Player Agency – To Play or to Observe

The boards for the games Candy Land and Snakes and Ladders, overlapping on a table, with the boxes for both games stacked on them. These are two of the worst examples of games with no player agency.Many people had their first experience with games playing things like Candy Land or Snakes and Ladders (the latter being known in the United States, for some reason, as Chutes and Ladders). Other examples may include Hi Ho Cherry-O! and Cootie. What I find interesting about these games is that they are pretty much the perfect examples of games that have no player agency at all.

What is Player Agency?

Player Agency is a term that is often thrown around amongst game designers and developers, and to a lesser extent, intense gaming enthusiasts who take the analysis of games they like (or don’t like) and games in general very seriously…

Uh… people like me, I guess…

…but is not as frequently heard outside of those circles. So let’s make sure we know what it means before we start talking about it.

Anyway, what the term ‘player agency’ actually means is ‘how much the actions and decisions of players affect the outcome of a game.’ Probably the best example of a game that is entirely dependent upon the actions of players are pure strategy games, such as Go. To a great extent, player agency can be seen as the opposite of randomness, but that’s not entirely accurate either. A lot of games that rely heavily on chance still have a significant level of player agency. The old casino staple Craps is a perfect example: it is very much a game of chance, but players are constantly making decisions regarding how to approach and manage that randomness. It has a high degree of player agency.

On the other hand, games with no player agency (such as Snakes and Ladders or Candy Land) permit the players no decision at all. Roll the dice, draw a card, move the piece, see whose piece reaches the finish line first. Nothing that a player does or decides affects the game itself (aside, I suppose, from the decision to play the game at all). In Snakes and Ladders, for example, a turn consists entirely of rolling the dice, moving your piece the specified number of spaces, and if you land at the foot of a ladder or the head of a snake, you move to the other end of that ladder or snake. No decision to be made, no displays of knowledge or skill to be performed, no actions to be taken. A very simple computer could easily play this game for you.

In fact, in games like this, it would be easier to programme an app to carry out the work of playing the game (essentially setting the number of players to zero) than to make one that would allow a person to actually be involved in the game.

10 random = D
20 p1 = p1 + D
30 if p1 = 23 then p1 = p1 - 14
40 if p1 = 100 then print "Player 1 wins!"

You get the general idea.

Games with low player agency

There are games that have a small amount of player agency. Monopoly springs to mind; most of the decisions in this game are of the ‘Do you wish to purchase this unowned property on which you’ve just landed?’ variety. But let’s be honest; who doesn’t buy any unowned property if they can afford it? The smart alecks in the audience might say, ‘A player who wants to lose,’ but let’s be serious for a moment, shall we? The only actual decisions in that game are deciding if and when to build houses and hotels, and on which properties.

Another example of games with low player agency is Parcheesi and all its variations (SorryTrouble, and Aggravation being the most common). Most of the game is simple ‘roll and move racing’ equal to Snakes and Ladders, but you have four pieces to move, and get to decide which piece you want to move on any given turn. This affords you some crucial tactical options (do you move the one in the back to get closer to the overall goal? Or do you move the one at the front to get at least one of your pieces home and safe from capture? Or do you move the third piece so that it lands on the same space as your second piece, creating a blockade to prevent other players from making progress?)

Games with High Player Agency

I am normally fond of games that have a high degree of player agency. These can be games that are (as I like to call them) very thinky-thinky. There’s a lot of strategy and planning, games like Dominant Species or Asphodel or the cooperative Lord of the Rings board game. These game, by their very nature, determine who will win almost exclusively based on the decisions the players take and the actions they perform.

Other examples include games that rely on players’ skill sets, such as Bananagrams (which tends to favour players with large vocabularies) or Tsuro (which requires a good deal of spatial awareness).

Final Thoughts on Player Agency

Depending on the type of player agency involved (be it requiring good memory skills like Memory or good bluffing skills like The Resistance or Balderdash, or strategy like Chess or Checkers, or physical skill like sports or Twister, or any other reliance on what the players do or decide), not everyone is going to like every game with a high degree of player agency. But one thing is for sure: unless it invokes nostalgia (some players have fond memories of playing games like Hi Ho Cherry-O) or appeals to a fetish (in the way that Star Trek Road Trip appeals to me because it’s based on Star Trek, even though there’s very little player agency involved), most people will be more interested in games that have a lot of player agency than in games that have little or none.

Anyway, I think that’s quite enough for this week. I’ll see you back here again next week! Until then, remember as always to

Game on!

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J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.

About J

J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.