Website update: Tough decisions in games

Second part in the series "what makes a good game" the tough decisions can be found at my web site.

Unfortunately, it’s in Finnish, but here’s an English summary:

The article is about what makes good games stand out. The issue I’m pointing at is the tough decisions you have to make. Average roll-and-move game might have such simple decisions as "which direction I’m moving from this crossing", but not much more. If the game is directed to kids or families, that’s ok. I think better games can be made, but family games should be luck-heavy so the kids have a chance.

However, in games made for adult audience, I want more. Of course, there’s always time and place for easier, more relaxed games, but mental challenge is what makes the games interesting to me.

I go through two recent examples, Princes of Florence and Puerto Rico and point out the tough decisions in them.

Princes of Florence has plenty of them, and most arise from the fact that players get to make 21 choices during the whole game: 7 purchases in the auctions and 14 actions during the turns. When such ingredients are added as the limited availability of various items, competing for them against the other players and money, which you’re always running out of, the result is very tense and exciting.

One of the finer points of the game is the balance between victory points and money. When completing a work, you get to choose how much money and how much Prestige you take. What makes the situation uncomfortable is that you really don’t know how much money you will need — only after you’ve already done it, you get to know if your choice was good or bad. If you have extra money, you could’ve taken more victory points — if you run out of money on a critical moment, you are in trouble.

And that’s what makes Princes of Florence a good game. Few games offer such tense decisions.

Puerto Rico, in the other hand, is a bit more relaxed. You get to make more choices and each weighs less. Recovering from mistakes is possible. However, the decisions are still very important for your success.

Choosing the role card is of course the main decision each turn. It’s easy, if you always take the one that benefits you most. However, things get complicated when you start to think about how your choices affect other players. Choosing the Craftsman might net you many barrels of goods, but will you get any victory points if the next player chooses the Captain? Craftsman is the most critical role — choosing it often means good times for the other players.

I think the second toughest decision comes when you build. Will you buy a cheaper building and get some benefit, or wait until you have more money so you can build a more expensive building, which benefits you more. When will you have the next opportunity to build? Will you get money before that? As the money is often the resource you don’t have, the decisions are tough. And even if you had the money, there’s always the one building per turn limit, which forces you to prioritise. Oh, and did I mention that there’s not enough buildings for everyone? Wait until the next turn and the building you wanted might be gone already.

These tough decisions are what makes many games so enjoyable to me. When reviewing serious games, it is one of the most important factors to me: does the game offer tough decisions, will I get the kicks I’m looking for? Perhaps I don’t get to make enough decisions that matter in my real life (I wonder if business executives who have to make tight decisions all the time would like to play Princes of Florence on their free time) and thus I crave for them in games?

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