The Cheesecake Factory and the Paradox of Choice
Cover photo by Alisa Anton.
I don't like cheesecake.
So much that I couldn't get myself to shoot one for this post, so I got one from another photographer. I'm not even sure if that is cheesecake up there; maybe it's a slice of key lime pie (which I love.)
However, let's talk for a minute about a place that makes this dessert its eponym.
I don't know how ubiquitous they are outside the U.S., but you can expect The Cheesecake Factory's hulking facades in higher-end shopping districts or malls that have managed to survive the 00s (I like to call the 2000s the “ooze.”). Locations with the word "fashion center" in the title or feature bright fountains have a high probability of having one anchored on a corner between Zara and an Apple Store. I've personally only patronized this chain a couple of times while traveling with work colleagues. On a first visit, I thought I had wondered into a Vegas hotel. The expansive interior design can be described as "grandma meets Greco-Roman." Giant organic-shaped columns flank the tables with a color scheme that falls under "universe of beige." Our server hands me a heavy plastic coil-bound menu containing laminated pages offering every American staple you can imagine; it's more a catalog of casual dining than a bill of fare. It puts Red Robin menus to shame. Making a choice is overwhelming and paralytic, so I admit defeat and settle for a caesar from page 8 while sipping water from a plastic beer mug. When my salad arrives, there is literally enough on my plate for two or three meals. It's bar-food fare; not bad, not good, but we joke afterwards about going back whenever we are in the mood to consume an entire head of lettuce.
The Cheesecake Factory is a shrine to excess... and the paradox of choice.
The "paradox of choice," coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz, can be summarized as "choice is good, but too much is not good." Creighton Broadhurst from Raging Swan Press brings it context of his personal experience with tabletop RPGs in a blog post. When creating a first-level D&D character, he felt compelled to have as many resources and options as possible, lugging around as many as 27 books (!) just to get going.
I can relate to the thinking here. When making a 5th edition D&D character, I've rarely just brought out the Player's Handbook (PHB) by itself; I've consulted other books like Xanathar's Guide or Sword Coast Guide - both give more class and race options, or even online resources like the Unearthed Arcana articles, which deliver "official" options that haven't been fully playtested, but may show up in future books. So far, all my 5e characters have only used choices available in the PHB, but for some reason I'm compelled to think the process was missing something unless I had access to EVERYTHING. Of course, many folks enjoy this aspect of the game - collecting all the books, putting all the options on the table, min/maxing characters, and that's perfectly fine. But, for me, the question is if I would have the same amount of fun with a character I spent thirty minutes creating with just the PHB, or one that I spent hours on, pouring over multiple tomes and internet pages to make an truly exotic character who is all stats and glam? I'm not sure I would.
While not mentioned in the blog article, I can see this in context of board and card game design, too - specifically player choice. In fact, I consider player choice as one factor in determining the quality of a game.
Here are three things, related to player choice, that I look for in a good game...
I will point out that "good" is a subjective term. If I ever bag on a game that you enjoy, I don't think you are wrong for enjoying that game. You can like cheesecake, too. It's all good.
#1: The game provides players with meaningful choices that will affect the outcome.
This is why Candy Land is the worst board game ever. On a player's turn, they simply draw a card and move a pawn to the indicated color space on the board. That's it. There isn't even a spinner or a die to add randomness. The winner has already been determined once the cards have been shuffled and the first player chosen. Assuming everyone is following the rules, there is nothing a player can do to affect the outcome. The only true decision point is choosing to play or not.
A card game like Uno appears to offer many choices. After all, you have a hand of cards to pick from. However, you may learn early on that there is usually a single obvious choice on what to play each turn. If there is a decision point, it's likely only between two cards, and even then, it won't be that interesting of a choice.
Many modern board games subvert the "draw a card and you gotta do what it says, buster" mechanism by having a player draw two cards and picking one instead. It's a super simple thing to add to a design that instantly adds player choice.
#2: The game limits the choices player can make, but the choices are still meaningful.
A key mechanism in Scythe is the player board. On a player's turn, they choose an action space from four available on the board. Generally, they cannot choose the same space that they took on their previous turn, so that limits the player to three choices. On each space, there is a top action and a bottom action that the player may perform, as long as they perform it in order from top to bottom. This may seem limiting; on the board, players have three choices, then (maybe) two afterwards. However, Scythe is a game about completing multiple objectives to earn enough points to win. A player cannot achieve them all, so every choice of action is vitally important and meaningful in accomplishing goals. You need resources, money, popularity, and combat points, but you can't have it all, at least not right away. The decisions are excruciating and wonderful.
Gloomhaven is great at a lot of things, but it really knows how to strike a fine balance between giving players limited choices, making those choices matter, and adding some measure of flexibility after a choice has been decided upon. Actions in this epic story-driven dungeon crawl is determined by a hand of cards. A player chooses two cards to play in each round. Each card has two actions, a top and bottom action like Scythe's player board, however, the player chooses a top action of one card, and the bottom action of the other to perform. Once the player has made their choice, they are locked. Kinda. Stuff may happen before they act; the board changes, plans are foiled. The player may then switch the actions around, playing the bottom action of one card rather than the top, and vice versa on the second card. Or they can take a less-powerful generic action instead. It is brilliant, as you have limited choices, but it never seems like you have too little or are stuck with nothing.
With "push-your-luck" games like Incan Gold, the choice is binary: you can stay in and risk what you have earned, or bag out while the gettin' is good. On paper, this seems super limited in choice, however, the meaningful part of a binary choice lies in the consequences of the choice. A good push-your-luck game will provide some information to help analyze risk, and not be completely random. In the case of Incan Gold, the "temple track" of cards is drawn from a finite deck, so players can try to assess the chances of a specific danger card being pulled that would cause players still in the temple to lose.
#3: Choice is good, however, the game doesn't offer so many that player decisions become paralytic.
I've already talked about Fuedum in another post, but this is an good example where too much choice ruined this game for me. There is SO MUCH that one can do on their turn, it is mind-boggling crazy. Or I think of A Feast For Odin, a worker placement-style game with an action board containing no fewer than 60 different spaces players can choose from on their turn. No, thank you. This is the Chessecake Factory menu all over again to me. I've still never played Caverna on the "full" mode with the entire compliment of furnishing tiles. Again, if you enjoy these types of games, sweet, more power to you.
All in all, I enjoy games that don't let you do everything (or nothing), but allow you do a few things and make those choices tough. Fortunately, there are TONS of games that do this.
There is one choice that isn't tough for me: cheesecake. No, thank you.