In game design, one of the more crippling problems that can arise—and which should be prevented from arising at all costs—is analysis paralysis.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, I’ll try to explain in the least clunky way I can.
In a game, players are presented with a series of choices. This is what shapes the gameplay experience. For example, in checkers, the choices are: “Which piece should I move?” and “To where should I move it?” Those two choices are entwined, because they’re both necessary for achieving your goal of controlling the board by eliminating your opponent’s pieces. The choices are, of course, limited by the game’s prescribed rules. To continue with the checkers example, a player only has 12 pieces. That limits their first choice (“Which piece should I move?”) to a maximum of 12 choices. The second choice (“To where should I move it?”) is limited similarly, by the rules. Unless a piece is kinged, it’ll only have two possible moves.
Analysis paralysis is what occurs when a game presents the player with too many choices.
If a player has too many choices, they can’t make a decision about what they should do because there are too many variables for the mind to quickly process. For example, if checkers had a 3D board, each player had 100 pieces, and each piece had 10 different possible moves, then that would be way too many choices – and a recipe for analysis paralysis. Games limit the number of choices a player can make to prevent the frustration that arises from analysis paralysis… because, let’s face it, if a game gets too frustrating, then the game isn’t fun any more.
But, for game designers, it’s a difficult balance to strike. As I’ve pointed out, you don’t want to paralyze the player with too many choices. But on the other hand, if a player has too few meaningful choices to make, then they don’t feel like they’re in control of their actions in the game; it’s not really a game at that point – the player is just a passive observer going through the motions. And similarly, if the optimal choice is too obvious, then the player doesn’t feel like they’re playing a game either. Take the example of Monopoly. I’m not going to argue against playing the classic, but essentially–in Monopoly–you just roll the dice and buy up every property you land on. Once all the properties are bought, players just go through the motions. There aren’t really any meaningful choices to be made in the game – it’s all just random chance. That’s fine if that’s your thing; but the game doesn’t really offer players an opportunity to feel like they’re in control of anything meaningful – to see the benefits of the choices they make.
Now, I haven’t done any academic research on the subject, so this next part is all conjecture based on my own observations and obsessing.
I feel like there is a numerological “sweet spot” for the amount of choices to be made during a game. There’s a certain number of choices that makes a player feel like, “I’m in control” but not so many that it’s overwhelming.
For large, disparate, meta choices — those choices where a player has a huge decision to make (such as picking between “actions” like “drawing a card” and “moving a game piece”), I feel like 2 or 3 is the perfect number. Any fewer, and it’s automatic. And any more, and the player is forced to analyze too much, too far into the future.
When it comes to individual “actions” (such as “which card in my hand do I play?” or “which space do I place my worker on?”), I feel like the perfect number is somewhere between 5 and 7. Again, any fewer, and the player might feel like they’re not making a meaningful enough decision. Any more, and the game could come grinding to a halt as the player obsesses over the numerous possible consequences of their choice.
Obviously, the specific nature of the choice offers some flexibility with the numbers – as does the nature of the game itself. For example, a “heavy” worker placement game might offer up more than 7 choices. It’s not uncommon for heavier Euro games to give players a dozen (or more) choices. After all, these games are essentially “solvable” when players are able to discern what the optimal choices are. So, by their design, the game must present enough choices to the players so the game isn’t as easy to “solve” as something like tic-tac-toe.
But I digress.
In Osprey Adrift the “meta choice” during the Day phase comes down to “Do I leave it up to fate and draw cards off the deck, or do I give away information and ask the other players to make a trade?” Players can also play a black action card, so that adds the additional choices of, “Do I play a black card, and if so, which one?” The choices presented here have a huge impact on what happens in the game, but there aren’t so many of them that they overwhelm the player.
When it came down to the number of cards a player can keep in their hand, I limited this to 5. In an earlier iteration of the game, this was actually 7, but after several playtests, I found that players were 1) spending quite a bit of time deciding which card to play, and 2) not spending enough time deciding which cards to discard at the end of their turn. Because the hand size was so large, it gave the players a wealth of options when it came down to building their hand with Action cards, Resources, and Coins. They had too many choices. On the flip side, discarding cards wasn’t as meaningful because players could keep more cards in their hand. So that specific choice wasn’t difficult enough.
It’s been a long process, but trusting my gut and gathering feedback from lots and lots of playtests has led the game to that sweet spot – the players’ choices are meaningful enough without being too paralyzing.
What about you? As a gamer, how many choices are too many? And if you’re a designer, how do you balance the choices players make to prevent analysis paralysis?