Post by: Grant Rodiek
A few pals were fretting over game group peers with analysis paralysis this morning. I wanted to write about the behavior as well as how you as a designer can work to limit it in your designs.
I don’t tolerate much analysis paralysis in my game groups. Honestly, it just doesn’t match my personality at all. I’m not impatient, but I do consider myself very decisive in my play and life. I pick a direction and I go. As soon as I find out I’m wrong, I redirect. Furthermore, I want to win when I play games, but not so much that I’m going to send my friends racing for their phones. I also like to see what happens, because sometimes that’s more fun than winning.
What is analysis paralysis? I define analysis paralysis, or AP, as when a player spends an unnecessary amount of time to make a decision in a game to the hindrance of the enjoyment of others playing the game.
I once took Blockade (which is now Sol Rising) to a prototype event. At this point the game was painfully simple and a player’s turn mostly entailed:
- Choose which squadron to move (which was limited, so it was only 1-3 choices)
- Choose where to move them (also limited by engines)
- Choose a target to fire at (usually quite obvious or simple)
- Roll dice
Essentially, reasonable players often took their turn in a minute or less. One gentlemen at this prototype event spent 45 minutes taking his turn. 45 minutes was typically the length of the entire game. The result of him doing this was that the other 3 players were entirely disengaged, bored, on their phones. I finally just thanked everyone for their help, told them I had the data I needed, and swept the game into a box.
A second example may be useful. Once, in a casual work league of Magic: The Gathering, a co-worker spent 15 minutes deciding which land to play on his first turn. I don’t know if you’ve ever played Magic, but a first turn is often a matter of seconds. It is often:
- Play Mountain
- Maybe tap Mountain to play first creature
- “Your turn.”
In this case, my opponent spent 15 minutes, played his mountain, though a moment longer, DIDN’T PLAY anything, then said “your turn.” I never played him again.
Why is analysis paralysis bad? Games are meant to be a fun, multi-person shared experience. Games should be social and full of moments of interesting decisions, surprise, and tension.
One of the biggest threats to a board game and the experience are disengaged players. Smart phones, side conversations that don’t involve others, or distracted, disinterested play. If someone is spending an inordinate amount of time making a decision that doesn’t involve anyone else, this leads to distracted play. This will kill the experience. It can be perceived as a pretty selfish and rude way to interact. In a way, it’s like dominating a social conversation and not letting anyone else talk.
The only time I think AP is acceptable is in the context of a tournament. If there are stakes on the line, it’s totally fine to take a moment to make your decision. However, I think the best players are able to play decisively and without a million cycles of thought. Put in a chess clock to limit permanent spinning. The Plaid Hat guys did this after they had a few tournaments end in draws due to time.
What causes analysis paralysis? I consider myself to be a pretty decent observer of human nature and behavior. I think this is a strength of mine that directly benefits my designs when testing and developing. In my experience, analysis paralysis is often a result of a few key symptoms:
- A strong desire to win: One could argue this strong desire is also unhealthy. Some people want to win very badly and really only gain fun from the experience if they win. A person who is no longer a part of my game group once admitted he was “desperate to win,” which is why he took so long. This is difficult to fix. If someone is hyper-competitive, regardless of the reason, you need to bring it up and discuss it. A simple, “hey dude, this is a friendly game” might do the trick. It might not.
- Fear of making a mistake: This is a bit of a symptom of the previous notion, but some people are petrified of playing poorly. They can’t stand the thought of making the sub-optimal choice. Or, simple, they are afraid of being seen as foolish and stupid. The key thing you can do here is gently nudge them to make a decision and don’t criticize or belittle their decisions. It’s key to be welcoming, supporting, and encouraging. Still, people should play!
- Confusion: If someone is confused, they may not make a decision. This could be another instances of fear of making a mistake. Sometimes this is the fault of the game — it could be very difficult or overly cumbersome. Sometimes the player is at fault. If someone isn’t paying attention, won’t get off their cell phone, sure, they’ll be confused. The key here is that as a host you need to know the game and teach it well. You need to work with various players to teach the game in a way that makes sense for them. I have a friend who cannot learn with a rules explanation. We have to essentially play for him to learn, which means I’m constantly introducing new mechanics as they enter the experience. Sure, it takes time, but it’s worth it to ensure everyone has fun.
- Indecisiveness: Some people just cannot decide. They have too many options, or are afraid, or are a little confused, and they just can’t pull the trigger. There are studies that show people spending hours in the cereal aisle. Indecision can also be a sign of a lack of engagement. If someone doesn’t really care, and the “right” choice isn’t immediately apparent, they may just spin. In that case, it may be simply a case of “Bob, hurry and decide!” to make it clear he’s hindering the group. If someone doesn’t care enough to decide? Then it won’t really matter what they choose.
How can you limit analysis paralysis in your designs? There are a few really great ways to limit opportunities for analysis paralysis in your game design.
- Uncertain Outcomes: If a player knows that playing X card will always render Y result, and they have 7 of these cards, you’re giving them the opportunity to slowly consider every option. However, if the card says play X card and draw 3 Chits, that is no longer a guarantee. If you say play X card and roll this die, you’re reducing the ability to math it out. I think the best uncertain outcomes have math that is easily understood. Generally speaking, your players should know if they are very likely, somewhat likely, or unlikely to accomplish their goal. When you play Rise of Augustus, you know the general chance of drawing the token you need for an “Ave Caesar!” After one or two rolls in King of Tokyo, you have a pretty darn good look at what’s likely to occur.
- Imperfect Information: If your game has perfect, fully public information, you’re giving players an opportunity to run mental cycles on everything in the game. However, if someone has a hand of cards, or their perfect actions are muddied with uncertain outcomes, you’re reducing the value of pulling out Excel to run formulas.
- Real Time: This isn’t appropriate for most games, but if everyone has to play the game at the same time with no breaks, you simply can’t be indecisive. This may be why some people hate real time games.
- Limited Interaction: If a game is full of interaction, which is something I like, you’re making it very difficult for a player to understand what their opponent can do. This gives players the opportunity to consider not only their move, but the moves their opponents might make in response. I think games like Libertalia and 7 Wonders do a very good job of limiting the interaction. In 7 Wonders, you can only trade or go to war with your neighbors. Therefore, you only have two people to watch, and to do so in very simple terms. In Libertalia, you can only use the sword against your neighbors. Furthermore, cards like the mutineer only affect the top card. By limiting interaction, your reducing the number of possibilities in the matrix.
- Provide Avenues to Catch Up: If you consider my suggested causes for analysis paralysis, you can also identify potential solutions. If someone is terrified of making a mistake, a clear solution is to provide ways for players to recover from poor play. This leads to a greater discussion of Catch Up Mechanics, but ultimately, I believe that in most cases, a single sub-optimal decision shouldn’t pitch someone out of contention for the win. If players know they are reasonably free to experiment and take risks, they’ll do so, and they’ll do so more quickly.
- Hide Points, or obfuscate the victory: SAT word! If someone knows precisely how close they are to victory, or precisely how close they are in comparison to their opponents, you’re giving them the opportunity to min/max a great deal of things. Games like Small World make victory tokens private information. In Modern Art, my currency sits behind a screen. Or, put a slightly different way, in Twilight Struggle, only one player can have a scoring card at a time. This gives them the advantage the other must ascertain.
This post has gone on a bit longer than I’d like. Much like a player with analysis paralysis taking their turn! Ho ho, the jokes.
What are some other solutions to curbing analysis paralysis in your designs? Do you think I identified the causes well? Share your thoughts below in the comments!