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Gameplay situations where players must choose between several different options and compare values against each other.

Many games tend to try and provide players with interesting choices. This is often in the form of having to choose between several good things, between several bad things, or whether to choose one or more things which have both good and bad consequences. All these choices force players to consider the Trade-Offs between the different alternatives or between the bad and good consequences of one choice.


Concrete examples of Trade-Offs provided in games are having to select which buildings or technologies to pursuit (in the Civilization series) or whether to rush opponents or build up one's own bases in games such as DoTA or the Starcraft series.

The creation of characters in most Roleplaying Games requires Trade-Offs. In some cases, e.g. Dungeons & Dragons, the Elder Scrolls series, and World of Warcraft, this is mainly about what abilities and powers one should have based on what race and occupation one chooses. In others where players by abilities, powers, and skills for points, e.g. Champions and GURPS, these players can choose to have more points by giving their character negative traits.

Using the pattern

Trade-Offs can be used to add complexity to Challenging Gameplay but also introduce different types of risks in for example Stealth challenges.

The construction of Trade-Offs follow one of two formats. The first is having to select between several choices which all have positive but different consequences (or all negative and different). The second is having to choose if one wants to take an action with both a negative and a positive consequence, or alternatively having to choose between several different choices with such pairs of consequences. This means that Trade-Offs are based on selecting negative or positive consequences, or both. Committed Goals is another example of the second format which allows Trade-Offs to concern gameplay aspect larger than single actions. They can in themselves support Trade-Offs but do so more (in the sense that it is more likely players need to consider them in more detail) when players need to choose from several Committed Goals that are Excluding Goals to each other.

Typical positive consequences suitable for this include gaining Area Control, activating Producers, getting Resources, receiving Upgrades, expanding Time Limits, and acquiring Units. Examples of suitable negative consequences include suffering Ability Losses, activating Consumers, experiencing Deterioration, having to perform Extended Actions, risk Interruptibility, losing Resources, reducing Time Limits, leaving Traces, and losing Units. As can be noted, several patterns can be used to create either negative or positive consequences. Some pairs of negative and positive consequences are common are worth mentioning. First, New Abilities combined with Ability Losses of other abilities are Trade-Offs as is having Internal Rivalry while Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences. Similarly, using limited Ammunition to have Ammunition requires players to make Trade-Offs. Other examples include Armor that protect but makes one slower or Ammunition that increases penetration or chances to hit but have reduced damage. Other patterns package negative and positive consequences together and thereby have self-contained Trade-Off structures. Bidding, Budgeted Action Points, Cameras, Chargers, Combat, Converters, Drafting Spreads, Equipment Slots, Internal Conflicts, No-Use Bonus, One-Way Travel, Player-Decided Distribution of Rewards & Penalties, Resource Management, Risk/Reward, Selectable Set of Goals, Sockets, and Token Placement are all examples of this. Guard has this less clearly but does make players choose between guarding securely and putting their attention towards other goals. Similarly, Choke Points in themselves may contain consequences related to Trade-Offs but require players to make Trade-Offs if they want to risk going to them or alternatively choosing to Guard them. Freedom of Choice gives players many actions to choose from, and as long as not all can be done imply that they need to make Trade-Offs. Heterogeneous Game Element Ownership forces players to make Trade-Off decisions as soon as they cannot make use of all game elements they own. More specific versions of this can be achieved by having Limited Resources together with Parties (since one has to select whom should receive what), by having Tools that need Resources or suffer Deterioration when used (since these negative effects have to be countered by positive consequences of using the Tools). Renewable Resources whose production rate depends on how much of the Resources exist force players wanting to use the Resources to choose between taking much short-term or restricting themselves short-term to be able to take more Resources later.

Some patterns can affect Trade-Offs. Limited Resources make consequences related to Resources more important; while Producers can be a consequence of a specific Trade-Off, the presence and possible activation in the future can instead make the role of consequences related to Resources be less important. Supporting Goals can tilt the weights of consequences since they can become tied to goals not related to the current context of the Trade-Off. Finally, Attention Swapping can make it more difficult to judge the actual values of the consequences of Trade-Offs.


Games where players need to make Trade-Offs often lead to them having to engage in Tactical Planning, so the pattern causes Stimulated Planning. This can also can Tension and since Strategic Knowledge regarding the Trade-off can help players make better choice the pattern can also support a type of Gameplay Mastery. In that Trade-Offs require players to select something negative with something positive or choose between two different strategies, it can have a form of Balancing Effect. A potentially negative effect of Trade-Offs is that they can cause Analysis Paralysis in Turn-Based Multiplayer Games. They typically don't support Cognitive Engrossment in themselves but can add depth to it if it already is supported in a game through adding additional choices and effects that need to be considered.


Can Instantiate

Balancing Effects, Gameplay Mastery, Stimulated Planning, Strategic Knowledge, Tactical Planning, Tension

in Multiplayer Games which are also Turn-Based Games

Analysis Paralysis

Can Modulate

Challenging Gameplay, Cognitive Engrossment, Stealth

Can Be Instantiated By

Ability Losses, Area Control, Bidding, Budgeted Action Points, Cameras, Chargers, Choke Points, Consumers, Converters, Combat, Committed Goals, Deterioration, Drafting Spreads, Equipment Slots, Extended Actions, Freedom of Choice, Guard, Heterogeneous Game Element Ownership, Internal Conflicts, Interruptibility, No-Use Bonus, One-Way Travel, Player-Decided Distribution of Rewards & Penalties, Producers, Renewable Resources, Resource Management, Resources, Risk/Reward, Selectable Set of Goals, Sockets, Time Limits, Token Placement, Traces, Units, Upgrades

Ability Losses together with New Abilities

Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences together with Internal Rivalry

Committed Goals together with Excluding Goals

Decreased Abilities together with Ammunition or Armor

Improved Abilities together with Ammunition

Limited Resources together with Parties

Tools together with Resources or Deterioration

Can Be Modulated By

Attention Swapping, Limited Resources, Producers, Supporting Goals

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With



An updated version of the pattern Tradeoffs that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[1].


  1. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.