“The game plays you” is a complaint that seems to come up fairly often and one that I think that comes down to meaningful choices in the game. A game with few meaningful choices will often feel like it’s in charge and there’s no real choice for you to make. Lack of meaningful choices is usually due to either false distinctions or strictly dominant strategies.
Consider a game where when you need to make a die roll you can select either a red die or a green die to roll. Both dice are identical and fairly weighted. While you have a choice (which color die to roll), it’s really a false distinction since the choice has no impact on gameplay. It’s rare to have such a stark example of false distinctions but they often present in games, lurking behind the math of the game system or in thematic elements. Consider a slighly more complex example: say I can make a choice between taking an action that will guarantee me 1 victory point or rolling a six-side die: three results net me 0 VP, the other three give me 2 VP. While it would seem each turn that I have a meaningful choice to make (take the sure thing or take a gamble) over the course of a long game the fact that the expected value of each option is 1 VP means I’ll likely feel like I’m not really making a choice.
The other way choices losing meaning is when there is an obvious example of a strictly dominant strategy. Consider a two-player game with three possible actions: A, B and C. Selecting the same action as your opponent results in a tie. Action A wins against B and loses against C. Action B ties against C, but loses to Action A. Action C wins against A and ties versus B. In this game, Action C would always be the best choice, it ties two-thirds of the time and wins one-third of the time but never loses.
Dominant strategies in games can also be situational… there are some games where once a map area or technology is “unlocked” a certain strategy becomes dominant and there are no more meaningful choices to make. Whoever gets the highest die roll or best card draw will be the first to implement the strategy and come off the winner.
A Weak Solution
It might be tempting when you find a dominant strategy in your game design to try to rebalance the game to even ot the strategies but doing that can lead to false distinctions between the strategies. If all strategies have the same expected value then there’s really only one strategy just with different names.
I actually think that one of the best ways to ensure meaningful choices is to allow weak domination strategies in games. A weakly dominant strategy is one that is not victorious against all other strategies, but does win against at least one other. In games without perfect information, having multiple weakly dominant strategies can mean choosing a strategy has meaning. Of course, you need to constrain player choices or you’ll have players going off into the deep end of analysis paralysis.