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.
- 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?