Helping Losers

What’s the worst part about losing?

Unless you’re playing in some sort of gladiatorial win-or-die arena battle, it’s probably the experience of knowing you’re going to lose, then having to play on for hours more. As you’d expect, the problem gets worse both the longer a game is and the more strategic (and less random) a game is.

Fortunately, many games have catch-up mechanisms built into them. They’re generally an element that I appreciate greatly in games. On the other hand, you also have to be pretty careful. Between El Grande (a game which is overly tense because of the catchup mechanism) and Liberte (a game which I recently played where I admired the catchup mechanism), there’s room for both bad and good, and that’s what I’m going to talk about this week.

Beat Up on the Leader

Many older wargames have a pretty singular catch-up method: you wait until you see a leader, then you beat him like a drum. In the Euro-field, Vinci and El Grande are two games that feature this element in a pretty notable way. It’s also a major element in most of the hobbyist American games, including examples such as MunchkinIlluminati, and others. There it’s typically called “take-that” play.

Generally, the beat-the-leader catch-up mechanism is not something I’m very fond of. One of the biggest problems is that these games tend to both show off their scores prominently and make it really easy for multiple players to gang up on a leader. As a result, if you get an early lead in El Grande or Vinci, it’s almost a death sentence. I’ve seen a canny player manage to hold his lead from turn one, but it’s really difficult.

Now some players may find this sort of play interesting. As in a bicycle race, you have to pick the right time to sprint ahead of the pack. However, I personally prefer a game where I can play well from the start rather than having to pretend that I’m the crippled bird for the first two-thirds of the game. The overly strong ability to catch-up in most beat-up-on-the-leader games generally leads to one of my personal requirements for a good catch-up mechanism: it shouldn’t be overpowering.

I feel like leads need to mean something, and that catching up should be possible, but definitely a difficult path, not the expected result.

Obvious Mechanics

Having covered the almost accidental beat-up-the-leader catch-up mechanism, let’s now move on to catch-up mechanics more purposefully built into a game. The easiest way to help a loser catch up is to explicitly give him something. One of my most recently reviewed games, Scandaroon, was what really showed this mechanic off to me. If you’re in last place in this card management game, you get to draw an extra card.  You can see the same idea in Torres, where the losing player gets to place the king each round.

Generally, this mechanic meets some of the criteria for a good catch-up mechanism: it allows catching up and it’s not overpowering. However, I don’t like the fact that the reward offered to the last place player is so obvious. It feels a bit like a sop: “oh, you’re doing so badly that you need help.” On the other hand, it’s so very explicit that you might try and shoot for that target as part of your gameplay. In Torres if you can end up in last place by one point just before the last round, you could easily turn that into a 15-point advantage with a great king placement.

Organic Mechanics

The next step up in my ladder of catch-up mechanisms is the “organic” one. Herein there’s a mechanism that affects everyone based on their score positioning, with people being benefited more the further back they are. Martin Wallace’s Age of Steam is one of the most obvious examples: the more money you’re earning, the more you get set back every turn. I’ve also seen racing games of various sorts that occasionally reward players depending on how far back they are.

Again, this meets some basic criteria: it’s not too overpowering (in the general case), but it does allow some hope. It’s not as soppy as just helping the last-place player, but it’s also not as elegant. This is because games with organic catch-up mechanisms tend to have numerous breakpoints where earning a single point can sometimes put you into a disadvantage (as is definitely the case with Age of Steam). You can game this, but if you’re going to do that anyway, I prefer the “obvious” mechanic; at least in that situation there’s some uncertainty (as someone else might be pushing for last too).

I’ve complained about the “obvious” and “organic” methods, but they’re both better than nothing (and better than pure beat-up-the-leader). Sure, they’re sometimes clunky, but they at least serve their base purpose. However with all that said, I do have a preferred method for regularly helping out losers, and that’s the invisible mechanic.

Invisible Mechanics

Look, nothing up my sleeve, and *poof* the loser is slowly catching up.

Games implement an invisible catch-up mechanism by integrating advantages given to the losers so deeply into the gameplay that you might not even see them accruing. I think one of the best methods for doing this is by mucking with turn order. This is because turn order is at least one step removed from doing well in a game: it’s not immediately obvious that going first or last might be good. On the other hand, it can make a pretty huge difference. Martin Wallace’s Liberte is the game I played most recently where going last was a huge advantage that was handed to the last-place player.

Alexander the Great was an interesting game from a couple of years ago that sort of did the same thing, but with a twist. The last-place player usually went last, but everyone had a chance to bid resources to get a better turn order position — with only the winner doing so. Thus, it was a double-benefit for the last-place player, with both benefits pretty invisible. On the one hand, he probably ended up going next-to-last (following the winner of the bid) and on the other hand most of his opponents bid resources, improving his position even more against them.

I’m sure there are other great invisible mechanisms for helping last-place players catch up, and I’m eager to hear discussions of your favorites.

Around the Corner

For those of you interesting in roleplaying games, I recently conducted an interview with Martin J. Dougherty, a writer for the Traveller universe over the last several years.  My recent reviews include Bacchus’ Banquet, a super-light but innovative filler, and Scandaroon, an equally unique card game.

I’ve been off the last couple of weeks in promising what I have coming next, so I’ll simply say that future topics that I want to cover include more small-press, the glut of dice games, and the evolution of the role-selection mechanic.

Author’s Notes: I find the complaints about the beat-up-the-leader element of Vinci interesting, because when it was revamped as Small World (2009), this was one of the problems that the author tackled. His solution to keep players from beating up on the leader: he simply hid the victory points. Still, there’s some opportunity to catch-up: players will attack the person they perceive to be winning, but it’s not nearly as sure of a thing, and so not as constant. Call it “Beat Up on the Hidden Leader”, perhaps. I definitely like the game much better now. —SA, 7/19/15

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