The question of Agency...

I played a game of Frostgrave yesterday. It's a great game, very exciting, that swings very quickly from one player to the next. It's fun taking a band of storied heroes that you've spent tim creating into battle, and even more exciting opening the treasure boxes you win during the game. I'm not surprised by it's huge popularity, as it appeals to everyone. 

But something feels off, and I think it's the lack of agency. 

There are some great articles on what agency is, and I don't intend to copy them here. Instead, I want to consider when a lack of agency is a good thing and when it's a bad thing. To sum up, agency represents choice in the game; a game with high agency gives you lots of potential moments of decision and your choices will affect your outcome; a game with low agency doesn't, and can sometimes make you feel like you're not in control of your game.

Like when you roll three critical fails in a row, while your opponent rolls two critical successes and one high score. I experienced this yesterday, and while it was pretty funny - watching a single infantryman fend off a magical bear, my captain and my wizard in three combat rolls was pretty funny, I guess - it also made me realise that there was almost no point in planning ahead. Instead, my best bet was to run models into combat and pray for good rolls (which never came, alas). This produced two outcomes, one bad, one good; 

The bad outcome was that it put me off. I'm used to games with a high level of agency, such as Guildball and Infinity, which reward (or brutally punish) your choices in game, and give you many opportunities to exercise that choice. With the game yesterday, the only real choice I had was movement; where to move models to try and gain the best possible odds. Even then, the wild rolls often prevented these choices making any real difference, which gave me the experience of simply watching something happen rather than making something happen. 

This was, oddly, the good outcome. The combat between the giant tiki effigy and the magical bear was hilarious and exciting, where the outcome really was completely unknown. The success of my wizard in combat, despite being on the ropes with only a few wounds left, making a handful of excellent rolls to defeat his enemies and win the day; this was exciting stuff, and engaged me in a very different way. The utterly random outcomes lead to me and my opponent regularly exclaiming and getting very invested in every combat.

I used to be an agency advocate - lots of choice meant deeper immersion and more tactical play - but now I've seen the benefits of a lack of agency, namely the entertainment of the random, unpredictable outcomes, I can see the allure. Whether or not I'll come to love the low-agency games (Frostgrave, Blood Bowl) as much as those with a high level of it (Malifaux, X Wing) remains to be seen.


What do you think? 



Leave a comment