One of the main goals of game design is to present the players with dilemmas. Without them, player decisions--if there are any--will seem too obvious, and the game will lack tension.
I actually consider games without dilemmas to be more like spectator sports. Some people are perfectly content to be spectators in a game. They play Candyland or LCR just because they like to watch how things will turn out. To them, playing a game is just another alternative to watching a football game on TV. They do not have any influence on the outcome, but they are drawn in by the action. And they would rather "veg out" than be burdened by tough decisions.
I, however, am not content to be a spectator when I play games. I need to be drawn in by the interactions with the game system and the other players. A game engages its players by providing interesting decisions, in which there are no obviously correct paths to take.
"You can't always get what you want..." - Mick Jagger
The best game experience I can have is when its mechanics present me with several good options every turn. And then it hits me with a beautiful dilemma:
Each turn, I can always do something good, but I cannot do everything that I want to now.
When I was introduced to Eurogames over 10 years ago, this is what hooked me. Modern board game designers like Sackson, Kramer, Knizia, Teuber and Moon had all discovered the secret to packing a great gaming experience in a shorter playing time: maintaining tension and engaging the players through dilemmas:
Should I continue to climb the mountain in Can't Stop even though the odds are growing against me? But my opponents are also nearing the summit, and I cannot risk going too slow.
Should I play my cards in Ticket to Ride and connect my cities now, before someone else blocks me, or should I take those two cards from the reserve before someone else does so that I can complete another connection later?
Should I try to reach another oasis in Through the Desert, or should I encircle territory or capture a point tile with my next 2 camels?
Should I hold onto my cards, risking an attack by the robber in Settlers of Catan, so that I can build a settlement next turn, or should I build a road now, beating an opponent to an open space?
Should I take a better action card and have less cubes to work with in El Grande, or activate more cubes for later and be satisfied with a lesser card this round?
These are the kinds of simple mechanics that invite thoughtful--and rewarding--play. I've come to realize that the dilemmas a game presents is usually the deciding factor of whether or not I will enjoy playing it. There are certainly other factors such as player interaction and downtime, but the tension and engagement provided by a game with beautiful dilemmas can easily override weakness in other areas.
That is why, when working on a new game design, I begin by asking myself, "What kind of interesting dilemma can I present the players in this game? What will keep them on the edge of their seats as they watch their opponents and wait for their turns? What will give them a feeling of accomplishment each game after they followed a specific decision tree, and what will keep them wondering what would have been if they had followed another path, long after the game is over?
If you are designing a game, start with the dilemmas.
Of course, it is possible for a game design to go overboard on dilemmas. Levels upon levels of complex systems are sometimes used to manufacture "strategic depth," and these overly complex affairs do not appeal to me. It can be overwhelming to be faced with too many simultaneous dilemmas. Perhaps some people enjoy "pushing the envelop" of complexity when they play, but I would rather marvel in the elegance of a simple system that provides tension through a more restrained and, in my opinion, skillful use of dilemmas in its design.
Games are an abstracted reflection of real life, and dilemmas make life exciting. It is also no accident that we have built-in filters that help us limit our dilemmas to a manageable amount. In fact, I may prefer a more focused game with beautiful dilemmas because it is getting more difficult to filter out the real-world ones.
Which brings me to my current dilemma: should I keep writing about game design, or should I go back to work on a beautiful dilemma I am creating for a new game?
I'd like to do both now, but I can only do one of them this turn...