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Subject: Objective Driven Gameplay rss

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Brad Talton
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This is a mirror of the original article, posted on the Level 99 Games Design Blog: http://www.lvl99games.com/?cat=26

Games are driven by decisions, and decisions are based upon goals. Players know what their goals are, and make decisions that they think will most effectively accomplish those goals.

This seems like a self-evident fundamental of gameplay, but it can easily get lost in the mechanics of the game if the designer loses focus. To prevent their games from losing pace, designers must focus on how players think and how they can utilize this knowledge to improve their game designs. Most of this article will focus on strategic games with a high degree of player control (such as wargames, eurogames, and adventure games), but many kinds of games can benefit from this analysis.

Players Think in Goal-Oriented Terms

Players think in terms of their goals. When those goals have multiple steps or multiple requirements, the player creates sub-goals that will move him in the direction of the major goal. The player will always have a goal in mind. Typically the goal forms a chain, such as this chain for Settlers of Catan:

Score VPs -> Build more cities -> Build more roads -> Acquire Brick and Wood

The player wants to score VP, so his goal becomes to build cities, which means he must create a sub-goal of building more roads, which gives him a sub-sub-goal of acquiring brick and wood. His turn will typically be spent attempting to accomplish as many of his goals as possible, starting with the right-side goals and working progressively towards the left-side goals.

When you hear players trying your game say "I don't know what I'm doing" or "I have no idea what's going on" it means that they have failed to build the necessary goal chain that is supposed to guide their decisions. Of course, this may be either a player or a designer failing, but it is something that should at least put up red flags for the designer. If your players can't build the chain, then the links may not be as apparent to others as they are to you. Consider that the chain is built from problem-solution links, so that it actually looks more like this:

How do I win the game? -> Score VPs

How do I score VPs? -> Build more cities

How do I reach a legal place to build a city? -> Build more roads

What do I need to build more roads? -> Acquire Brick and Wood


Is each link in your game's goal-chain readily apparent to players? Can they identify the steps that they need to accomplish in order to fulfill their goals? player confusion, indecision, and frustration occur when the player cannot answer the questions he needs to build a goal chain.

The Goal Chain is one piece of a Goal Tree


One thing that makes Settlers of Catan a good gateway game is how easy it is for players to analyze the links between goals and thus make informed strategic decisions.

Multiple ways to accomplish goals inevitably lead to the goal chain becoming a goal tree. Players have their ultimate goals at the bottom of the tree, with intermediate goals growing up from the root. A good design makes these connections obvious for the player, so that an informed strategic decision is easy to make.

Strategies Emerge where Goal Chains Diverge

When the Catan player above begins his turn, he already knows what he wants to accomplish. This is another part of the design where good gameplay happens. The player must be presented with multiple ways to accomplish this goal, many of which are interesting to explore. In Catan, the player can trade with other players, or he may trade with the game (4 resources for 1), or with the ocean (3 or 2 for 1). The possibility of these options creates new strategies for the player. For example, perhaps this goal chain evolves:

Score VP -> Build more cities -> Acquire city resources -> Build a sea trading post -> Build a road to the sea -> Acquire road resources

An additional goal (build a sea trading post) is a step towards acquiring more VP as well as building towards future cities. The divergence of the goal chain creates a new strategy for the player in his ultimate quest to score VP. The more divergence and interlinking a goal chain has, the more replay value the game has, since more and more strategies are potential paths to victory.

Where can this go wrong?

If decisions are not applicable to the context of the goal. Consider a game where you are attempting to reach the end of a race with multiple paths. You reach a fork in the path, left, right, and center, but you cannot see ahead what might lie down the path. Whether you take the left, right, or center path is meaningless, since there is no way to judge which will bring you closer to the goal. The player is unable to make a goal-oriented decision.

If the decisions do not provide different outcomes. Consider the same racing game. The player moves approximately 1,000 to 2,000 units per turn, and the goal is approximately 10,000 units away. Path A is 1,001 units long, and path B is 1,003 units long. Choosing between paths A and B is still a largely meaningless decision, as neither will bring the player significant advantage towards his goal. In the chain of goals, they are effectively the same step. This problem can be exacerbated if it is hard for players to distinguish which move is optimal (or that neither move is optimal). If the player had to count the spaces himself to determine they were the same, for example, gameplay would slow to a halt.

Creating Stronger Goal Chains

To create a stronger gameplay, consider linking your goal chains closely together and doing more to make these links obvious to the players. In the dark ages of gaming, it was understood that players would develop strategies of their own from the simple mechanics at work in the game, but in our modern games, it isn't unheard of to offer players strategic tips in the manual or game box, or even to provide a diagram like the one above to show how different resources and intermediate goals can link together. Giving your players the tools they need to understand the possibilities inherent in the game is part of the designer's responsibility to his players.

The stronger your goal chains are, the more your players will feel confident and in control of their decisions, leading to a better gaming experience, less analysis time, and more fun for everyone.

Consider This...

* Can you identify games where goal trees are weak or broken? How about games with especially strong and well-connected goal trees?
* Do players seem confused about how to play and win your games? Could you improve these by strengthening the connections in your goal tree?
* Could you think of any games that would be improved by better diagrams, rules, and tips for new players?

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Jim Cote
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This is good, but consider that in the case of Catan, the goal tree is something that each player will always execute on their own. Compare that to something like Brass/Age of Industry, where players use each other's resources and ports. This doesn't change the topology of the tree, but it significantly affects how the tree is used.
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Jon Brady
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After looking at this im thinking about getting this game.
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Justin L
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What an excellent post.

One of the most important parts of developing any boardgame is that there needs to be a way to develop a strategy within it. The only way to create strategy would be to analyze the decisions leading up to developing a strategy. With a game I am developing, I have tried to create actions which can provide strategy to players.

A decision tree helps greatly as you can visualize the number of options available and the potential routes a player can take. This can also be used if you're confused about a certain strategy a player can take, and if it may be under/overpowered.
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Ethan Larson
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You left something out of your Catan Decision Tree.

What to do about bad luck?
A) Get loaded dice
B) Play something else

whistle
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Ianthe Phagocyt
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I think this article failed to considered some type of games (within the scope of games the article claimed to considered) and thus simplify things too much and left out certain other way of designing games:
-Emergent subgoal: this is where the game do not shoehorn you into a subgoal (unlike SoC where the game forced you between a very few subgoals, and many subgoals are simply chained together). Think of shogi, or arimaa, where you have a large variety of different subgoals, and they might not at all apparent to be linked to the final goals. Not just that, players can discover more and more subgoal over time, because there are no mechanics that restrict the chain of goals.
-Game where thinking in term of goals is simply not the most effective way to play: this especially apply to highly abstract game where human's intuition failed to work well.
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Philip Migas
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almo2001 wrote:
You left something out of your Catan Decision Tree.

What to do about bad luck?
A) Get loaded dice
B) Play something else

whistle

C) Trade with other players.
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Justin L
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almo2001 wrote:
You left something out of your Catan Decision Tree.

What to do about bad luck?
A) Get loaded dice
B) Play something else

whistle

Bad luck has nothing to do with making a decision. In fact luck vs decisions are essentially independent. You generally don't factor in bad luck with you play a game, but rather focus on the best potential outcome for the decision your currently making. You may try to mitigate the potential bad outcome but beyond that there is not much you can do with luck.

Look at Catan for example, you're always going to place your Settlements on the spots which either do one of two things, give you a high probability of acquiring that resource or satisfying a need for a resource you currently do not have access to or enough of.

No one will place their settlements on a resource which does not have a high chance of generating that resource - "just in case I get unlucky"
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Oliver Kiley
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pmigas wrote:
almo2001 wrote:
You left something out of your Catan Decision Tree.

What to do about bad luck?
A) Get loaded dice
B) Play something else

whistle

C) Trade with other players.


I interpreted the SoC diagram as an example of the OP’s point about diagramming goal-chains, and wasn’t supposed to model all possibilities with SoC or any other game.

I think it is a great post and definitely provides food for thought as I (and hopefully others) think about their game designs. Your points regarding multiple paths to victory in particular resonated with me. Having multiple paths to victory is meaningless if there isn’t a strategic reason to pick one path over another (or the player can’t understand/foresee the implications of one path over another). The path you select becomes an arbitrary decision in effect, which goes against making interesting decisions.
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Martin Larouche
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almo2001 wrote:
You left something out of your Catan Decision Tree.

What to do about bad luck?
A) Get loaded dice
B) Play something else

whistle

C) Buy the unexpansive event cards expansion, which removes the bad luck streaks from Catan completely.

Lots of people play Catan with dices and complain about it when there's a 5$ solution available designed specifically for that perceived problem.
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RanDomino Nickelmaster
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This is a great little article. Intermediate goals are so important to games with any kind of depth.

castleday wrote:
almo2001 wrote:
You left something out of your Catan Decision Tree.

What to do about bad luck?
A) Get loaded dice
B) Play something else

whistle

Bad luck has nothing to do with making a decision. In fact luck vs decisions are essentially independent. You generally don't factor in bad luck with you play a game, but rather focus on the best potential outcome for the decision your currently making. You may try to mitigate the potential bad outcome but beyond that there is not much you can do with luck.

Look at Catan for example, you're always going to place your Settlements on the spots which either do one of two things, give you a high probability of acquiring that resource or satisfying a need for a resource you currently do not have access to or enough of.

No one will place their settlements on a resource which does not have a high chance of generating that resource - "just in case I get unlucky"
Don't people make strategies based on the expected value?
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Justin L
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RanDomino wrote:
This is a great little article. Intermediate goals are so important to games with any kind of depth.

castleday wrote:
almo2001 wrote:
You left something out of your Catan Decision Tree.

What to do about bad luck?
A) Get loaded dice
B) Play something else

whistle

Bad luck has nothing to do with making a decision. In fact luck vs decisions are essentially independent. You generally don't factor in bad luck with you play a game, but rather focus on the best potential outcome for the decision your currently making. You may try to mitigate the potential bad outcome but beyond that there is not much you can do with luck.

Look at Catan for example, you're always going to place your Settlements on the spots which either do one of two things, give you a high probability of acquiring that resource or satisfying a need for a resource you currently do not have access to or enough of.

No one will place their settlements on a resource which does not have a high chance of generating that resource - "just in case I get unlucky"
Don't people make strategies based on the expected value?

Damn good point, but I'd say not always. (I'll be splitting hairs now)

Some humans have a tenancy to ignore the negatives until they happen. Prior to making a decision we generally envision the best possible outcome to any situation. (Optimism bias - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimism_bias)

Once we make a mistake we generally remember the negatives over the positives. Over time, after making mistakes, we learn from them. This in turn, helps us develop a strategy.

I don't think we always calculate our expected value because I believe we generally expect the best possible outcome before realizing what our mistakes are.
We have many different cognitive biases which come into play when we play a boardgame.

Each persons personality defines these, and in each case, people interpret their expected values differently based on our own cognitive biases.

/ramble
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