Here’s a fun experiment you can try at home. The next time you’re in the middle of a board game with your friends and nobody’s having any fun with it, suggest that you all quit and play something better. Nine times out of ten, everyone will refuse, citing that they “just want to finish it.” This isn’t borne out of some kind of dogged grit-your-teeth wish to push through it – it’s a board game, so there’s rarely any kind of stakes. Instead, it’s more like the game has some kind of hold on them, an unspoken contract that won’t be complete until the game ends.
My theory is this is the result of something I like to call “automatic mode,” a mental shift that some 95% of people, myself included, go through when they sit down to play a game. A lot of my game design stumbles have been because I don’t consider automatic mode, and keeping it in mind has made me go through iterations more quickly than before. It’s a very useful concept and one that will vastly improve the amount of information you get from watching playtests.
TARGET LOCKED ON
Automatic mode is essentially a single-minded desire to win. Once the rules have been explained to you, your mind immediately starts processing the best way for you to get the most points, or eliminate everyone else, or whatever. It pushes out thoughts of having fun, injokes with your friends, and what you had to eat for dinner that night. All you care about is winning.
There are a couple of exceptions to entering automatic mode. Once your group has played a game enough to get bored with the initial strategy, you start drifting away from winning into finding new strategies that might give you a chance to win. Party games de-emphasize victory enough to keep your brain thinking more about the “funniest” option, not the “best” one. And there is the uncommon person who is able to remain in manual mode in any game, mostly so they can do whatever weird goofy thing they prefer.
This behavior does share a few things with the concept of “flow” – a term referring to entering a blank state of mind when deeply engaged in a task at which one is skilled. But it’s a different concept for two reasons. First, people of any experience level can enter automatic mode, while flow is reserved for people who are reasonably good at the game. In fact, it’s the opposite – people with less skills are more likely to turn on automatic. Second, people still have conscious thoughts in auto mode – they’re just focused more on their goal.
The first feature of automatic mode that’s important to designers is that a player on automatic will try to win using as little effort as possible. If they can win without using a feature or two in the game, then they’ll go for it.
To illustrate my point, let’s talk about the game Condottiere. During each round, players play soldier cards of varying strengths in an attempt to control different parts of Italy. The gameplay of this is rich enough already (I discussed part of it in an older post about zugzwang), but buried in the rulebook is an interesting note: It says that players may talk and make deals freely.
This is interesting, because of the numerous games of Condottiere I’ve played with different friend groups, none of us made any deals with each other. We paid attention to who was about to win, of course, but nobody really ganged up on anyone else. Because each player saw a way to win that could be achieved without relying on the table talk aspect of the game, we ignored it and focused on having our knights flex their muscles as hard as possible.
If a mechanic in your game can be safely ignored by players looking to win, it might as well not exist in the first place. If you want players to do something in particular, make it absolutely fundamental to victory instead of a suggestion. This becomes more of a problem with “soft” mechanics like trading, negotation, and betrayal, as suggested above, but anything that seems extraneous could be a problem.
If there’s one thing an auto-mode player likes more than winning with as little effort as possible, it’s winning as surely as possible. Faced with a choice with higher risk/reward and a reasonably safe choice that could still help them win, they’ll choose the safe one almost every time.
My example for this comes from the playtesting process for my own Happy Daggers. In Happy Daggers, players attempt to push each other around a map, with more pushing being better for the player on offense. One of my defense cards in an early build of the final game allowed the defender to be pushed exactly 2 spaces. I figured this was a good idea, because other cards granted the ability to defend perfectly, but in playtests, players would always choose to be pushed 2 spaces. The card was quickly replaced with something better.
Designers of games that use variance in part to create a fun play experience should be careful not to offer a choice that’s too safe. That isn’t to say that some choices can’t be safer, but they should offer a small enough reward compared to shooting the moon that the choice should genuinely present some difficulty, even to players on automatic.
Sitting down to play a game is essentially handing your brain over to the game designer to have them take care of it for a while. This is where automatic mode comes from – we trust that we’ll have fun on the way to victory and don’t want to put any more effort than we have to. As game designers, instead of trying to fight this behavior, we should tailor our games for it and try to create experiences that players can discover easily. The next time you run a prototype, or even play someone else’s game, thinking about what your players – or you – are doing while on automatic has a lot of value.