Imagine this: you’re in the middle of a game of Ticket to Ride. You’ve got four red cars in your hand; you need six in order to build that link from Miami to New Orleans and complete your ticket. Your opponent takes an orange and a white from the card row and reveals – a red and a red! Exactly what you need! Except it’s not your turn yet…
Ticket to Ride is great at creating tension. You see what you want but you’re blocked from doing it.
There’s a name for this type of tension creation: a Decision-Resolution cycle. Actually it’s a discovery-decision-resolution cycle but Decision-Resolution sounds better. Here’s how it works:
First the player discovers an opportunity. It can be that needed card in Ticket to Ride, the fact that there’s just enough wood to carry out your plans on the wood space in Agricola[amazon template=f_textamazon&asin=B001C7617Q], a way to jump two spaces and grab that skull you need with the amount of food you’ve got left in Tzolk’in[amazon template=f_textamazon&asin=B009XBA390] or a gap in the enemy line just in reach of your blitzing Panzers in EuroFront[amazon template=f_textamazon&asin=B00JYQKDNU]. The key here is knowledge – the player realizes that there is a way to advance her position.
But that’s not enough. The player must then weigh the advantages against the disadvantages. At this point it’s still an intellectual exercise – the player is analyzing what’s going on in the game and trying to figure out the best action. She can still discard the discovery, decide that it doesn’t matter, or relegate it to an opportunity.
No, what’s needed in order to build tension is that the player decides that yes, I need those two red cards, that wood, skull or Panzer blitz. The player must commit to a course of action.
This is where the decision comes into the picture. Once the player decides there is a shift in their mental perspective. The action they’ve decided upon becomes more valuable than it was just a moment before. This is the same mechanism that makes people overbid at auctions, buy that too expensive car or stick with that failing plan: theres a mental cost associated with deciding to cancel a previous decision.
There’s an interesting study done about this by Dan Gillbert (you can watch his TED talk about the psychology of decisionmaking) where he shows that there’s actual changes in the brain associated with making a decision – amnesiac patiens value items that they’ve decided upon higher even though they can’t remember deciding upon them!
But back to our player. She decides to take those red cards and commits. Now she’s paid the decision cost and… and nothing. She doesn’t get what she wants. That’s where the tension comes into the picture.
By denying the player instant gratification we’re building tension. The player know what she wants, she knows that she might get it – but she isn’t sure. Sam, sitting before her in turn order, might just take those red cards! That’s where the tension comes from, the fear that she might not get what she wants.
So she waits, and she fears, and suddenly it’s her turn again. She grabbs those red cards. Resolution! She’s managed to carry out her plan and the wait and fear is over. Case closed, tension evaporates, everything goes back to normal, right?
While she was tense her body reacted by producing hormones, mainly adrenaline but also noradrenaline and cortisol. It takes time to lower the levels of stress hormones in the body. The more stress (and tension, in our case, can be described as “pleasurable stress”) you suffer the longer it takes to absorb all those hormones. So when you’ve gotten a certain amount of tension the player will be more likely to feel more, and stronger, tension later. The Decision-Resolution cycle is self-enhancing.
What produces the D-R cycle is the time between the decision and its resolution, not whether the decision is successful or not. If you fail at what you’ve decided you might feel frustration (and an amount of frustration can be pleasurable in itself, or rather the uncertainty it produces makes further play pleasurable). If you succeed you might feel joy. But the tension you get from the D-R cycle is independent of the outcome (well, not quite, the more sure you are of whether you’ll succeed or fail the less committed you’re going to be to your decision – it simply won’t matter as much – and the less tension you’ll feel).
So what generates the tension is the time between decision and resolution, or rather the amount of freedom to act that your opponents have and the uncertainty that makes you feel about the outcome. But if the time is too long the tension drops off. Yes, I can decide that I want to invade Russia in Axis & Allies and capture Moscow but the project is too big for me to feel more than an abstract connection with it. I can’t envision the particular steps needed. Those decisions, the tension generation ones, need to be concrete.
I need to decide to move my aircraft carrier to that space and gather my battleship group there and load my tanks on my transport and hope that you don’t figure out what I’m up to and that I haven’t missed anything and that my sub will be able to sink that cruiser you’ve got before you get it between my fleet and the Siberian mainland.
So the D-R cycle hinges on concrete plans. You might not be able to trace all the steps but the plans need to be concrete enough so that you can envision them and also envision what could go wrong with them (i.e. see the possibility of success and the threats to it).
That’s where Ticket to Ride[amazon template=f_textamazon&asin=0975277324] shines. The decisions in it are very concrete, they are easy to spot, as are the dangers to their successful completion (remember resolution and success are two different things). Agricola is very good at showing the opportunities but worse at showing the dangers as many of those are based on the cards your opponents have and you’ll need to know (memorize) the possibilities and then deduce their chance of influencing your success based on what you know of your opponent’s previous actions. This makes the plans less concrete for casual players (but works like a charm for hard-core gamers who like to consider all the possible strategies).
Ok, you understand the D-R cycle and its advantages. How do you translate it into a tension generating design?
First off, try to spot distances between decision and resolution that already exist in your game. Then see if you can’t expand the action space (i.e. time) between them in a way that’s both concrete and easy to grasp (the threats must be visible).
Note that you don’t need to have external threats. The threats can come entirely from within the player: in Tzolk’in[amazon template=f_textamazon&asin=B009XBA390] the limitation often falls on how much you can calculate of your own moves and the failure point often lies with the player herself. If she doesn’t calculate exactly she’ll either need to have a larger buffer (leading to inefficient play and ultimate loss) or have to face the price of failure (and Tzolk’in is rather unforgiving).
The key here is that you need to limit the player’s ability to carry out their plans in some way and put time between the decision and its resolution. Limits + Time = Tension.
Sometimes this isn’t doable. For example, in my own design “Oopsie Poopsie”, a memory based, set collection, children’s game, there isn’t anywhere to put a D-R cycle. The game is simple enough so that the decision is “take a tile” which is followed by the child reaching over and revealing the tile. But for that target audience this is enough. Small kids don’t have the ability to formulate a long term strategy (according to Piaget this doesn’t come about fully until their early teens). Thus creating a D-R cycle for them would be counter-productive. They wouldn’t understand it and would just feel the frustration of failing without ever knowing why.
But for adults, who usually don’t experience quite as much frustration as children, limits do work.