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More on Interesting Decisions

August 3rd, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Design, Three Moves Ahead, Wargames

It takes me a while to catch up on listening to episodes of Three Moves Ahead that I am not a part of. Not that I listen to the ones that I am on, but I was there, so I know what I said. When I edited the show, I heard them all. Now I take my time, and sometimes that means days or weeks.

Anyway, I listened to the Panzer Corps show from last week, and it’s really classic 3MA. If you wanted to find a recent show to explain to a friend what Three Moves Ahead was all about, this is the show to do it. It talks about the game, expands to talk about game design, things about what we mean by puzzles, how expectations affect satisfaction, we have a newb and two pros…Rob, Julian and special guest Cory Banks showed how it’s supposed to be done.

There was a theme that kept coming up from time to time, either explicitly or implicitly, and it’s one I’ve come back to occasionally on the blog – the whole Meier’s maxim of “interesting decisions”. Julian brought it up first in reference to the basic game design, but then Rob ran with it later to explain why War in the East‘s decisions were more interesting than those in Panzer Corps. Cory offered that Rob had simply outgrown beer and pretzel wargames; that if he couldn’t find the scenarios interesting (and Rob found many of them repetitive) then he certainly wouldn’t find any decisions within to be interesting. Or something like that.

War in the East is so big and full of so many moving parts that Rob’s example of resting a unit is even debatable as a “decision” in the same way that resting a unit is in Panzer Corps. Bruce Geryk wrote in a wargame review once that sometimes your most meaningful decision would be to move a single anti-aircraft unit; resting almost everything in a large wargame is a decision. The detail Rob cites eventually builds up into some grand world where the entire push to Moscow hangs on a horseshoe nail, and the complexity of War in the East certainly lends itself to interesting decisions; but these are mostly of a different type than when a particular unit can take a breather. The scarcity of units in Panzer Corps, plus the tight turn limits impose restrictions on how often you can take these life saving choices. Small and discrete is more interesting, because it is more obviously important.

But, as Rob notes in the show, many Panzer Corps scenarios boil down to the same crack-the-walnut battle. Your push your tanks through a short charge and then hit strong point after strong point. So the decisions that may have once been interesting, lose their urgency once they become part of a rhythm learned through rote and pattern recognition. Interesting-ness becomes devalued in the service of solving the same puzzle over and over. You can’t “solve” the puzzle of War in the East or Korsun Pocket, really, as much as try to exceed expectations. The battles there have interesting choices because they reflect history with larger objectives that require grand sweeping machinery to make work. Even if you play the invasion of the Crimea ten times, it will never play out quite the same, and will always have something new to show you. Single battles, but they contain multitudes.

I like Meier’s maxim a lot, but it often fails in conversation because people tend to see it from the perspective of “Did I find this an interesting thing to do?” as opposed to seeing it as a game designer should, from the perspective of “Can a range of things of happen if I make different decisions?” As I listened to the Panzer Corps podcast, with three very smart people who know how to talk about games, I was sometimes wondering if they were talking about interesting decisions in terms of boredom because they were tired of the game or interesting decisions because of potential outcomes or some conflation of the terms. It’s important to keep these clear in our heads.

Remember. Meier did not say that a “great game is a series of interesting decisions”. He said that a “game” was. I think you can certainly judge a game by how many boring decisions it has relative to interesting ones, but remember that, structurally speaking, Empire Earth 3 and Rise of Nations are not that far apart in many key design respects. One is the best designed RTS ever, the other is Empire Earth 3.

Now whether we find an interesting decision truly interesting on a higher level is where things get insert-synonym-for-interesting. As we learn games, things that seemed like choices sometimes become default options (razing cities in Rome: Total War, for example.) If taking the alternate action impedes progress for no worthwhile payout, then it is never taken, and the decision is no longer interesting even if the variant consequences are. Even games as deep and mathematically complex as some of grand strategy titles eventually end up with min/max strategies that will remove interesting decisions from your hands. It’s not the same as the Chick Parabola of mastering a system and then growing bored or enchanted; it’s mastering a system because you see Potemkin villages after a while.

I am not sure if Panzer Corps is a Potemkin Village of choices. I tend to agree with Rob that the scenario variety isn’t great and so the choices get not only repetitive but annoying. Cory is also right that this is the type of intro wargame that is very rare, and I applaud the remake though its emphasis on puzzle solving and rock/paper/scissors combat makes it as useful a gateway to War in the East as driving with all the assists on was for me learning racing games – you get the basic terms, but nothing will work quite right and you will learn bad lessons.

Still, a great episode.


4 Comments so far ↓

  • Kingdaddy

    I agree, it was a great episode. As I said in a comment I left about that episode, it’s as if you’re watching the birth of a true grognard happen right before you. Brought a tear to my eyes.

  • Koob_GameDev

    Yup, good episode.

  • KVolk

    I think it it comes down to what is an interesting decision? I notice you said that conversationally some people take it to mean do I find it interesting where a gamer designer looks at it as what is the range of things that can happen if I make different decisions. So is “interesting” and “different” equal terms in this context? The podcast really did explore that and I think they showed that it really is two seperate issues but when they come together you get the sweet spot for strat games.

  • garion333

    Great ancillary discussion too, Troy.