to the board, or draw train cards. And even the choices within those options are limited. You can only play trains to the board if you have the right cards in your hand. You can only draw train cards from the face up cards or the face down pile.

How is “Limited” Fun?

One of the ways that Limited decision space can be fun is by adding tension to  game. Using Ticket to Ride as the example again, players have tension due to the limitation. Maybe they just need one more green train to claim that big route. But perhaps another player has already built near the green route. Not that first player is hoping that the other player doesn’t take that green connection that they’ve been working on. But because the decisions are limited, the player has a slight feeling of helplessness.

Limiting the options on a player’s turn can also speed up the game. Sometimes (or perhaps often) the Unlimited decision space games tend to get into the Analysis Paralysis (AP) regime. Limited decision space games tend to decrease the amount of AP in games.

Tailored Decision Space

Tailored decision space refers to situations in games where the decisions you previously made will shape the decisions you have available in later turns in the game. Often games with tailoring offer multiple paths to victory where once a path has been chosen it is better to continue following that path than to start working on a different path.

How will you shape the countryside?

Some of the best examples that I can think of are Uwe Rosenberg’s games Le Havre and Ora et Labora.

In Ora et Labora players start with a plot of land that they are looking to develop. Throughout the game players will add buildings to the land that provide new actions. Then on their next turn, those previously placed buildings add to the decision space available for the player.

This is actually a common thing in engine building games. Engine builders are games where you build something and increase your skills/options/capabilities. In most of these games you can build something, that let’s you improve it, and then make it really awesome. All along the way you can either diversify and build a bunch of stuff that might be mediocre. Or you could possibly build one type of thing and make it really awesome.

The card game 7 Wonders also has a “tailored decision space” feel to it. In each of the three stages you can play cards to tailor your wonder in one of several different types of things. By adding resource production you can set yourself up for different types of things. For example, if you produce the manufactured goods (gray cards) then you can usually do pretty well with the science cards (green). So the cards you choose throughout the game will tailor the decision space that makes the most sense as you move your way toward victory.

How is “Tailored” Fun?

I think having a tailored decision space in games allows players to feel like they are really accomplishing good stuff throughout the game. In Scoville the field acts as a tailored decision space. Each round as new peppers are added you are creating new opportunities for breeding peppers. Each new spot opens up the number of decisions you can choose.

Tailored decision space is also a way that you can steer your strategy in a game. By choosing card A it might make card B much more attractive. Then by choosing card B it might make card C more attractive.

Why Should You Care?

As a gamer none of this really matters. Just find a game that you think is fun and play it.

As a designer, it can be worthwhile to consider the way decision space works in your game designs. Are you limiting players? Are you allowing them freedom of choice?

Decision space is an easy thing to neglect when designing a game. Normally we’ll pick a theme or pick a mechanic and start designing. But I wonder how things would go if a designer chose the type of decision space they wanted and then added a theme and mechanic after the fact.

What are your thoughts about decision space in games? Did I get it completely wrong? Does it make sense?


Posted on February 7, 2014, in Concept, Game Design, The Boards and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. “One of the best things a game can offer is a plethora of interesting decisions. One of the worst things a game can do is limit your decisions or take them away completely.” This depends entirely on the target audience. Most game players today, in my experience, do not want a lot of choices, they want relatively few. Facebook games often offer few interesting decisions, but some of them have been played by more people than any hobby game. (I don’t count Monopoly etc. as hobby games.) Many Euros suffer from generally accepted best moves, to the point that some people are offended if a player doesn’t make that generally accepted move.

    Though I do agree that for many people “There’s nothing worse in a game when it’s your turn and you only have 1 option. It’s as if you have become a robot just going through the motions.” In other words, why bother?

    Don’t confuse number of decisions with number of choices in a decision. Hardly anyone needs lots and lots of decisions in a game, that becomes overkill, but many people want lots of choices when they make a decision. Also consider that in some games there are many choices to a decision, some of them likely good, some plausible but rarely good, and some obviously not good. In other words, the quality of choices counts as much (more, actually) as the quantity.

    • Lewis, Thanks so much for your comment. You make an excellent point in not confusing the number of decisions with the number of choices in a decision. I had not thought of it that way. Love the “quality” vs. “quantity” idea as well.

      ~ Ed

  2. I feel silly commenting more than a year later, but I just saw this article today. (Thanks to Cards N Boards)

    I’ve been referring to your misnomered “unlimited” decision space as “functionally infinite” in my own thoughts and writings about the subject. I think it fits because while there is a finite number of possibilities, they will never all get played. Most of the games I design aim for that as a decision space, which makes a lot of math necessary when trying to balance the game, as I obviously can’t play test every choice a player would have in my games.

    One example of this is in my game, Contract. During a bidding phase, players can spend up to 20 money in order to secure contracts that they later earn more money on. Because different players have different comparative advantages on these contracts, and the players have the option to offer a kickback, it is sometimes beneficial to help another player instead of yourself to get a contract. in a 5 player game, one player can spend their 20 money on themselves and/or some/all of the other players (or nobody) in 53,130 different ways. (I’ll explain the math if anyone cares.) Most players only choose to play in a range of about 101 of those options, spending nothing or 1 to 20 on only one player, so you can definitely see what Lewis is talking about in action. Some of the available choices are not really choices at all. No one is going to spend an equal amount on every player and just waste their money without affecting the outcome in any way, though they might spend the same on two players based on different deals they are being offered.

    So, where do you think “unlimited” starts, if you had to put a number on it?

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