Too Much Choice versus Too Little Choice in Co-operative Games

Recently, I have been working on my own co-op card game (called, interestingly enough, “CO-OP: The CO-OP game”). I have been getting lots of playtesting on my game from many, many groups.  Some feedback is better than others, but in general, there is always some nugget that’s useful. (“This card needs to be fixed”, “This text in the rulebook needs to be moved”, “This rules should be re-worded”, etc.). All very useful.

The problem is what to do when you have contradictory feedback. Basically, a lot of the contradictory feedback I’ve seen boils down to “I have too much choice” or “I have too little choice”.

The basic game hasn’t changed much since GAMA, but a lot of tweaks have made it better. The main negative feedback I have gotten from some playtest groups is “there’s not enough to do, and that made it less fun.” This kind of feedback definitely resonates in the side of “there’s too little choice”. Below is some discussions of problems and solutions, what worked and what didn’t for this problem. This is all in the name of making games more fun!

1) There used to be “bad news” cards where players could lose turns.

Losing turns in a thing of the past (but see below). I should have listened to James M. from Minion games. (see link)
http://www.jamesmathe.com/game-design-for-dummies/

James basically expounds that players should never lose turns in a game. And he’s mostly right (again, see below). So, in my game “bad news — lose turns” has been replaced by some other “bad effects”,  such as disallowing a particular type of action. That way, players can still do SOMETHING on their turns.

As my friend CC said, “It’s no fun when you don’t get to do anythingon your turn.” Touche’.

However, as an interesting counterpoint, there was contradictory feedback on this point from another playtest group:

“It doesn’t matter if you lose a turn,
since you decide as a group who gets to play and who doesn’t.
It’s a team effort, so it’s not as big a deal as in competitive
games. Part of the co-operative experience is figuring out who’s
going to ‘take it’ for the team.”

That was basically my position on the “lose turn” issue for a while:  hard-core gamers seemed to get that in a co-operative game (every so often), someone has to “take it” for the team.   BUT, at least as seen from my playtests, casual gamers don’t like losing  turns. They think it’s less fun.

So, for the most part, I got rid of all cards where you lose a turn.   I can’t argue with all the playtests.  (I kept just one turn loss “bad news” because it was very thematic; I still like the idea that somebody “takes it for the team”.  I think that idea is okay in a co-op game, but it appears I am  definitely in the minority).

2) The hand limit was too small and inconsistent.

The hand limit used to be 3 or 4 depending on the number of players. After lots of playtesting, it was clear the hand limit needed to be upped: it’s now always 5, no matter how many players.

There’s two reasons this is better:

  1.  Fewer rules means fewer ways for players to get confused; there’s exactly one hand limit, no matter how many players.
  2. More options. If you have more cards, you have more options on your turn.

Upping the hand limit gives the players more options, so they felt like you can do more on their turns. That made it more fun for them.

3) BUT … there is still a hand limit.

We playtested without a hand limit, and it was a disaster.

The cards grew quickly in the player’s hand! Physically managing that  many cards was NOT fun. HINT: I am trying to make the game MORE FUN!

And there were too many options: of the 16 cards, which one to play? Players have to read them all and then decide … and that takes time. So people are waiting (and waiting) for a player to play, and that  waiting makes it less fun.  REMINDER: I am trying to make the game more fun.

And the game was too easy. If it’s too easy, who wants to play?

For all these reasons, there still is a hand limit.  Too little choice, there’s no fun because you can’t do anything.  Too much choice, and it’s no fun because of the overwhelming  amount of physical and mental information. Five cards seems a good balance.

4) Too many options is even worse in a CO-OPERATIVE game.

“What?” You ask? “How can too many options be a problem? The whole point of a co-operative game is to explore the problem space and come to a consensus. More options seems good!”

Go back to the “no hand limit” issue. If just one person has to read 16 cards and decide, that’s already annoying. But if 3 more people have to help decide, then you have to read all the cards aloud, decide amongst each other, and everyone will have different ideas. It will take *much longer* to go through the choices.

That’s another reason to be very careful with too many options:  you want to avoid the Alpha Player problem.  (The Alpha Player Problem is where one person takes over the game and essentially tells everyone what to play, thus making everyone else become or feel irrelevant).  As long as the game is flowing quickly, it’s harder for an Alpha Player to jump in and take over. As long as someone can play fairly timely, the Alpha Player tends to lie dormant. The Alpha Player usually only appears when there’s indecision. By limiting the number of options, the game flows quicker, limits indecision, and fends off the Alpha Player.

5) The FROLIC action is never used.

(The FROLIC action is how you cheer people in the CO-OP game, but it has some limits). It seems sad (no pun intended) that a game option to FROLIC and have fun isn’t used very much!

So, note that all of the changes from points (1)-(4) make the game easier.
There are more choices, and fewer turns are lost, so the players get a lot more done. So, we have to adjust the game difficulty so it’s not too easy. How? The standard way is to add more cards to the bad news deck. This is undesirable because it makes the game longer: the game has been designed to be about 40-45 minutes on purpose! My very first playetest showed how important it is to limit the length of the game or players lose interest quickly.

There is a better way: Start the players at DREARY instead of OK. That way, players are
(probably) forced to used the FROLIC action at some point during the game. It’s sorta like losing a turn, but it just forces you to spend a turn doing a FROLIC action. And there are other ways to move up from DREARY to OK, so it doesn’t have to be that!  There are strategically many ways to do that.

So, this is a case of win-win:

  1. We can adjust he difficultly without increasing the length of the game
  2. We can force more variety on actions by making FROLIC more likely
  3. It’s more thematic: the players start the game “bummed” because they are in a bad situation they have to get out of!

Conclusion

So after a bunch of feedback, I think is game is more fun: I have removed lost turns. I have upped the hand limit (but not too much, and still keeping the hand limit). I have kept the game balanced WITHOUT making it longer (by trading lost turns for more FROLICs). These three minor changes seems to address a lot of the “you can’t do enough and it’s less fun”.

After all these changes, I got some other feedback that goes the other way: “By drawing a card each turn, you have less reason to MEDITATE  (the name of the action for drawing cards), and spend a turn drawing cards. You might be able to create a nice tension by not getting a card unless you specifically MEDIATE.” I think this falls in the direction “there is too much to do”, so limit what the player can do. (This comes from someone I really respect as a gamer: he knows his stuff and he is a hard-core gamer).

I think this is a great idea, BUT it completely contradicts all the playtesting I’ve done. Almost all of the negative feedback is of the nature “There’s too little to do” (which I thingk I have now fixed).  I am afraid this change (don’t always draw a card) would cause the “too little to do” problem to re-emerge. I think casual gamers would HATE that rule, but hard-core gamers would love it.

What to do with contradictory playtests?

  1. Go with the majority playtests: What do most people say and do?
  2. Incorporate it in as an option
  3. Ignore completely
  4. Rework mechanics

I think the right thing here is to do (1) and (2): Make the default the current way it is right now, but add an optional “expert” mode where players don’t always draw cards! That way the casual gamers (who  won’t read all the rules anyways) play the game they will like, and hard-core gamers (who will tend to read all rules and variants) can try those out.
It’s almost like I co-operated with all my playtesters to find the best solutions which address their concerns.

 

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