Five Designs of Dutch Auctions

Merchants of AmsterdamAuctions have faded a bit from the euro-scene. They were a prime euro-mechanic during the genre’s youth, but pure auction games like High Society (1995) and For Sale (1997) soon turned into auction hybrids like Amun-Re (2003). Then auctions became just another mechanic — a part of more complex games like Age of Steam (2002) — and even that has mostly disappeared in the modern day.

There’s one prime exception: a style of auction that has survived well into the present day. It’s called the Dutch Auction, and I think it’s survived better than standard auctions because it can be so tightly integrated into a game that you might not even realize it’s an auction at all.

In a Dutch Auction, prices on an item drop until someone decides to purchase it. That’s its power: there’s only one bid, none of this round-after-round silliness that can go on forever. If done well, it can look like a purchase — not an auction at all; the price just happens to drop as part of the normal flow of turns. And that’s how some of the best Dutch Auction games of recent years have done it.

I’ve listed five of them below, arranged in ascending order of elegance.. By chance it’s also a climb toward in the modern day. This isn’t unusual in designs: I think it shows how the use of the mechanic has matured over time.

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The Alea Analysis, Part One: Ra (#1), Chinatown (#2), Taj Mahal (#3)

Over the course of 2009, I deliberately played through all 22 games then published by Alea, from Reiner Knizia’s Ra to the brand-new Alea Iacta Est. As I played each game, I wrote an analysis of it at my livejournal. If you wish, you can still read the original 22 Alea posts there.

Rather than keep all that material locked up on a non-gaming site, I’ve decided to bring it over here, where I’ll be revising and regularizing the content to make it into a more coherent series. So, here is the first of several articles on Alea, based on my thoughts from a couple of years back. I’ll be publishing more every 2 or 4 weeks, so as not to dominate the blog with this material. Continue reading

Reiner Knizia’s Amun-Re: Still Innovative after All These Years

Though the Cult of the New ever dominates eurogame play, I increasingly find myself returning to the classics at least once or twice each month. That’s what brought me back to Reiner Knizia’s Amun-Re a few weeks ago.

I’ve always liked the game — with its combination of bidding and resource management — but during my last play I was really struck by how well Knizia has designed the game’s auctions.

So, I wanted to talk about that briefly this week, to highlight what I think is some cool game design that I’d love to see more of.

The Province Auction

The heart of the game is the province auction, where the players bid on the a number of provinces until each player is the sole winner of one of them.

Here’s some of the stuff that I think really works in the auction:
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Burning Freeways and Blind Bids! (Or: Real Life Auctions)

A week and a half ago a major interchange in the California Bay Area literally melted in a hellish inferno. Following a single-vehicle tanker truck crash, over eight thousand gallons of gasoline lit on fire, resulting in temperatures in excess of 2750° bathing the freeway. The metal frames holding the I-580 overpass together began to warp, and then one segment of the overpass came down in a thundering crash.

As part of the infamous MacArthur Maze (which I pass through every week on a BART train on my way to EndGame and back), the I-580 overpass was a central part of the road system which moved traffic between the East Bay and San Francisco, and suddenly it was gone. Dire predictions were made on the effects on traffic. Thus far, it’s apparently been bad, but not terrible thanks to Bay Area companies’ willingness to allow employees to telecommute and our decent public transit system.

Nonetheless, the I-580 overpass needs to rebuild and quickly. How can you find the company that could do it the quickest and cheapest? The answer was … an auction.

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Auctions: Bidding on Fun, Part Two

Knucklebones: March, 2007This is a reprint of an article written in October, 2006 for first publication in the March, 2007 issue of the now-defunct Knucklebones magazine. Because of its origins, this article is more introductory and (hopefully) more polished than many of my online writings. Despite the original source of this article, this blog is in no way associated with Jones Publishing or Knucklebones Magazine.

This article continues on from Part One, which discussed the various types of auctions found in games. This second Part highlights eight of the best auction games that were available for purchase in late 2006.


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Auctions: Bidding on Fun, Part One

Knucklebones: March, 2007This is a reprint of an article written in October, 2006 for first publication in the March, 2007 issue of the now-defunct Knucklebones magazine. Because of its origins, this article is more introductory and (hopefully) more polished than many of my online writings. Despite the original source of this article, this blog is in no way associated with Jones Publishing or Knucklebones Magazine.


“And what I am bid for this fine replica Napoleonic sword? 5? 5? I have 5. 10? Do I hear 10? 10. 15? 15 to the lady in red. 20? Do I hear 20? How about 25?I have two 25s!”

Auctions are an element of modern life, from the cheap knockoffs being sold en masse at your local flea market, to the sale of Picasso’s “Dora Maar with Cat” last year, auctioned by Sotheby’s for $95 million. The ever-popular eBay is an auction service as are the zShops at Amazon, which jointly lower their prices until they find a sale point.

The point of an auction is simple: to allow multiple buyers to compete fairly for the purchase of a limited good — or alternatively to allow multiple sellers to compete fairly for a sale to limited purchasers. Auctions quickly achieve balance in a world of unequal supply and demand.

Because of the innate competition that they embody, auctions are also great systems to include in games. A few American classics feature them, but they’ve become even more popular among modern designer games.

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Anatomy of a Game: Blue Moon

Blue MoonTwo weeks ago, Joe Gola published a review of Blue Moon, Reiner Knizia’s customizable card game. It’s been a game that’s been on my mind lately too. This week I ‘d like to take a step beyond Joe’s introduction (for which, see his article, or else my own review of the game), and instead dig a little deeper to discover what really makes Blue Moon tick, starting with a look at how it really is acustomizable auction game, not a CCG.

Blue Moon as an Auction

In my overview of Reiner Knizia I made the contention that most of his games are actually auction games, but from the comments on that article I could tell that my point wasn’t entirely clear. Fortunately, Blue Moon offers a terrific example of how an otherwise unique-looking game can be based on pure auction mechanics.

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