Limit 'em Good

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A peer and I were discussing his new design recently. I noted that his game featured a large number of Actions, which led to a really interesting discussion about the number of actions available to a player, accessibility, arbitrarily limiting players, and more. The topic seemed ripe for a column.

Designers often think first about everything they want players to do in the entire game. They go big and think grandly about where the game might end. However, the breadth of choice is often overwhelming for new players, terrifying for casual gamers, and paralyzing for analysis prone competitive players.

The key, then, is to limit the choices available to players. On the surface, this may not seem palatable as it simplifies your design, makes it less compelling, or lessens the strategy. Not so! The discussion before us is not about removing choices, but to limit them, pace them out, and integrate them into the game in a way that enriches the strategy.

Take Diablo 3 for example: At the onset, each player has two actions available to them. They aren't even chosen! However, within minutes the player receives a third action, then a second choice for their first action, then a modifier on the first choice, and so forth. The game begins with seemingly little to do, but quickly presents the player with a huge variety of choices.

Let's move back to the print game realm. A game that broadens the experience both well and poorly is Agricola.

Initially, the game features a limited set of actions available to the player. These actions are identical in every game, which is great for returning players. At the beginning of every round, a new action becomes available. These are also the same every game, though the order in which they are revealed changes slightly. This is where Agricola succeeds masterfully.

However, Agricola suffers, in my opinion, when it gives each player 14 cards at the beginning of the game. 14 is an enormous number, especially when combined with the 6 or so actions available to players. Furthermore, there are approximately 300 cards from which these 14 cards are dealt, which means you will see a completely new variation of cards every game. While this is outstanding for deep strategy and replayability, it is very overwhelming for new players. Thankfully, Agricola includes a no cards variant.

Dominion is a game that limits, then broadens, a player's choices very gracefully and masterfully. At the onset, you have 10 Kingdom cards, 3 Coin denominations, and 3 victory card denominations. Typically, in a player's first few turns he is only able to purchase a small subset of the Kingdom cards, 2 of the Coin denominations, and 1 of the victory cards. To simplify their choices further, in most instances players don't want additional Coppers or Estates.

However, as the game progresses, players have more Coins to spend, more Buys available, and more options. The game progresses from relatively straightforward to broad within just a few turns, allowing for rich choices and a highly accessible experience.

One more example. Star Trek: Fleet Captains is a fairly complex game that is arguably clunky at times. However, this broad game succeeds in my opinion because it does a good job focusing the player at all times.

The best way to earn points in the game is by completing missions. Players only have 3 missions at a time, which means it's relatively easy to decide which action is best to complete the current missions. Furthermore, players only have a few ships and not every ship can do everything. For example, many ships are terrible at combat, cannot cloak, or are too slow to be used for exploration. In a very subtle fashion the player's choices are limited.

Where to next?

If players ignore many of the choices you provide them, you may have too many. One of Poor Abby's biggest problems is that it has so many choices players often outright ignore all but the obvious ones. Another issue is that if players have every option always available to them, they may create the "optimal" strategy, or just as bad, the perception that there is an optimal strategy, which limits your game's long term appeal.

Here are some suggestions for ways to limit the options in your game without curtailing its depth:

  • Make the options contextual. By this, I mean you can only take the action in certain circumstances. In Discworld, some actions are only available to the player who has placed a building in a district. In Alien Frontiers, the dice largely determine the actions available to you. Or, if it's a card, specify when the action can be used.
  • Create a "cool down" on the action. For example, if the player uses the Action in Round 1, he cannot use it again until Round 3.
  • Provide the players additional actions as a form of advancement. Much like an RPG when your character levels up or the tech tree in a strategy game, give the players additional options as they progress. Ascending Empires does this incredibly well. Even better, without implementing an unnecessary rule that strictly prohibits it, they make it so it's unlikely for a player to specialize in more than one tech branch, which limits their options.
  • Limit the number of Actions a player can take. You can limit them to one per turn (again, Ascending Empires) or one per ship (Star Trek Fleet Captains). The best part is, like a Buy in Dominion, you can introduce exceptions that modify this rule. By limiting a player's actions, you help focus their mind on the immediate problems before them (or pose a really tricky question for the deep thinkers). You also reduce the number of combinations in a single turn. Finally, but limiting the number of actions a player can take in a turn you just reduce the number of things a player must DO each turn.
  • Make Actions cost a resource, such as fuel or gold. This is a twist on the bullet immediately preceding this one, but again, you can tune your game such that early in the game players can only take 1 or 2 actions. But, as they improve their "engine" or save the resource, the number of available choices is increased.

Ultimately, you must decide what's best for your game. But, know that too many options will hinder the experience for all types of players. Finding ways to simplify is not just for casual players! Through cleverness and thorough design it's possible to have a game that is accessible, deep, and requires great thought without requiring players to carry the rule book in their pocket.

What are some great examples of games that limit a player's choices while preserving depth?


I've heard many good things about Waterdeep. A friend has it and I really hope to try it soon.

I really love cards for this reason. I can't imagine I'll ever design a game that isn't primarily about cards.

I didn't think I would, but I am right now actually. Really, however, the game only involves a small set of decisions each turn, so it's similar to card restriction.

I enjoy certain thinky games, like worker placements, but I don't think I could ever design one.

While we're on the subject of worker placement, Lords of Waterdeep has been a fun experience in expanding choices through play. The choices grow slowly over time, but the options you actually *want* remains pretty narrow.

Great article Grant! There are some wonderful thoughts in here.

I tend to like things simple. Give me a limited number of actions per turn, but make the decision difficult. I design primarily card games, so I limit the players choices by how many cards they can have in their hand and how many of those cards they can play each turn. If you only have 3 cards in hand, and you must play only one card per turn, you are limited to 3 choices. That seems very limiting at first, you only get to play one card a turn, but if the game insures that one card/choice has considerable game effect, it can be difficult to make a decision between the three cards.

A good example of this is trick taking games such as Hearts, Spades, Bridge, or Tichu. On your turn, you really only have 1 choice. To play or not. Some turns, you have ZERO choices because you simply cannot play. BUT, each and every play is important, so you can spend quite some time sorting out whether or not to play. For me, it's depth like this that keeps a game interesting... not "dept" by having 100 different possible choices.

Grant, great stuff here.

This was a very important design step for Battlejack, limit the choices to two, Attack or Move. At that point, who do you attack, or where do you move creates the flexibility. With Battlejack the choices actually narrow the closer to the endgame you get. Less opponents to attack makes that decision easier, and if moving, you are either moving towards or away from your opponent. This keeps the endgame for the most part fast, which is exactly what we want.

I think correct pace is ultimately what we are trying to capture. Having the correct pace for each game is important and the pace for each game really should be specific to the emotional feeling you want to create with the game.

You're right about Agricola. I introduced the cards to my wife too soon, and now she fears all but the family game. We're slowly rebuilding, but the cards are a LOT to take in all at once.

As for games that do a good job of limiting choices, I think Reiner Knizia is a master of this. For example, Ra is a game where a player's turn is one of three actions (most of the time, one of TWO actions), but the constant changing value of the auction track is where the game happens. It can be hard for new players to wrap their minds around scoring conditions, but there are so few turn options that players usually can.

Similarly, Through the Desert involves the same thing each turn: place two camels. Camels must be placed adjacent to camels a player already has on the board, so there are at most five places to look. There's still a good deal of variety in what can be done, though, within these limited actions.

I missed this one when you first posted it Grant ... seems a *very* familiar conversation. ;-)