Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about games. It’s led me to a unifying theory about how many games work—in part thanks to some comments from Doug Orleans. In short: many or most game mechanics actually have a common basis, and that common basis is the auction.
I’ll offer the warning that this article is more technical that a lot of my Gone Gaming articles, for reasons that I’ll discuss at the end. I’ve decided to post it, nonetheless, because I think it’s an interesting discussion of some core mechanics in eurogame designs. If it bores you, I suggest you hop on to the next article, as this isn’t entirely typical of the column.
Notes on Auctions
I’ve written some more detailed discussions of the mechanics of game design in my computer game design column, Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities. I discussed the basics of auctions in #144: Strategic Insights: Auction Games. In that column, my definition of auctions included the following specifics:
- Usually involve players bidding against each other to buy a resource from the game system (not from another player).
- Usually involve an exchange of a monetary marker for a resource, or else (more rarely) of a resource for a monetary marker. These are not barters or exchanges of like goods.
- Usually involve rigid methods for making bids and changing prices.
- Usually involve a price either increasing or decreasing over time.
- Always involve the best price being taken following the end of the auction period.
Since I wrote that TT&T article, I’ve come to the realization that more than just auction games use these ideas. To be precise, I’ve identified three other major styles of gameplay that utilize many of these auction mechanics — sometimes changing them up in some very regular ways for their genres. These auction-inspired genres are: trick-taking games, conflict games, and majority-control games.
In this week’s column I plan to look a bit more at each of these game types, and see how they each fit under the grand-unification umbrella of auctioning.
I’ve also written about trick-taking games in my Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities column, as #117: Strategic Insights: Card Games. In that column, I defined trick-taking games as such:
The main activity of this sort of gameplay is taking individual sets of cards (“tricks”). Most commonly a trick involves each player playing one card and the “best” card of that set winning the trick. Many trick-taking games are led off by bidding, whereby each player says how many tricks he’ll be able to take. Most trick-taking games mark their victory based on how many tricks each player takes.
You’ve probably played a trick-taking game of some sort; most of them are partnership games like Bridge, Spades, or Euchre, but there’s also more oddball games that are still quite popular, such as the penalty trick-taking game, Hearts.
Now, if you compare my definition of trick-taking games to auction games, you’ll find:
- Players are bidding to buy a resource, they’re just bidding cards to buy tricks.
- You exchange your card from your hand in order to win the trick.
- There’s a rigid once-around bidding method.
- The price sort of increases over time — in that you have to play higher than anyone else to win, and as more people play, that increases your minimum bid that could win.
- The best price/card always wins.
That’s every single point of my auction definition met, just with some changes in what we define as “money” and what we define as “commodities”. In fact, using my more-extensive definitions of auctions from in that T&T article I’d call a trick-taking game a freeform auction (meaning that you can bid higher or lower than previous bidders) with open turn-based one-time bids (meaning that everyone sees the bids, they’re put down in order, and each person only gets one chance to bid). Victory is determined as all-payer, single winner (meaning that everyone loses what they bid, but only one person takes the commodity/trick).
Lest you think I’m making up connections where they don’t exist, it’s worth considering a game that falls more directly in the middle between auction & trick-taking games: Relationship Tightrope (or Tightrope or Yin Yang if you prefer), by Reiner Knizia. Relationship Tightrope starts out looking like a pretty standard trick-taking game. You’re randomly dealt a handful of 10 cards. However, the cards themselves are numbered 1-50, rather than being divided into 4 different suits. The play itself looks like a trick. You first put out a “reward” card, which defines the value of the trick (it’s numbered from 1-10). Then, each player plays one of their cards, in order. The player who played the highest card gets a number of “blue points” equal to the reward-card value and the player who played the lowest card gets a number of “pink points”. So, is it an auction game because you have clearer valuations (1-50) and a clearer commodity than a trick (the reward)? Or is it a trick-taking game because you’re dealt a hand of cards that you play in tricks?
I argue that it’s both because the two categories of games are very closely related, and Relationship Tightrope — along with other games such as Stefan Dorra’s Land Unter and Wolfgang Kramer’s 6 Nimmt! — is the missing link.
Overall, trick-taking games seem to be separated from the auction mainstream by a few factors. In trick-taking games …
- Bid Markers are Discrete. You have a hand of (usually) 13 bid markers, can only bid one at a time, and cannot replace them or “make change” for them. These are all very tight constraints for an auction, but there are some serious auction games which offer similar constraints. Reiner Knizia’s Razzia (or Ra if you prefer) is an almost identical example: you get 3-4 bid markers, can only use one on a turn, and can’t replace or exchange them. Reiner Knizia’s High Society is another game that uses discrete bid markers; you have a set of monetary denominations (as cards), and once you’ve put one out, you can’t make change: you either add to your bid, or drop out.
- Bid Markers are Random. Each player receives a random selection of bid markers with notably different valuations. This is pretty unheard of in most pure-auction games. Games like Ra which give out discrete bid markers carefully balance which players get which markers so that they have about the same total value; more often (in games like High Society) people get identical bid marker totals. However, Reiner Knizia’s Money offers a counter-example of an auction where you start off with some random denominations of currency.
- Bidding is Freeform. Unlike in most auctions, if you can’t play a higher bid marker, you’re still required to play some bid marker, which could be lower than the current “going price”.
- Play of Highest Bid Markers is Restricted. Whenever a trick is led the auction is mostly constrained to a set of 13 bid markers (2-A of that suit). However in most trick-taking games there’s a set of higher bid markers (2-A of trump), but they can only be played under certain constraints (being void in the led suit). If we were going to think about trick-taking games as auctions, we could say that each suit is a different currency. This is a similar situation to Reiner Knizia’s Beowulf: The Legend (where you can only play 1-2 suits of cards in any auction) or Reiner Knizia’s Taj Mahal (where the first color of card you play determines what other cards you can play — except for the “trump” white cards).
- All Auctions are All-Payer. This has already been noted, but it’s worth repeating because it’s pretty rare in true auctions. (Fist of Dragonstones being a notable exception.) Whatever bid marker each player puts out is lost, whether they win the auction or not.
As can be seen, though they fit the auction criteria well, trick-taking games also have many of their own rules which tend to further specify the game genre.
I’ve never written about conflict games because I’ve never been convinced that their underlying game design is that interesting. You have units that fight each other. Traditionally, most of the game design is spent on ensuring interesting simulation rather than interesting mechanics. Nonetheless, most people are probably familiar with conflict games because they’ve played Risk. You move plastic markers around to conquer the world.
I don’t want to run through my whole list of auction points again, and I’ll heartily agree that conflict games are a further stretch from auction games than trick-taking games, but nonetheless I think they still have core similarities. In short you’re trying to bid for a commodity — which tends to be territory in most conflict games — and you’re bidding for that territory with army units. Typically, the player with the most units will win any individual bid.
Again it was a “missing link” game which convinced me of the connection, in this case Verrater by Marcel-Andre Casasola Merkle. Verrater is clearly a conflict game. Every turn a battle is fought between two territories. However, rather than having armies each player has “supply cards” numbered between 2 and 8. In turn order (kind of like a trick) each player commits up to 5 of his cards to the battle, on one side of the conflict or the other. When it’s all done, whichever side has the highest total wins the conflict. By stripping away the random element and the geographically constrained element of most conflict games we find something that looks a lot like an auction: you put down your money (supplies) and the highest bidder wins.
Euroclassic Condottiere is even closer to a pure auction design. Again the conflicts are fought with cards, but this time there are some tight constraints (namely that you have to keep playing cards, or drop out, even if you’re winning) that are very reminiscent of the constraints found in many auction games. And, just last night, I played yet another missing-link conflict game, this one Korsar by Reiner Knizia. Here you’re playing pirates fighting over treasure ships, but again the conflict is played out via cards, and again there are tight constraints placed on much card play.
As with trick-taking games, I find that conflict games tend to change the core precepts of auctions in certain ways. In conflict games …
- Bidding Can Be Forced. Usually one player (the attacker) controls how many forces each player will bid by choosing to attack a specific territory with a specific number of units in it.
- Auction Outcome is Partially Randomized. The number of units you bid is a strong indicator of outcome in most conflict games, but there also tends to be a random element (typically one or more dice) which can allow a lesser bid to win against a larger bid.
- Auctions Are Loser Pays. The normal auction idea of a winner paying his bid is turned on its head, and instead the loser pays his bid, typically by removing all of his units. Often the winner has to make a partial payment, based on the strength of the loser.
- Bid Markers Are Geographically Constrained. Each player’s bid markers tend to be geographically constrained: they’re located in certain places on the board and can only be used against nearby units. Some games do minimize this idea, often by allowing large-scale boat movement (as in A Game of Thrones) or just by allowing free reorganization of pieces (as in Attack!‘s “strategic move” action).
As I already said, conflict games are somewhat more removed from the pure-auction core, but at the same time they include enough of the same features that both sets of mechanics — auctions and conflicts — are worth considering when making either type of game.
And finally we come to a third major category of auction-like games: majority-control games. The base idea of a majority-control game is this: there are a variety of territories (or sometimes companies or other virtual entities) which players gain partial control of through specific markers (playing pieces on territories or taking stock in entities), and players are then rewarded depending on whether they have majority, secondary, tertiary, or worse control of the territory or entity.
El Grande is often considered the grandfather of the genre. Here you have a map of Spain and you play caballeros (which are square markers in your color) to the board. Three times during the game all of Spain is scored; in each territory the player with the most caballeros gets a high-point value, the player with the second-most caballeros gets slightly less, and the player with the third-most caballeros usually gets a tiny bit.
El Grande shows a variety of our increasingly familiar “auction” model: each player uses a specific resource (here, caballeros) to take control of valuable commodities (here, victory points), and then the highest bids (here, most caballeros in a territory) always wins. In many ways, majority-control games are also a “missing link” — this time between pure auction games and those more distant conflict games. Because, in majority-control games you tend to have those geographically-constrained bidding markers, but this time you don’t have the randomness or the forced bids (attacks) which make conflict games look somewhat different.
In many ways majority-control games are just a method to play X auctions simultaneously, where X are the number of territories (or virtual entities) which players are fighting for control of.
As with the other games discussed here, majority-control games do tend to have some unique features. In majority-control games …
- Bid Markers Are Geographically Constrained. This matches the conflict games, as noted above. Each bid marker can only be used against other bid markers placed in the same local.
- Auctions Are Usually No Payer. Unlike just about every auction game out there, you usually don’t lose your bid markers when the auction is complete (although some majority-control games, such as Mammoth Hunters do give the possibility for bid marker loss). Really, you could look at this in two ways. On the one hand, you’ve lost your marker because it’s now geographically constrained, making it only useful in that auction. On the other hand, you could just say that you’re holding a bunch of auctions that never end; it just so happens that you get some rewards at benchmarks during the auction.
- Auctions Are Usually Multiple Winner. Most majority-control games recognize 2-3 winners in any territory, but the winning bidder tends to get the most reward, and lesser bidders lesser rewards.
The more I’ve mulled over auctions, the more I’ve been convinced that they are actually a grand-unification element in game design. No, not every game falls back on this sort of highest-bidder wins element, but many do. Doug Orleans gave me yet another example recently when he said, “Rock Paper Scissors is a simultaneous auction with non-monotonic currency.” He’s right.
To a certain extent, this Grand Unification Theory is partially theoretically. It’s amusing and interesting to see how distant games are actually related. However, as a game designer, if you see and understand these similarities it’ll increase the size of your game design repertoire.
Because you realize that they’re related you can put further auction elements into a conflict game, or use common conflict elements in a “pure” auction game. Why not have a reverse-payer conflict-type element in a pure auction game? Or why not have a pure auction game, but use the majority-control element where bids stay out for the whole game? Contrariwise, why not introduce more traditional auction elements into conflict, such as giving players the constant opportunity to up their investment by pulling in troops from nearby territories?
The possibilities of any game design are endless, but outlining & connecting up mechanics give us the opportunity to see many of those possibilities.
Author’s Note: This article is actually drawn from the column that I mention a few times over the course of the article, Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities. It was posted there as article #161 on February 3 of 2005, so it’s roughly contemporary with the other 2005 articles here at Gone Gaming. I choose to post it here, as a December article, to immediately follow my article where I say that Reiner Knizia’s games are all auctions.
The TT&T column was often about computer game design and it was often about very specific and technical game design theory, so though I’ve written a bunch on board games there, I haven’t mirrored most of it over here to Mechanics & Meeples. As I was reentering my 2005 Gone Gaming articles, however, I decided to bring this one over, because I think it offers some interesting views of a few different sorts of games that we play. I’ve got a quartet of articles from 2008 that I’m also planning to bring over to Mechanics & Meeples, and after that I’ll post a table of contents of all the TT&T board game articles, so that you can head over and read the rest if you so desire. —SA, 1/5/11