Gift Giving Mechanics in Games

1257675768969338833secretlondon_red_present.svg.medLast week I offered up a gift guide for Christmas giving. This week I’m going to continue the seasonal theme by looking at gift-giving as a game mechanic.

Sure, it’s hard to fashion pure gift-giving into a mechanic, because in that pure form it’s theoretically altruistic — offered with no expectation of recompense. But, that isn’t how gift-giving really works, especially not when it gets wound up into societal holidays like Christmas, where gift-giving becomes an expectation.

When you add expectations and recompense in to the idea of gift-giving, then you have something more like a game mechanic. I’m thus going to look at the few games I know of that have used these various elements …

Oasis (Überplay, 2004)
Alan Moon & Aaron Weisblum

In Oasis (or Desert Oasis if you prefer), each player lays out a gift (called an “offering” in the rules). This gift is made up of cards that are drawn blindly, but they come from the player’s own offering deck, which is a limited supply, and the player gets to decide whether the offering should contain 1, 2, or 3 cards.

Then, each player chooses one of the offerings in “priority” order. As the players do so, they each give their priority token to the player whose offering they took — which will give those players priority in the next round.

I think that Oasis could easily have become a trading game. However, by using the intermediary of a priority token it delays the gratification of giving a good gift, thus tweaking the mechanic enough — in my mind at least — to make it true gift giving. It’s a cool mechanic and (IMO) a woefully under-appreciated game.

I think that the core mechanic also gives one of the best methods for incorporating gift giving into a game. You require everyone to do it, then you offer a recompense that’s something more than just an in-kind present. Here that recompense is effectively the opportunity to choose a good present in a future round.

Which is as close as I’ve ever seen to a mechanical representation of in-kind gift giving.

Catan Scenarios: Frenemies of Catan (Mayfair, 2012)
Benjamin Teuber

In this brand-new Catan scenario a player is rewarded with a random favor token when he either gives away a resource card to a player (and they accept it) or else when he moves the robber harmlessly. Those favor markers can then be turned in for pretty good stuff like free cards or even victory points.

This generally follows the same design pattern used in Oasis: you give something away, then you get something back that may be of use. I like the fact that the giving is so seemingly altruistic, and I also like the fact that the favor token you get is random, suggesting that you don’t always get what you want when you give something away.

Frenemies also has a sort of interesting third way to gain favor markers: you connect up your network of roads and towns with someone else. Now that doesn’t sound like a favor, but what happens next does: you get 3 favor markers and they get 1. Doing something that helps you a lot and someone else a little is certainly a staple of board games, but Frenemies make it sufficiently blatant that it pushes the idea further toward gift giving.

White Elephant Gift Exchange (Common, 18??)

My first two gift-giving game mechanics were both focused on encouraging people to give gifts (and offering something in return). The White Elephant Gift Exchange — which is a common “parlor game” rather than a published game design — instead spices up the gift-taking mechanic.

The core mechanic is simple. Players open gifts in a selected order. On your turn you can either open a new gift or take a gift from someone else. There are often additional rules or variants, usually limiting how many times a player can have a gift taken from them or else how many times a specific gift can be taken.

I’ve actually seen this mechanism used in an actual game — the Big Brother reality TV show. Usually players are given gifts as they are knocked out of a competition. Some gifts are bad and some gifts are good. The last person in the competition therefore gets the last choice of gift (and presumably the best stuff). However I think there’s the opportunity for interesting tactics even before that point. For example, if you take a great gift early in the competition, you’re increasing your chance of getting handed off something random (which could be bad), whereas if you keep a mediocre gift you’re more likely to stick with that. It’s solid risk-reward play.

Final Notes

I think there’s ample room for more games that use gift-giving mechanics. Oasis and Frenemies both show one side of the problem: how to encourage gift-giving and how to give something in return that doesn’t make it feel solely like a trade. They also both push on the idea that what you get in return is sort of random, rather than something that’s purely predictable. The White Elephant Gift Exchanges meanwhile show some interesting mechanic nuances that you can add on after the initial gift-giving.

And that’s my seasonal two-cents on gift giving in games. Happy Holidays & I’ll see you in the New Year!

4 thoughts on “Gift Giving Mechanics in Games

  1. Count me in as someone else who doesn’t under appreciate Oasis. I love that game and find it so unique… (there is a bit of overlap with San Marco, but not significant.)

  2. You should give Confucius a look if you haven’t already; gift-giving is pretty central to the game.

    Each player has six gifts, valued 1-6. You start with your 1-value gift available, and the others have to be bought before they can be given away.

    If you give someone a gift, they have certain obligations to you; they must play cards to support your students in an exam, they must lend their influence to you in the majority-control mchanic, they can’t bribe more officials than you. Plus you get more actions depending on how many gifts you’ve given and received.

    The easiest way to get rid of an obligation, of course, is to give a better gift in return.

  3. Pingback: New to Me: Fall 2013 | Mechanics & Meeples

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