Board games now frequently have multiple paths to victory and/or lots of different ways to score points, which enable players to play completely different strategies, while still competing for the same resources, contracts, territory or economy. The multitude of options often means that there is no bad decision, any decision could be profitable. So the player needs to work out what the best option is for his or her own gameplay. For most Board Game Families, multiple options are a very good thing. New players can pick a strategy, execute it and experience success, whatever their choices. They may win, or they may not; either way they’ll still get some sort of reward for their actions. Well balanced games are equally likely to reward players adopting a generalist strategy as those attempting highly focussed specialisms. Normally the wealth of choices is a positive thing, but when you’re playing with a player who wants to think deeply about every available choice, gameplay can stall.
Analysis Paralysis (or AP) is the inability to make a decision during a board game, because the player is rendered inert by the wealth of choices available to them. These players, who are able to see some of the implications of the choices they make, try to weigh up the different options for committing to a path. It is totally understandable: each choice has consequences. The player will be thinking about how the new cards (or resources or actions) will work with the cards (or resources or actions) they have already taken, what cards (or resources or actions) they think their opponent wants to take and what the probability is of certain cards (or resources or actions) becoming available in future turns. My son frequently calls for pen and paper so that he can calculate the probabilities associated with each decision. This is infuriating and not unusual. The more information the player has to choose from and the more information they can access the more likely they are to suffer from AP.
Some games allow players to see many turns into the future. Cottage Garden, the polyomino tile-laying game, for example, has all the information in full view. The only element that affects the choice of tile a player may take is the choices of the other player. The game relies on fitting together the tiles in a personal tableau as efficiently as possible, so looking several turns ahead is smart when choosing your tile. But the options are so great that this can be totally crippling.
The problem with AP is that it slows the game down for other players. The slowing of the game can increase the levels of frustration build for other players. As frustration builds around the table, so the anxiety levels of the person who is trying to make a decision may build. An anxious player is even less likely to be able to make a decision quickly; feeling under pressure will slow the thought process down, intensifying the problem, or may result in the player getting upset and disconnecting from the game. Unfortunately, once a player has been labelled as suffering from Analysis Paralysis, the rest of the family may be quick to jump on them in future games, trying to avoid another game of lengthy breaks.
Reduce the trouble that AP causes by choosing different games to play. Try:
- Games where everyone is playing at once (simultaneous action selection), rather than in a turn-by-turn structure. This will reduce the amount of time between turns and increase everyone’s engagement. Real-time games take this a step further as no turns exist at all.
- Games that have an element of speed built into the game. When the game dictates that you only have a certain amount of time to make a decision, the pressure to find the optimal choice is diminished. Instead a ‘good enough’ choice is prioritised.
- Games that have a limited amount of information available at any one time. If the players are unable to see turns ahead, they can only concentrate on making the best decision for right now, reducing the depth of analysis.
- Games that only require a player to make one decision per turn. If multiple actions can be taken in each turn, then players may also feel that the combinations of these actions also have to be analysed.
Even when being driven crazy by an analysis paralysis prone child, remember to put this in context. AP is not the only testing behaviour you’ll come across at the game table and it’s by no means the most annoying. Bad losers throwing screaming fits, bad winners throwing their weight around, younger siblings whining manipulatively, greasy fingers bending cards, surreptitious texters ignoring gameplay…. the list goes on. You only see analysis paralysis when a player is really engaged in the game. Being totally engaged in the game isn’t a crime – in fact it’s what we want.
Spend time before a game begins by speaking one-to-one with your AP-prone child. Discuss strategies for speeding up decision-making on this particular game, agree house rules that assist and explain how you are going to help by managing the reactions of the rest of the family.
During the game pay attention to the behaviour of your family. Be quick to stamp out any negative comments that are targeted at the over-analyser. It is easy for stress to build if a player feels picked on. Always look for opportunities to reinforce great gamesmanship. Notice when players are making an effort to speed up their decision-making and notice when other players calmly give them time and space. You may not be able to eradicate analysis paralysis but you can eradicate the negative behaviours around it.