Action Funnels

I’ve been asked a few times about what I think the best way to start a new strategy game design is, and I’ve generally had a hard time answering. However, during the process of brainstorming for new prototype designs I have repeatedly returned to a concept I like to think of as Action Funnels as a useful starting point (especially if we’re shooting for Playfulness). Let’s try a simple definition:

“An action funnel is any system in a game that takes a wide menu of possible player actions and limits it to a subset of currently possible actions”.

There are a few reasons that they are useful! Firstly, a strategy game needs to be complex enough (whether intrinsically or through emergent complexity) to remain unsolved and provide interesting decisions. Therefore generally speaking, there needs to be a wide array of game states and actions possible. 

However, if all options are available at all times, a player that has not developed sophisticated heuristics is encouraged to parse through each of them in order to evaluate them relative to one another. Anyone who has stared at a 19×19 empty Go board or wondered which of their chess pieces to move at the opening of the game can attest to this.

Should I try B14 or J7?

Clearly, this kind of laborious parsing is not what we’re looking for if we’re trying to maximize Playfulness. Action funnels allow for a breadth and richness of possible game-states/strategic contexts, while keeping the responsibilities of the player relatively manageable, and hopefully freeing them up to play a bit more instinctively. In Through The Desert, you are only allowed to play next to one of your “leader” camels, which provides a much more manageable array of options for each turn.

Placing next to a leader in Through the Desert.

Games use a wide variety of means to implement Action Funnels, but here are just a few examples:

  1. In Great Western Trail, there are a huge number of possible actions/worker placement spaces, but players are only allowed (at the start of the game) to move forward 1,2 or 3 spaces. (“You don’t have to worry about everything, just which of these 3 would you like”). Notably, as players gain comfort with the system they can read into further implications of those three actions, but still only need to consider the 3 each turn.
  2. In The Castles of Burgundy there are a great number of tiles available each round, and a great number of possible placement spaces on each player’s board. However, they can generally only gain tiles from “depots” that match the two dice they roll each turn, and place tiles on board spaces that match those dice. Furthermore, player’s have to “extend” their existing kingdom with each placement, further funneling their actions.
  3. A Hand of Cards can be interpreted as an action funnel, and is used in many games! (You may have a large number of cards in your deck, but you are only allowed to play those in your hand)
  4. Many rogue-like games feature an implicit action funnel with the spaces on their board. Because these tend to be single-actor games, while there are a staggering number of possible positions and actions available you are only able to take actions from where you are. Typically on a square grid this limits you to 4 options, plus whatever items and spells you might have available (although still interpreted from your current position).
  5. In Wingspan there are 170+ bird cards available, but on your turn you must first choose one of only four actions. (Play a bird, gain food, lay eggs and draw cards). There are then nested* action funnels (heh) after that! When you play a bird, you choose one from your hand. When you gain food, you gain from those available in the feeder. When you lay eggs, you must choose which bird to lay them on (and some may not have room). When you draw bird cards, only those in the “offer” plus the top (unknown) card of the deck are available. In Wingspawn after you activate a row, you might also activate bird cards in that row, which could result in ANOTHER layer of actions, which are again heavily funneled (which of these two goal cards would you like?)
  6. In Memoir 44, it would be easy for players to get overwhelmed if they could command any of their units. However, they must first choose from a small hand of cards which normally feature a flank (left, center or right).Then they enter the nested funnel of choosing which particular units to activate in that section of the board.

There are many, many more examples of Action Funnels in games. You can think of resources in a game that are used to pay for buildings as an Action Funnel that limits your current actions to buildings you can afford. You can even think of cooldowns (especially long ones) in a MOBA as Action Funnels that limit your current strategic possibilities. 

So help your players navigate a complicated and interesting game space without heavy proofreading, action parsing and calculation. Use Action Funnels! If you’re interested in the games I make with following these design guidelines, please sign up for the BrainGoodGames mailing list here.

*Notably, when a game features nested Action Funnels, keep in mind whether they can feel comfortable choosing the top layer BEFORE choosing everything they will do in the second layer of choices. Otherwise they will end up with a combinatoric array of options that can result in a ton of action parsing.

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