Game Lab: Curing analysis paralysis

January 7, 2011

The doctor is in!  Here at Game Lab, we’ve rigorously tested, chemically balanced, and finely sifted the gaming field to find relief for an agonizing chronic condition afflicting far too many game players, analysis paralysis!  

If you’ve ever had to sit through interminable turns of players too flimflammed or befuddled by a few too many options and alternatives, you’ve been affected by this condition passively and painfully.  You know the teeth grinding willpower it takes to avoid swinging from the chandelier shouting “TAKE YOUR TURN ALREADY!”  But then those poor victims of this dreaded pseudo-disease!  How much poorer off they are, locked in the icy grip of indecision, desperate to play and unable to bring themselves to it.  Fear no longer!  Let’s take a look at what we can do to combat this scourge and end the menace on game night once and for all.

A brief analysis of the paralysis

All humor aside, let’s take a look at the problem.  One person makes timely moves.  Another person does not.  The game is the same.  So, we’re not dealing with a problem of the game.  We’re dealing with the problem of people.  But, it is wishful thinking to consider that we could easily change the people.  Instead, even though it’s no fault of the game, the game is the thing we can easily change.  People who are prone to AP should work on playing faster, but that’s the work of personal reflection and self-betterment – you do that on your own time.

And of course, we should all be tolerant of the occasional slowdown or intricate situation which requires deeper thought.  From time to time, everyone needs a minute to collect their thoughts, especially after momentous alterations to the game state.  AP isn’t a sometime problem, though, for the sufferers.  It is  an every time problem.  The victims of AP feel it in almost every game… well, every game of certain qualities, perhaps.  With better game selection, I contend you can minimize the impact.

What’s in an AP-proof game?

The first feature we want in a game that will keep people moving is continuous action.  If we have a game where each player takes a long turn of many phases before the next player takes their turn, this is going to be the kind of game that compounds the frustration and delay.  Instead, our AP proof games should have phasing, where each player takes a small action in the same phase – we all draw a card, the we all take one action each, then we all take another action, then the new round begins.  This instead of one player doing all those things before the next.  As much as possible, we’re looking for small, discrete actions and simultaneous play.  Games with a small number of players or asynchronous play can sometimes fit these criteria as well.

Second, a game should strive to avoid confronting the players with many choices at once.  Often, as the game breaks down into simultaneous play, this problem is cleared up – instead of award each player 10 action points on their turn and waiting for them to parcel them all out, each player taking an action in turn breaks up the mass.  The AP prone player has the brief moments while others act to work out a play and the flow is more organic.  The more pieces or complexity the situation has, the more the AP player will sit back and try to build a mental map of the current game state and the future, so games with a smaller game state can be helpful too.

A third quality that can help resolve AP is clarity.  Clear games are those where the actions taken by the players produce clear results directly in line with good strategy.  That is, taking a particular action clearly contributes to the final outcome in an obvious way.  When actions have many complex consequences or tradeoffs, the AP player is prone to puzzle them out before selecting one or another option.  A good play now is better than the best play later, to paraphrase an old saying – be sure the good plays are apparent to make them easier.  A good game selection can matter here, but just as much good results can come from lots of practice!  Practice gives the AP prone player a chance to use experience to resolve issues instead of always forming a fresh plan.

The social angle

Before we get to a list of great games that follow these rules and, hopefully, avoid AP, I would be remiss if I didn’t cover the social angle of this problem.  Because AP is a people problem, not a gaming problem, it falls to us to responsibly recognize the issue and deal with it both as paralyzed and paralyzed co-player.

If people are complaining that you play too slow, you really need to think hard about how you can move along faster.  Recognize that you are removing some of the fun from the game and lessening the enjoyment of others when you take extended periods to plan, think, and resolve.  You might feel you need this time, but you must learn to do the best you can with a mix of intuition, experience, and bravado, not just hard processing.  Don’t rush or be rushed, but keep up a pace.  Like driving, where you go with the speed of the traffic, try to play at the speed others play – even if it hurts your game or you feel uncomfortable at first, I’m sure you can with practice acclimatize yourself.  Lastly, don’t just sit there thinking.  Consider talking out your moves as you consider them.  It can help keep the other players occupied to play along with your line of thinking or follow your progress.

To the person waiting, I remind you of the virtue of patience.  Be conscious of how you may have an easier time in a game through practice or experience; other new players may not find it as effortless as you.  You may have an instinct to try to help things along, but this is a sensitive issue with many gamers.  It can easily come across as judgmental, condescending, or rude.  But worse, all it often accomplishes is interrupting a person already hard at work.  An interruption you can ill afford.  So fight the tendency to interject – a brief, clear reminder to keep things moving should be enough to prompt a play from the paralyzed.

Play on!

So, which games fit our criteria?  Let’s look at a few examples.

Race For The Galaxy and Puerto Rico: These games employ simultaneous game play to keep things clicking along.  Everyone is taking short, direct actions and each phase of the game (selecting roles and playing cards or resetting between rounds) is shared.  By breaking down the actions into a continuous pace, there’s little need for any player to really puzzle over what they should be doing next.  Turns are brief and shared.

Tower of Babel and Settlers of Catan: These games keep everyone busy.  There is a continuous need to contribute to a trade or auction which has very direct consequences.  A player is always participating in the current action, considering offers from other players and only making a simple choice to accept or reject.

Magic: The Gathering and El Grande: Fast action sequence is the main feature in these.  At each step, the player should find it quite easy to make a simple, elemental choice to keep the game moving.  Choose a card, play the actions, improve your state and pass to the next player.  Things are generally up front and strategy is direct.

Wings of War and Red November: Clear, clear, clear. The objectives here are so obvious and the action of play so straight that there’s nothing to really get bogged down in.  “Shoot him down” is your only plan in the first with simple you think I think strategy, yet it is lots of fun even for a large group.  And cooperative games offer a chance for players to collaborate on the outcomes so that one player’s turn is every player’s turn.

Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers and Through The Desert: These games have going for them elements of simplicity.  You turn?  Take a tile and play a tile.  Choose two pieces, play two pieces.  By sporting cumulative small actions and an evolving board position, there is never really a daunting challenge of planning but instead emergent strategy and collective results.

Analysis complete

Avoiding analysis paralysis is something we all want to do, whether we suffer from it or suffer through it.  Do learn to take your time and play well, but remember its part of the fun of a game to play with a light heart and jaunty pace.  Don’t let the situation drag out or grind down… this is just a game!  Every play need not be perfect.  After all, there’s always another chance to play.