What Do You Have On Your Mind When You Play A Game?

Games are played at a table. We take physical actions: Roll the dice, move a pawn, play a card.

But before we move a single pawn we’ve considered ten possible places to move that pawn. Before we play a card we’ve tried to predict what the consequences of that play will be. And thus while the material part of a board game is very important, what happens in the minds of the players is even more so.

In this article I want to look into people’s brains, to see what’s going on there while they play games. All with the hopes of making even better games of course.

What do you have on your mind (when you play a game)?

There are a number of distinct “processes” happening when you’re deep into playing a game.

Decisions

The smallest process of playing a game is making a single decision: What to do next?!

This process is enough to play a game. As long as players continue to make a decision on what to do next, the game will continue (and hopefully progress as well). As such it’s the most important building block in understanding what happens in the mind of players when they play a game.

Decisions are informed by different other processes, predicting, assessing risks, strategizing and more.

To make a game interesting, the decisions have to be interesting. This means that they have to be non-trivial; it should not be obvious what the best choice is.

To be able to make a decision players have to be presented with a number of options: Move my pawn here or there, play this or that card.

In almost all games options are discrete, in that there is only a limited number of distinct possibilities (move 1 step or 2 steps, you can’t move 1.2934 steps). In theory however choices could be on a continuum, for example some war games you can move your units any distance as long as it’s less than their maximum move (and thus you could move 1.2934 cm!).

Predicting

To make a good decision players will try to predict what the consequences of different potential choices are.

This can be as simple as assessing the direct rewards that they get from a move: If I place my pawn here then I get 2 wood while if I place it there I’ll get 3; I’ll take the latter!

Generally however predicting will involve more steps, in that you’re trying to assess what the outcomes will be of the new position you hold: If I place my pawn here I get wood, there I get stone. Is wood or stone more useful to me right now?

Predictions can also attempt to take into account (expected) moves from other players: If I take the wood then Cindy will probably take the stone, meaning that next turn I can…

And these predictions can go deep into future moves. Good chess players can look 10+ moves ahead to see the potential outcome of what they could do now.

Being able to predict what will happen gives a feeling of control over what is happening in the game and thus this should definitely be incorporated in a game. However, being able to look too far ahead can lead to analysis paralysis, tedium and lengthy games (again chess is a good example here). Thus for more “casual” games it can be good to limit the amount that players can look ahead, for example by adding some form of randomness that cannot be predicted

Assessing risks

A specific form of prediction is assessing risks. If a game contains a source of randomness then it’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but it’s still possible to assess potential scenario’s: If I flip this tile I could get 0, 1, 2 or 3 coins and getting 1 coin is most likely.

Players can assess the risk of something happening with the game (as in the example above), but risks can also be assessed regarding other players: If I attack Mary then I’ll leave myself open, so there is a chance that Inra will attack me…

Assessing risks also leads to a new mental process: Hoping.

There is a period between making the choice to take a risk (roll the dice, flip a tile, attack another player) and the moment you know exactly what the outcome of that choice is. In this period the human brain will fervently hope for the best (or at least an acceptable) outcome.

This can be used to generate strong emotions in players: Taking an action where you are certain to get 2 coins isn’t half as exciting as flipping a tile and getting 2 coins. The outcome is the same, but the mental process is very different.

The more options there are the more a player will need to consider before making a choice. More options then generally will lead to more difficult, heavier and longer games. Having few options will make a game quicker and simpler, though that certainly isn’t always an advantage!

Strategizing

When you first play a game all you can do is try to predict the outcomes of possible actions and make a decision based on that; it’s extremely hard to see the “big picture”, of what kinds of actions when stringed together will lead to eventual victory.

When you’ve played a game a few times however these over-arching patterns start to emerge. When we start to discern such high level patterns to a game, we can adjust our play to it to make use of them. This can be as simple as seeing the synergy between game elements (This card gives me gold for every worker I have and that card lets me buy workers for gold…) to assessing different ways in which the game can be played (Last time I won by going for all the cheap building and ending the game early, but the time before that Andal won because he hoarded all his money until the end…)

“Strategies” can be set when starting the game, or they can be more malleable to take into account the exact circumstances you find yourself in.

Having a level of strategizing in your game will significantly increase the replayability of the game. Because after a few games it quickly becomes clear what options players have, what the consequences are and which of these are generally better than others. But when there are combinations of elements that are stronger than the elements on their own then there is further need to discover these combinations and then to figure out how each combination fares compared to the other potential combinations.

What happens between minds

In the previous paragraphs I’ve touched upon some elements where players think not only about the game, but also how they interact with other players.

Predicting other players

As mentioned you can try to predict what another player will do based on your own moves and other players can be a source of “risk” as well.

Interestingly, player moves fall somewhere between perfectly predictable and completely random. This is because other players will (generally!) act intelligently. This means that their actions are not as simple as following a rule to find out what will happen after you take an action, but also that they are not as random as rolling a die.

Games are designed to obscure what the “best” move is, but to be transparent enough to get reasonably close to such a best move.

This implies that there are two barriers to perfectly predicting what another player will do. First that player might not be able to assess what the “best” move is. And so even if you are able to see what the best move (for that player) is, your prediction will still be off as they follow through on their own (flawed) reasoning.

Second, you might not be able to predict what the best move is for a player. This can be because you yourself are not perfect at assessing the best move for them (no shame in that!), but also because the other player may have information that you do not. For example they may have a card in hand that is very strong when taking one option but not another.

Bluffing

In many games players have information that the others do not; cards in my hand are only known to me and not to you.

This hidden information can be a powerful determinant in what ways I am able to influence the game. And thus finding out what kind of hidden information someone has can be a big boon in winning the game.

One way of finding out what kind of information someone has is by observing their actions. Poker is the quintessential example here: If we play poker at the most basic level then if you place a high bet (your action) then I “know” that you are holding good cards (your hidden information).

This then can lead to taking actions that are not optimal (when playing at the basic level), with the sole purpose of getting another player to think you have something that you do not actually have. The (hopeful) result will be that the other player will take an action based on what they think you have, instead of what you actually have. In poker for example a high bet can let the other player think you have great cards and so they fold, while in reality you had poor cards, but you still take the pot.

In order for a game to allow for “bluffing” there needs to be some hidden information. And the more that hidden information can influence the game, the more chance there is for bluffing.

Note that it is not strictly necessary for a player to actually be able to directly do anything with a hidden “asset”. Imagine a game where one player can look at the next “event” card (which will be revealed and executed the next turn) and the other players cannot. The actions of the first player could then let other players think that the event card is a particular one, shaping their own actions in response.

Bluffing requires players to pay close attention to what others are doing. As such it can distract from other elements of the game.

Closing thoughts

All board games are mind games, in that a large part of play happens in the minds of the players. It’s possible to design games to make use of this to a larger or smaller extent. The more you engage the mind, the deeper a game will be and generally the higher the replayability is. However, that does come at a cost of “relaxation value”; some people want to play games to get away from all those mental processes, not to engage in them even more. So you need to answer who you’re designing for and what the vision for your game is.