Great Tension

Tension is one of, if not the, most important ingredients in a great design.

Recently I played a new game for the first time. I was very excited to play this game based on the initial read of the rules. I actually enjoy reading and writing rules and I find them the first point of excitement for me. This game had 2 really neat mechanics, one of which is called Tension.

As we played the game, it became clear that the Tension mechanic was a lie and that tension had been removed almost entirely from the game. It completely removed the fun, the excitement, and the thrill of the game.

Josh and I can relate to this from earlier versions of Hocus Poker. As we wandered through the iterative wilderness trying to find our game's soul, our game lacked tension. We realized this about the same time we hit our eureka moment, but now it's a notion that's so stuck in my craw I daresay I shant forget it soon. In these versions of Hocus, players had no pressures on their decisions. They had few risks to take. The game rewarded conservative play and waiting until you could win it all.

There was no tension and as a result, our game suffered. When we added limited turns before the end of the round, which can be determined by your opponents' play and schemes, and limited the amount of things you could accomplish? Hocus became a game.

Let's talk about tension and why your game desperately needs it.

Tension has a few definitions. I know this is a cliche way to begin a discussion, but it's relevant here.

As a noun:

  1. the state of being stretched tight
  2. mental or emotional strain

As a verb:

  1. apply a force to (something) that tends to stretch it

Let's keep these in mind as we identify the key elements of tension.

Constrain

The definitions sound negative, and there are times when we fear we're pushing players too hard, but that's not the case here. You can't always get what you want, in life or good games, and you'll find that if you force a difficult choice upon your players, there will be great satisfaction when they discover what it is they really need

The state of being stretched tight is beautifully demonstrated in games like Ra, 7 Wonders, or Race for the Galaxy. Yes, you can try to dominate every category, but really, working on 2-3 is sufficient. Monuments and pharaohs? Perhaps! Science and military? Also valid.

Worker placement is also excellent in this regard. You have 3 workers. What resources do you most wish to collect? What is the chain of events you most need to see occur?

Eclipse does this simply with an economic limitation. Sure, you may wish to research a new laser, and conquer a new system, and assault your opponent, but all of those tax your limited and fragile economy.

Netrunner deckbuilding does this with a limit on non-faction influence. With a Chaos Identity, you can use all the Chaos cards you want. But you're strictly limited on Shaper and Criminal cards. I think one of the most important deckbuilding decisions is not what cards you take from the limitless pool, but which you take from the finite one. These cards show your wit and innovation in play.

Constrain your players. Put a box around them! Do not force them through a narrow shoot, which is limiting and boring. But, fence them in and let them decorate their personal diorama as they choose with their actions.

Obfuscate

Obvious choices are poor ones and grow old after some time. Or, rather quickly. If everyone can easily ascertain the value of something in an auction game, it deflates the balloon of joy with all the pomp of a slobbery fart sound. If you are locked into a strategy, either due to the shallowness of the design or your choices, you may check out as the game meanders to a close.

Obfuscation leads to mental and emotional strain. The good kind! You want the situation where player A takes their turn, player B says "Damn you!" and player C groans and puts their head in their hands. Uncertainty and a lack of clear direction is so delightful.

Modern Art does a great job of obfuscation as you don't know how much money (i.e. points) your opponents have and some of the auctions are blind. But, it's not too opaque as you know the approximate value of what things are worth.

X-Wing has great obfuscation as you don't know precisely where an opponent's ship will maneuver. You know where they could go. You know where they should go. You know where you'd like them to go. But you don't know where they will go.

Netrunner does a great job giving the Corporate player a wall of fog to put up before the Runner. Is that an Agenda that they can score? If so, how soon can they score it? Is it a trap that can kill me? Is that an Upgrade that'll make my life more difficult? Is that an Asset that'll give them a fat payout?

City Hall, if you pay attention, seems clear. You can see that Bob is trying to build more housing. You know he needs two actions. You also see he has quite a few cards in his hand, but you're not sure how many are Influence, how badly the others want the action, and how much they'll drive the cost.

Obfuscation is about eliminating perfect information, but also about curtailing the number of possibilities such that the strain is fun, not overwhelming. People are bored by indecision, both their own and that of other players. Games with too many possibilities feel directionless.

Tax

These elements are ingredients and optional ones. To have great tension you probably need a few of them, but not all of them. I say that as this one will be highly contentious. You need to tax your players. Things should come with a cost.

There are many ways to do this, ranging from simple to cruel.

  • Hand limits -- you can only keep so many!
  • Discard to play (ex: discard 1 card to play this other card)
  • End of round upkeep (ex: feed your family)
  • Spend finite or recurring currency to pay for actions (ex: Netrunner credits or Magic Mana)

Taxation is similar to constraint, but in addition to having limited actions and choices, you also need to pay for it. You need to lose something to gain something. This additional trade off beautifully complements constraint.

You only have so many silver bullets. When, and at whom, do you fire them?

End It

I couldn't think of a clever verb heading for this one, but the idea is that you must always be advancing the game's end state. Like death and taxes in our real lives, players need to know that the game will end, whether they want it to or not, and they need to make the most of their finite time on this Earth. I mean game.

In Farmageddon, players draw from the deck every turn and when that deck is empty, the game ends.

Many games simply have a limited number of rounds.

Many games lately literally have a time limit. We call this "real time" (as opposed to false time?).

Constantly advance the game state and force it to conclude. This creates wonderful tension and makes the final decisions all the more agonizing. Force your players to create a strategic bucket list.

This is getting a bit long for a Friday blog. Your game must have tension to succeed. You must challenge your players to work within constraints, and force them to accomplish twice as many things as it seems they are able to do.

What are your favorite ingredients for crafting tension? What are some great examples of tension in games?

Comments

I don't have a series of articles on tension, no, but I do have 3 years worth of blog posts on design. If you have specific questions, I can surely point your towards articles.

Excellent advice. One of my recent challenges is giving participants tough, meaningful choices (and discouraging the over-analysis of trivial decisions).

You want tension? Play a few games of Twilight Struggle!

Well, duh.

Excellent article! Tension as a means of player engagement is so tough to balance: too much and the players become frustrated, too little and they get bored.

Your use of specific examples and solutions is great, do you have a 'Designer's Toolkit' page with these items in, along with other articles of a similar nature? Would love to see that, especially as a way to break a designer's block as a kind of 'ooh, hadn't thought of that!'