The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Game Theory 101 - Part II

Jonathan Degann

November, 2003

The Ticking Time Bomb. How steep rewards and sudden catastrophes help make a game great.

Last time we looked at how a game can have a Story Arc and how that contributes to making the game experience rich and complex. This time we're going to look at game dynamics in terms of how rewards and punishments are structured. We're going to see how the best games are typically not subtle in the ways that they structure scoring. Instead, they use techniques to magnify the consequences of your decisions turning a firecracker into a bomb. They create a sense of urgency by carefully controlling the uncertainty of when that bomb is going to blow up and who is going to be holding it when it does.

When Sid Sackson created Acquire in the 1960s, he created one of the most frequently borrowed mechanisms in modern gaming: the use of majority control as a basis of rewards. There's a good reason that this mechanism has proved to be so popular with designers. In addition to encouraging player interaction, it creates big effects out of small changes in a player's situation. In so doing, it magnifies the drama in the critical choices a player makes.

Speculating in shares, on its own, doesn't typically have lots of thrills in it unless you're playing with real money. Typical strategies in such games involve trying to squeeze a few extra dollars out of some careful market timing. A player who gets a share at just the right time might save a buck, and if he sells at just the right time he might make an extra dollar. He tries to anticipate which share is going to appreciate most rapidly, and get in as early as possible. In games like this, players would often have no clue as to who is winning by just observing each other's actions because a good or bad move tends to be incremental. Games that depend on this mechanism include Palmyra (Knizia), Spekulation (Henn), and Big Boss (Kramer). All are very good games but none have the excitement of Acquire.

Imagine Acquire as a stock speculation game. In such a game there would be no majority payoffs. You could buy shares, and probably sell them mid game, with the goal of identifying those hotels that are most likely to grow and merge, so as to reap the best share appreciation. At the end, you sell all your shares, which have now given you a sizeable profit, and you compare wealth to see who has bought and sold most cleverly. Such a game would never have become the classic that Acquire has become.

I imagine that early playtest versions of Acquire might have used this principle. I can't begin to imagine the hooting and dancing that Sid Sackson exploded into when he hit upon the idea of rewarding majority bonuses following a merger. The key to this mechanism is the fact that just a couple of shares more or less make the difference between a big payoff and potentially nothing. This is what I call "The Bomb".

Stock certificates from AcquireWhat defines the bomb is that a small change in player actions has a disproportionately large effect on rewards. What makes it work is that it creates strategic consequences out of tactical decisions. It turns the effect of your decisions into something greater than the sum of their parts and forces you to focus on broad goals. Alan Moon recognized the power of Sackson's majority control mechanism when he used it in Airlines (later Union Pacific), and adapted it into a game about drafting and risk management. In the fight for majority control found in Acquire and Union Pacific, getting another two shares can spell the difference between a big payoff and none if those shares put you ahead of your opponent. Now, instead of just trying to collect lots of stuff and get the most credit for it, you have much more to consider. In the case of Union Pacific, the decision of whether to take that extra share which can put you in the lead, or whether to play what you've got to the table becomes critical. Now you need to consider the competing needs to invest in a big rail line which might pay a lot (or nothing) and weigh it against the strategy of investing in small lines which are more likely to give you the big bonanza of sole control.

The opposite case to the bomb is "incrementalism", where small changes in actions result in roughly proportional rewards and players seek to fine-tune the efficiency of their moves to eek out a victory. It takes a lot to bring excitement into such a game. The "crayon rails" series of games, including Eurorails and Iron Dragon, tend to play this way. Payoffs are typically proportional to the time and investment required to make them happen. The game unquestionably rewards skillful play to the person who creates that really efficient network and knows just how to manage his deliveries to maximize the return on his investment. However, it lacks that "killer play", that "Woooo Hoooo!" moment that lets you feel that your tactics have really paid off, the one that made you sweat to make happen.

Puerto Rico is, on its face, a very incremental game; it certainly relies on much meticulous resource management to play effectively. Andreas Seyfarth has, however, built in several mechanisms that provide big rewards and punishments for key moves. The shipping rules are beautiful and contribute enormously to the game's flavor. It is the rule about throwing commodities overboard that puts such a wonderful bomb into the game. Like Monty Python's fictitious "Piranha Brothers", it's "cruel but fair". The player who effectively manages his commodity choices, who times his choice of the Craftsman and Captain wisely and who fully understands the implications of which commodities to unload first in a shipping round is the player who is most likely to receive a bonanza in shipping points and see his opponents curse as they toss gobs of commodities overboard. In a similar way, the restrictions on using the Trader, and in closing others out of it, can turn a small decision into a big payoff. Finally, Seyfarth created a bomb by introducing the big payoffs from the large buildings. They accelerate the tension in the end game and provide an exciting all or nothing race to the conclusion.

The Settlers of Catan would be a very incremental game if it were not for the rules controlling the building of new settlements. Pulled away from the board, Settlers is just about collecting sets, building stuff and collecting bigger sets. An element of the game that helps to give it tension is the competition for choice spaces on the board. The time your pulse is most likely to be racing during a game of Settlers when you're desperately trying to get to a critical building spot before an opponent. Now the game is not just an issue of building and trading efficiently, now things really matter! The same holds true in the race for longest road, which applies the principles of majority control in a fresh way to create a fight that is almost always engaging and tense. In the varying subsequent scenarios and variants of Settlers, from Knights and Cities to Settlers of the Stone Age, Klaus Teuber always inserted some mechanism that created a direct competition for critical victory points between players. This takes the form of the barbarian penalties and bonuses in Knights and Cities, to the pyramid bonuses in Cheops, to the race to reach all continents in Stone Age. These rules have helped to keep the new scenarios from being incremental games of pure economic development.

TorresKramer and Kiesling avoided the principle of the bomb in Torres and instead created a more incremental scoring system. The game suffers from it. In Torres, players build structures and will score in proportion to how high they can get their knights on each one. Now the obvious rule in this sort of game would have been to only allow the one or two highest players to score in any structure. My guess is that the inventors tried this and found that the game had too many problems. Very likely, it was impossible to unseat the first player who starts building a given structure. What tends to happen, though, is that all players tend to get a good piece of the action in each structure. Good playing can certainly create an obstacle for opponents to rise, but even these tactics are often undone with the use of an action card. Players tend to engage in small battles over one more or one less level. They're fighting for bits of the paella pan instead of trying to grab the whole sausage. The fight for domination rarely peaks in intensity. The final result is a game that is often satisfying but rarely addictive.

Perhaps the best example of what a bomb can do for a game can be seen, ironically, in a game that is widely reviled by modern board game enthusiasts: Monopoly. In its original incarnation as The Landlord's Game, players could buy properties and collect rents equal to 1/10 the original cost. Had the evolution of the game stopped there, it would have been terminally boring and it would be irrelevant today. The ability to develop properties and collect huge rents enabled players to deliver a bomb to opponents, the excitement we feel when we cap Boardwalk with a hotel and wait for our prey. Requiring a player to obtain a monopoly on a property before developing it is the game's second bomb, which helped to make it such a huge success. Now, having two related properties was nice but getting the third was huge. It changed the game from being an incremental game of acquisition and development to a game that explodes when a player is able to trade for the right combination of properties. Monopoly may be outdated, but it has enjoyed a fantastic run and its popularity was only possible because of the extreme rewards and punishments in the monopoly and development rules.

A bomb doesn't have to be as exaggerated as having a hotel on Boardwalk. It doesn't have to involve majority control. What is important is that the players can work up to goals which are make-or-break deals. It can be getting to that contested settlement spot first in Settlers, or placing that ten point card in New England, or connecting that really big chain in Taj Mahal. It's Boy Loses Girl; Boy Gets Girl. It's what puts the thrill in the victory and the agony in the defeat. It's the rush we feel that makes us want to play "one more time".

- Jonathan Degann

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