Game Design Glossary: Decision Scales

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Game Designer Matt Wolfe

The Game Design Glossary is an ongoing series about defining new terms in tabletop game design. Learn more about it here!

This week, we welcomed Matt Wolfe, the designer of Wombat Rescue and Avalanche at Yeti Mountain to talk about Decision Scales. Listen to the whole discussion on On Board Games Episode 235 here, download it or subscribe. Prefer to get the written? Read on for a snapshot of our conversation on Decision Scales!

What are Decision Scales?

Decision Scales describe the extent to which a player’s decision in a game will impact the game system as a whole. Every decision can be measured on three scales: the personal, adjacent, and global scales.

The Personal scale measures the impact of a decision on the player making it. Most decisions will rank relatively high on this scale, but some will not. For example, the choice of placing the Robber in Catan could have a low personal impact. In general, decisions about how to impose penalties or benefits on others will rank low on the Personal scale, whereas decisions about which resources to acquire, which powers to unlock, or where to move units rank high on the Personal scale.

The Adjacent scale measures impacts on another player or players. Cutting off another player in Hey That’s My Fish, or attacking another player in an area contol game are decisions that rank high on the Adjacent scale.

The Global scale attempts to capture decisions that impact the entire game system. The line between Adjacent and Global may be a bit blurry. One way to try and distinguish them is to consider intention. In Roll for the Galaxy, a player’s choice of action to select ranks high on the Personal scale and on the Global scale, but low on the Adjacent scale. Every player will potentially be able to act on the selected phase, but generally, no specific player is being targeted by that decision. Other examples of highly Global decisions that typically are relatively low-Adjacency include clearing and refreshing the display of available power cards in King of Tokyo and playing cards into the political events deck in Through the Ages.

Why do Decision Scales matter?

Good games are built around interesting decisions, but what is the anatomy of an interesting decision? How do we avoid decisions that don’t have impact, on the one hand, or that bring about analysis paralysis on the other hand? Decisions scales offer a model for conceptualizing this issue. If a decision ranks high on all the scales, it may be too complex. If a decision is only meaningful to other players but not to you, it may be that kingmaking is creeping into your game. If your decisions are only personal, your game is headed towards multiplayer solitaire.

Open Questions

Each entry in the Game Design Glossary is intended to start a discussion rather than be a final arbiter. Open questions on the topic of Decision Scales include:

  • How do Decision Scales apply in 2-player games? Do Global and Adjacent scales still have separate meanings in that context?
  • What do Decision Scales look like in cooperative games? Are collaborative decisions fundamentally different?
  • Players don’t always know the full impacts of their decisions. Does a player’s perception of the Decision Scale matter more than the actual Decision Scale, or vice versa?

It’s your turn. Drop a line in the comments and share your thoughts on Decisions Scales! You can connect with Matt at @MattWolfe on Twitter too.

3 Comments

  1. Pedro Mendoza March 9, 2017 12:29 am Reply

    I don’t think Global and Adjacent should have different meanings in two player games. The Global and Adjacent scales/meters are identical by definition in these games. Personally, I will use Adjacent since it is already used to mean “one other player” even in multi-player.

  2. VideoPortal March 28, 2017 7:21 am Reply

    Players don t always know the full impacts of their decisions. Does a player s perception of the Decision Scale matter more than the actual Decision Scale, or vice versa?

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    • Isaac Shalev May 7, 2017 6:33 pm Reply

      It’s a great question, and I think Matt and I kind of disagreed about it. I think player perception of the impacts of a decision is one kind of design idea, and the actual impact is another. Now, it’s usually not good to have the perceived impact be very different from the actual impact, but a lot of the depth and subtlety of many games lies in those hidden interactions. Masterful players fully realize the impacts of their decisions.

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