Game Mechanics: Choice and Flow

November 22, 2013

Let’s say you want to design a mechanic or subsystem where players have to choose between some options – two concepts make this work – choice and flow.


Any game that’s more than simple chance is based in some element of choice.  Choice is fun because you get to exercise your judgment – you develop skill in reading the best choices to make in a game.

I’ve spoken before that good game design of choice mechanics:

1. Provides multiple viable options – rarely does one option appear as the best choice.

2. Lacks options which are NEVER viable, or are so rarely viable as to be nearly as useless (bunk choices).  These only work as pitfalls for new players and do not actually constitute something to choose from once a player understands them.

3. There is enough information that people can make educated guesses about what choices are better/worse – it’s not simply guessing in the dark.

A common pitfall for many roleplaying games is to put a lot of choice into character building but nearly no choices in actual gameplay.  That is – “I’ve built my Fighter around the Big Chop Move!  Every round my best choice is to do the Big Chop, for the rest of the game.”


Flow is how the immediate situation in the game changes which choices are better or worse – and how that changes as the immediate situation changes.

“What’s the best direction to move my queen?” in Chess depends a lot on where all the other pieces are on the board, which changes every turn.

Likewise, if you’re going to build a choice mechanic, then there should be some way in which the situation changes and thereby changes which choices are better/worse.  The more dynamic this is, the more players are asked to assess a situation and apply skillful judgment.

Tactical Mechanics, not necessarily Gamism

A tactical mechanic simply asks the player to make smart choices – it doesn’t mean that it is complex, or even central to the game as a whole.

For example, Hero’s Banner is a game that is focused on Narrativist play, but has some minor tactical choices the player makes about their Passion scores and how to shift them around, scene to scene.     Meanwhile, games like D&D 4E make a big use of tactical mechanics involving map movement as a core aspect of play to support a Gamist agenda.



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