Cosmic Wimpout is a classic dice game - classic because of the groovy symbols, the catchy name, and the simple rules. Cosmic Wimpout claims to have only 3 rules, though it stretches that point with one basic premise and two clauses. The basic premise is that you roll dice, and set some of them aside as points. You may continue to roll as long as you like, but should you ever fail to add points with a roll then all the points earned during that turn are lost. It's the classic "Press Your Luck" mechanic.
The three rules are:
1 - You must earn 35 points to get into the game.
2 - You May Not Want To But You Must: if you score on all 5 dice, you must roll again.
3 - You must roll again after rolling a flash.
The two clauses are:
1 - Re-roll clause. (or, Flashes Must Be Cleared) If your roll after a flash contains the symbol just flashed, you must re-roll all dice.
2 - The Flaming Sun Clause. If you roll doubles and the flaming sun, you must use the flaming sun to make a flash.
Cosmic Wimpout, as everyone thinks of it, is all about a single choice : Do I keep rolling or stay? Every rule and both clauses are about instances where you must continue to roll. The first rule is an introduction to the game - forcing you to make dangerous decisions. You literally cannot begin a game of Cosmic Wimpout (that is, you cannot earn 35 or more points) without taking some risk or other. It is often a successful strategy for players who have earned their initial 35 points to claim small rolls of 20 or 25 points for the rest of the game. It is also not unheard of for players to spend an entire game failing to reach the initial 35 points.
I've found that most games I enjoy follow this same precept: you take your chances at the beginning. It's terrible to play a game for hours, or months, and then be faced with a difficult choice which potentially causes you to lose the game. It makes sense to take big risks early, because a game which goes sour right at the start can just be re-started. That's how it works among friends in any case - a lot of designers go through great pains to ensure that players fear re-starting a game. But when I play a game with my friends and get a terrible deal, or fall impossibly behind on the second or third turn, everyone is generally amenable to just re-starting the game. It's often fun to play a few turns of a new game, and then re-start just because you all understand the game now, in a way you couldn't before you actually had to play it, and see the rules in action.
But this system carries the same potential downside that I've seen in Cosmic Wimpout - some people just can't get into the game. They are unlucky, or they won't take the necessary risks, or (worst of all) they CAN'T take the necessary risks because they haven't understood the rules well enough.
There are also the stubborn, or the unwilling. Some people whould rather not play, and demanding thate they take a risk - to invest in the game - gives them an easy way for them to guarntee their failure. That's unfortunate but I don't think of it as a flaw in the game - because everyone can tell that the fault lies with the player, not the mechanics.
Fear of the Future
The great thing abouth risk is that the tension associated with risk dissipates almost immediately once the moment is past. If you can just get your players to experiment a little bit - they won't be disappointed. Players only fear the future, not the past.
But fear is a powerful deterrent, so one good technique you can use is to hide your difficult decisions from players until the last moment. It's like giving players a random selection of potential skills each time they gain a level in an RPG - rather than a known skill tree that they could peruse ahead of time. A known, fixed skill tree means opportunities for min-maxing. It means that some choices are of more benefit depending on your playstyle. It means that other people have faced the same choices, and maybe did a better job planning than you did. Conversely, a random selection means pot luck - you get a choice, but it wasn't something you could have planned for. Your personal judgement is the only guide.
The worst offenders in pre-determined choice options are the moral choice systems present in so many current-gen games such as Bioshock, Infamous, Mass Effect, etc. In these systems players are given dozens of choices throughout the game which sway them toward good or evil. If players were to make random choices, they would almost always end up in the neutral "normal" ending, so players are trying to either achieve 100% good or 100% bad ratings. This is actually a single choice, generally made at the beginning of the game, but that one choice is spread out over the whole game. That absolutely kills any sort of anticipation - the reward from the choice happens (by definition!) at the very end of the game, so even though the choice happens early on the consequences occur very late.
Our Three Rules
So, in the spirit of Cosmic Encounter, I'd like to offer 3 rules which we can use to determine how much effort is required of our players to make their first difficult choice - which gets them on the path to investing in the game.
1 - The first choice should occur very early on, to acclimate players to making choices within the game.
2 - The consequences of the choice must occur very quickly - immediately in most cases.
3 - Each choice should be atomic - independent of other choices the player makes.
How do these work for you? Has anyone successfully used an approach which was way outside these parameters?