Thursday, March 14, 2013

How Should You Reward Success?

Rewarding success in board games is a tricky proposition.  Reward players too much and the game can cease to be competitive past a certain point.  Lagging players can be easily alienated and become bored.  Fail to reward successful play enough and the game takes on a feeling of being too artificially balanced.  It feels like no matter what you do, you do about as well as everyone else, and the winner comes down to whatever random variance is built into the game.  Today I'd like to look at numerous games, what they do well, what they don't do well, and try to come to some sort of conclusion about what makes a good reward system.

The Capitalist School of Thought

Plenty of games out there reward players who perform well with new or enhanced abilities.  Kill the monster in Munchkin and you get treasure!  Fail to kill the monster and you get nothing.  Fail badly enough and you lose everything.  If you don't even find a monster, you get to draw another door card which probably won't have anything useful.

Many games have a "The rich get richer" vibe to them.  Monopoly is a textbook example of this, but even among good games, it is a problem.  Acquire is a classic.  A truly remarkable game.  But it's fundamental premise is that money is both how you are rewarded, and the weapon you wield against others.

The problem with many of these games is that a player can easily get stuck at the bottom, or that once a player gains an advantage, he will leverage it to shut the door behind him.  You can never manage to kill a monster in Munchkin, and stay level 1 the entire game.  In Acquire, you can invest all your money into companies that never get sold, never pay off, and end the game having made few decisions, and simply cashing out at the end.  These games are fantastic for the people who do well, but absolutely miserable experiences for the players who are losing.

Those Strange European Commie Games

European style games went a different way from American style games.  They focused on short play times, and a playing field that attempts to self level.  Either by facilitating a gang up on the leader situation, or by helping losers catch up.  Sometimes this mechanics can feel incredibly forced and arbitrary though.

Cyclades was a game with a catch up mechanic that was flat out abusive in the wrong hands.  We found the game to be utterly broken in a three player game because once one player entices another into conquering one of his islands, he gets to sit completely immune to reprisal, building up a warchest.  Meanwhile his opponents keep each other in a careful balance, wearing each other down.  He simply picks his moment to expand again when the other players are too worn out to oppose him, and he has stockpiled enough to get whatever he wants.

Catan suffers quite badly from it's hybrid gang up on the leader/catch up mechanic in the form of the Robber.  Being ganged up on by the other 3 players can render it completely impossible to continue to progress.  It falls into that class of games where it is best to be second place, and shoot forward for the win as quickly as possible while people are distracted.  A very common occurrence in games which encourage leader bashing.  Also quite frequently, you see the quiet mousy member of the group consistently winning these games.

Games That Might Be Too Balanced

Twilight Struggle is a game I adore, but one criticism that has been leveraged against it is that the game is too balanced.  The opposing sides in Twilight Struggle have a very carefully designed tug of war, and its incredibly difficult for one side to get the advantage on the other.  Personally I view it as a strength, how well balanced the deck of cards is.  I know that for every bad turn I have, I must have a good turn coming, because of how the cards are balanced.  But to some this stinks of being overly balanced.

I've seen similar criticisms lobbied again Blue Moon City, a game I have not personally played.  But the sense seems to be that the game is so aggressively balanced, that scores will almost always end up right next to one another, with seemingly random variance.

I actually feel this way about 7 Wonders.  Once all the players are up to speed on how to play, the game scores come out to be incredibly close.  Often coming down to just random distribution of the cards.  The last several games of it I've played, the winner was by a margin of less than 5 points out of 50 or 60.  There seems to be a fixed number of points per card a player can earn on average, and you don't see much deviation from that one way or the other.

Flying Too Close to the Sun

Perhaps my favorite games introduce drawbacks to success.  Some sort of internal, self limiting factor.  Something that isn't forced, and emerges from the constraints of the gameplay.

For example, in Dominion, buying too many victory cards too early will clutter your deck.  People might be shocked and frightened that you are buying Province cards already!  But then suddenly your deck is stalling out as you are drawing only two or three useful cards per turn.  There are self inflicted consequences to chasing after victory too early.

Another example is Agricola.  Every turn is a decision between attempting to grow your farm to be more productive in the future, and feeding your family now.  No shortage of times new family members have been added, new rooms have been built, large pastures have been built, and yet, the player made a grave mistake in missing out on getting enough food for the current harvest.  Suddenly they have to convert valuable vegetables or grains into 1 food each.  Or worse take beggar cards and the associated -3 points per food you couldn't supply.

The key for this system to be successful is that it can't be forced.  The game shouldn't have an arbitrary rule that penalizes the leader.  Rather it should be a natural consequence of over reaching.

Death and Taxes

A system which I find acceptable but not optimal is attrition or taxes in games.  For example, paying maintenance on your ships in Space Empires 4X, or the winter attrition phase in Washington's War.  Now don't get me wrong, for these games, these mechanics make perfect sense.  But they are still a rather brute force, and inelegant solution to enforcing some sort of self limiting success.

What is beautiful about the self balancing of games like Dominion and Agricola is that there didn't need to be any extra phases or rules to burn you for over reaching.  Often players find themselves a bit surprised the first time they bite off more than they can chew in these games.  They weren't expecting it necessarily   And it can even still trip up experienced players from time to time.

The attrition or taxes based mechanics on the other hand, while they accomplish the goal of reigning in a player in the lead, do it in an entirely predictable manner.  They are easily planned for, and likely time consuming to go through the motions of.  Nobody is ever excited to do their attrition or taxes phases of a game.

Isn't Feeding in Agricola Taxes?

This could easily be my personal preference, but I really don't view the feeding phase of Agricola in the same light as the attrition phase or maintenance phase of various wargames.  Largely because the entire purpose of Agricola is expanding your farm and creating food.  The purpose of most wargames is to fight, not to pay maintenance or overcome the winter.


I've found in my experience, the mechanics of deck building and worker placement seem to do a good job of somehow punishing players for chasing success too wildly.  And it comes from an elegant chain of consequences arising from the core mechanics, and not from bolted on extra phases of gameplay.  If anyone else has more examples of core mechanics that will punish players for biting off more than they can chew in an elegant way, I'd love to hear it.  Leave your thoughts in the comments.


  1. I've only played about ten games of Acquire and have yet to see anyone (all new to it like me) get stuck as you describe. However, I see how it could happen. The three-stock-per-turn cap helps prevent the rich from out-spending the rest, but that feels artificial.
    I'm on the fence about Power Grid's system where last in turn goes first in bidding. It helps to think of turn order as a resource (this from a Ludology listener).
    So long as the mechanism fits the theme, I accept it.

  2. As with your excellent article on player elimination being one possible result of self-increasing limitation of actions, a "classic" reward may increase the players abilities to gain more rewards. Both are the results of positive feedback loops that 'topple' the game over.
    A game based on negative feedback loops on the other hand tend to be boring for some, because it may feel "artifically" balanced.

    It's an interesting aspect of games that, if they are *too* realistic on this level, they cease to be fun, at least for most of the players. Monopoly started as "The Landlord's Game" as a didactic game for raising awareness of no-fun-positive feedback loops in real life, but players getting this wouldn't want to play that game any more - as it was intended. Somehow, Monopoly was able to capitalize on this broken game mechanic of a positive feedback loop by emphasing luck, some modest strategic elements. Euro-games, maybe because of a different socio-cultural background than US-games, try to counter this, without giving up on competition and limited ressources, with differing success.

    Maybe an analysis of how cultural "games" with positive feedback loops, systems that reward rewards with more rewards, that are nonetheless kept functional in our culture(s) would help?

    I think the game-design-problem of balancing reward, agency, competition/collaboration, replayability and feedback loops on the one hand with cultural narratives and ethical/personal guidelines on the other hand is one of the most interesting and culturally important one a 'scientific' game designer can tackle.
    But I start to rant...
    Great blog with good questions!