Last week, I headed over to Stagecoach Greens in San Francisco with my teammates for an afternoon of mini golf under the scorching California sun.
There’s a lot to like about the venue, such as the outdoor bar, the picnic tables, and the barrels cleverly stationed throughout the course where you can leave your drinks as you putt. It’s a strikingly well-designed location, with a logical path that weaves through the eighteen holes without ever making you feel crowded by another party.
It’s a great mini golf course, too. I’ve written about the importance of theme in mini golf, and Stagecoach executes boldly and impressively on this front. The “Boom and Bust Course” is about the history of the West and Northern California in particular, complete with historical facts and background music specific to each hole.
The course ups the ante with mechanical moving parts at some holes, either as part of the strategy, or purely cosmetic – as a surprise if you hit the ball through a certain route. It’s sleek, modern, and tells a cohesive story.
Stagecoach Greens Mini Golf is Designed for Player Choices
What I want to write about is the clever design in this mini golf course centered around player choices. Choices, of course, are central to every game. They give players the ability to interact with the game, and push the action forward.
In particular, I will focus on three aspects of game design for choices, and how Stagecoach Greens’ designers use or subvert these principles for what is ultimately a very fun mini golf experience.
1. Meaningful choices
A good game gives the player meaningful choices. Not just any choices but choices that will have a real impact on what happens next and how the game turns out.
– Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design1
Stagecoach Greens Hole #3: Emigrant Trail
While meaningful choices often affect a player’s chances at winning or losing, I found that mini golf also provided interesting choices. These choices sometimes did not have a big impact on how the game progressed, and were purely there for the fun of it.
For example, in Emigrant Trail, there are two paths to get your ball past the mountain range. One is an easier route through the mountain that spits the ball out near the hole. The other more difficult path goes across the top of the mountain range and brings the ball further away from the hole than the first.
If you were out to win at mini golf and want to optimize your strategy to do so, you would use the first route, straight through the mountain and closer to the hole. However, a couple of us were more drawn towards the less optimal path across the top of the mountain, even though it was the harder one that also brought the ball further away from the goal.
This was only because we wanted to see the ball travel over the mountain, and that outweighed our desire to do well at the hole. It was a choice made merely for fun and enjoyment. I thought it was clever of the designers to include choices like these, because it allowed players to have alternate goals other than optimizing for the fewest strokes.
Sometimes, we just wanted to make choices to explore, to see what it would be like if we did something that appeared “fun” rather than “smart”. Furthermore, choices like this one allowed us to switch between the goals of winning and exploring from hole to hole, keeping the game engaging.
Interesting choices support players with alternate goals.
2. Dominant strategy
When choices are offered to a player, but one of them is clearly better than the rest, this is called a dominant strategy. Once a dominant strategy is discovered, the game is no longer fun, because the puzzle of the game has been solved – there are no more choices to make.
– Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design1
Stagecoach Greens Hole #11: Sutro Fog
In a well-designed mini golf course, as you inspect each green, there’s often an “a-ha” moment when you figure out the designer’s intent. This is the discovery of the dominant strategy, and it frequently occurs before you even tee off.
Schell states that the discovery of a dominant strategy solves the game’s puzzle and makes it no longer fun because there are no more choices needed. However, this is not always the case.
In this mini golf course, what appeared to be the designer’s intended dominant strategy was often extremely difficult to execute. This by nature put choice back into the game because you had to decide whether to go for it or find another easier route (see triangularity, below).
For Sutro Fog, the hole is in a corner only accessible through a small opening. There were two semi-circular ramps with models of cyclists on them on either side of the green. Sure enough, the clearest path to the hole would have been to hit the ball at an angle to utilize the ramps, following an S-shaped route directly towards the hole.
All of us attempted to use the dominant strategy, and none of us were successful. But it was still a lot of fun. And, if any of us had succeeded, we would have felt very rewarded.
A difficult dominant strategy keeps a game fun, and rewards skilled or lucky players.
One of the most exciting and interesting choices for a player to make is whether to play it safe and go for a small reward or take a big risk to try for a big reward.
– Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design1
Stagecoach Greens Hole #7: Dazzling Gold
Triangularity is so common that we predict the outcomes of our choices based on it. When we got to Dazzling Gold, I did just that.
There were three paths for the ball to go into a wheelbarrow of gold nuggets and out the other side. Left and right were wider and the centre path was narrower. Immediately, I jumped to the conclusion that the middle, more difficult route, must be advantageous and bring your ball much closer to the hole than the other two.
However, we soon found out that the left and right paths brought the ball to almost the same position as the middle path. So, for all the hard work in going for the risky option, there would be no significant advantage. This was disappointing.
This sort of blind triangularity, where players can’t initially evaluate whether the riskier choice provides a bigger reward, and by what delta, is common in mini golf. This is because paths are often obscured, like in Dazzling Gold, forcing players to experiment and discover the outcomes of their choices.
In this case, sticking to the rules of triangularity is even more important because players can’t see the result of their decision, and thus often use the “high risk, high reward” mentality when making their choice. Moving away from triangularity can result in the player feeling tricked or disappointed.
Subverting triangularity can be disappointing because players expect bigger rewards for accomplishing riskier choices.
Putting it all together
Stagecoach Greens Hole #16: Spirit of Invention
1. Meaningful and interesting choices
- Spirit of Invention is layered with many meaningful and interesting choices. There’s a rotating wheel on top of a platform, with each section obscuring a hole a little differently. Getting your ball into that hole directs it straight out at the final hole, making this strategically the most efficient. However, doing this skips over what arguably was the most interesting part of the course, where you could use pool cues to push your ball across the rest of the elevated platform.
2. Difficult dominant strategy
- The dominant strategy of getting your ball into a section of the rotating wheel and into a hole in that section is incredibly difficult. So, even though we knew what we were supposed to do, trying to accomplish that feat was still a lot of fun because it was nigh impossible. None of my team was able to do so.
3. Expected triangularity
- There is significant payoff for doing the most difficult task, because it brought the ball very close to the final hole. This reinforces the players’ natural instincts about triangularity, and provides the high reward expected of doing a difficult or risky task.
Bonus Note about Theming at Stagecoach Greens Mini Golf
Also, can we talk about the amazing theming here, how a hole called “Spirit of Invention” was in itself inventive by introducing this pool table situation in a mini golf course? My game design brain was very, very thrilled by this.
All in all, we had a wonderful time at Stagecoach Greens, and I was pleased to see so many interesting design decisions. Definitely drop by if you’re in San Francisco!