Breaking the Chains of Analysis Paralysis – Sophie's Choice (Part 6 of 7)


If you’re here, reading a game designer blog discussing analysis paralysis, then I’m pretty sure you probably have some idea of what I mean by the words “Analysis Paralysis” (hereafter referred to as AP). If you don’t, don’t fret! Jump back to Part 1 and read the “What is AP?” section for a primer on the subject.

This is the sixth article in a series of 7, each article in this series will go into depth on one potential cause of AP, examples of situations where it can be problematic, and present some solutions that can improve the situation.

  1. The Black Box
  2. The Paradox of Choice
  3. The Prisoner’s Dilemma
  4. The Maze to Victory
  5. Relationship Status: It’s Complicated
  6. Sophie’s Choice – this article
  7. Bigger vs Better

If you have any suggestions, examples, questions, or want to point out something I’ve missed, please do so in the comments. This is not a scientifically rigorous examination of AP, and I would be happy to include any contributions you have!

Sophie's Choice

The problem of no good choices.

Category: Quality

Player Symptoms:

  1. Inability to choose between a limited number of options.

  2. Expressions of disinterest or lack of concern when making choices.

  3. Reviewing/examining what they know of other player’s objectives and progress before making a decision.

  4. Making choices out of spite instead of strategy.

  5. Being suggestible or easily influenced for/against a particular action by the suggestion of another player.

  6. Consistent attempts to influence player’s decision making without any obvious purpose.

  7. Seeking input from other players about the best course of action before choosing.

  8. Making excuses and justifying actions that negatively impact another player (ie. Player X was in the lead)

Cause of Problem:

Sophie’s Choice is a book, and more famously a movie, whose title has entered common usage as a term for being forced to chose between two equally undesirable options. The core of the problem that we are going to examine in this article is the problem of players being placed in situations where they have no good choices available, and variations on how that situation may present itself.

Now – we have received a distress call from the Kobayashi Maru, let’s take a look at the problem.

Problem 1: Inconsequential Impact

The first variation on the Sophie’s Choice problem is a long way from its namesake. In this situation the player faces a choice between two or more options, all of which are equally poor – or at least not positive – and the impact that each option has is negligible. This problem is often framed as a lack of interesting choices.

A good rule of thumb when trying to design a game, is make sure that your players always have interesting choices to make. Interesting choices keep players engaged in the game and are typically choices that are impactful, choices that are meaningful. Interesting choices ideally have two attributes: 1 – they are positive choices that move a player closer to their goal, and 2 – they measurably impact the current state of the game.

This problem is centred around situations that are the exact opposite of having meaningful, interesting choices. These are choices that a player is forced to make, do not move the player closer to their goal, and do not measurably impact the state of the game, or the comparative states of each player.

I have specifically encountered this problem in one of my designs, a game that involves the placement and manipulation of dice on a board to make patterns. The problem that I encountered while working on this design is that it was easy to end up in a situation where a player has to choose between placing 2 dice, neither of which will help or hinder any of the players. The only progress being made by the decision is progressing the game slightly towards the end by occupying a square on the board. Neither the placement choice nor the dice selection impacts scoring in any way.

What I discovered, is that this situation caused surprisingly widespread AP among players. A decision with negligible impact was one that left players struggling to decide what to do.

Problem 2: Aggressive Impact

The second variation is when a player faces a choice between two or more options, all of which are equally poor – or at least not positive – and the impact of each option is significant and unequal to other players in the game, whether the effect is negative or positive to those players.

This problem is common in games with a significant take-that style of play, where players must take actions that specifically and intentionally target their opposing players and impede them in some way. It is quite common to find players who do not like take-that style of gameplay and who suffer from AP when they must take an action that affects other players negatively in an unequal fashion. This form of AP can often come from a fear of offending other players, of being unfair, or being seen as picking on one player or another and can be accompanied by preemptive apologies or justification for the choice being made.

Although not typically a take-that game, placement of the robber in Settlers of Catan is a prime example especially during the early game where unofficial “gentleman’s rules” are often used to avoid unfairly disadvantaging a player with aggressive robber placement.

This problem though extends beyond ­take-that style of gameplay in situations where a choice also disadvantages the player who makes it – negating any catch-up benefit, and producing a kingmaking scenario – or an effect that has an unequal positive impact among the other players (though this typically only produces AP when a game is roughly equal, or the effect is large enough to also result in a kingmaking situation).

Problem 3: Unforeseeable Consequences

The third variation is most often seen in social deduction style games (Werewolf for example) where a player must choose between options that have an equally negative impact, but the consequences of that choice cannot be determined with certainty. This can often be exacerbated in situations where discussion between players is encouraged or is a required element of that gameplay.

This problem closely resembles the prisoner’s dilemma, and in many ways is a variation on that. The key difference is that the player is not making the decision in isolation. The decision may impact both themselves and others, and input from other players is unreliable.

AP in this situation is caused by needing to make a choice where the outcome of that choice is either unknown or uncertain.

Problem 4: No-win Situation

The last variation on Sophie’s Choice that we will be looking at is the classic no-win scenario. This is most often presented as a choice between options that are equally and significantly negative for the person making the choice. This variation is also typified by the decision being self-contained. The outcome of the decision does not impact on the player’s competitors (this would fall under Problem 2 – Aggressive Impact), and the decision is not made when the player’s overall objective is unobtainable – an unobtainable objective would mean the decision itself is inconsequential (and would fall under the analysis of Problem 1).

This variation is a widely used thought experiment, and is a common trope in fiction including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in the Kobayashi Maru training simulation, and in The Dark Knight movie. In a game, this situation is a source of AP because it places the psychological burden of responsibility on the chooser while also forcing them into the situation where the choice is arbitrary.


The universal solution to Sophie’s Choice is answered for us by Kirk – he changed the conditions of the test. He cheated, and in so doing opened up a third option that was more to his liking.

All variations of the problem described above have two elements in common.

  1. There is no positive option available for the player to choose.
  2. The criteria available to make a decision is either arbitrary or contentious.

The only way to avoid AP induced by a Sophie’s Choice situation is to modify the available choices. If you can ensure that in any situation a player will always have the ability to make an interesting, meaningful, and valuable choice – then this problem will never appear.

This can be done in one of four ways:

Better Options:

By increasing the value of one or more options to the player, a difficult decision can be made much easier. A clear differentiation in value allows a player to quickly evaluate and select the option that provides them the most benefit, or the least penalty.

More Options:

Increasing the number of options improves the possibility that one option will stand out as a better choice among the ones available.

Earlier in this article I referred to a dice placement example of a design problem that I encountered. A player had to select 1 of 2 dice and then place it on a grid with 30+ available locations and at times this was a situation that was resulting in significant AP. At first glance the problem may appear to be too many options – Evaluating 60+ placement combinations can be a situation of a Paradox of Choice. However attempting to resolve this by restricting the available placement options by adding rules, did nothing to reduce the frequency of AP.

The problem was not that a player was faced with too many options, but that there were too few good options. The situation was dramatically improved by increasing the number options by allowing the player to draw 4 dice instead of 2. Although nominally this increased the decision space to 120+ options, it increased the likelihood of 1 or 2 good dice would be drawn. This allowed players to quickly eliminate options, and focus on the available good dice, and instead of examining the entire board – they could focus on a few target areas where they were in the process of building patterns.

The effect was that by increasing the number of available options, it also allowed the player to discard most of those options efficiently and reduced the number of options that a player needed to seriously consider.

Better or Clearer Decision Criteria:

Although the relative value of available options may be the same, differentiating the impact and effect of that choice can reduce the potential for AP. An example of this is increasing the strategic path of two options – say a player must choose between Path A and Path B and both paths require Resource X and Resource Y in roughly equal amounts to advance. If the player is presented with 2 options, one penalizes Resource X, the other Resource Y. The choice between these two options is difficult because they are effectively equal in value and impact on the player.

However if these options were presented differently, one penalizing Path A, and the other penalizing Path B, although the value may be unchanged – the decision is differentiated because the two paths are mutually exclusive.

Applying a penalty to individual progress paths is an inflection point – a point in time where a player’s trajectory can change by enabling them to choose between different paths. Applying a penalty to a required resource that is shared across many progress paths is a roadblock. Modifying options to avoid roadblocks and prefer inflection points will reduce the potential for AP and enable players to make better and more interesting decisions.

Removing Unnecessary Choices:

If your players are consistently encountering AP induced by a Sophie’s Choice in the same situation, consider the possibility of removing the choice entirely. Focus on the choices that are interesting and meaningful in a game, and if there is a situation that regularly produces uninteresting choices – replace it with a fixed step, a directive, or eliminate it entirely. Doing this can increase the density of meaningful choices that players must make and as a result increase their engagement in the game.

Next Week

If you have any comments, suggestions, or examples that you would like to share about this week’s topic, please tell us about them in the comments.

Next week will be the final article in this series, and we will be looking at Bigger vs Better.


In general usage, Sophie’s Choice is used to describe any two mutually exclusive options that are equally bad or equally good. This usage, and this article as well, ignores the horrific and appalling origins that engendered the term – the story that is underpinned by the choice that Sophie is forced to make. The movie is well worth taking the time to watch and Meryl Streep won a well deserved Oscar for her performance in it.