Implementing a Catch Up Mechanism
After playtesting at the UKGE, I got a lot of really useful feedback for my current design 'One Last Heist'. I learnt a lot from the process, which I captured in my last post here, but today I wanted to focus on how I took the feedback and implemented it into my game, focusing specifically on what I thought about when adding a catch up mechanism in the game.
What is a catch up mechanism and why did I need one?
A catch up mechanism is used in games to prevent a 'runaway leader', where one player gets so far ahead no-one else feels that they are able to win.
A great quote for designer Reiner Knizia helps demonstrate this "When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning". Its very important that players always feel that that can achieve this goal, if they don't playing the game becomes a chore.
One Last Heist plays over 3 rounds, with players scoring loot tokens by winning heists each round. One piece of feedback I received, both verbally and through watching the game being played, was that players could feel despondent if they lost too many heists in a round, which lead me to investigate what catch up mechanisms I could implement and whether or not they were suitable.
Types of catch up mechanisms
Many games implement some form of catch up mechanic, I've summarised some of the main ones here, and whether or not they were applicable to my game. Let me know in the comments which ones I've missed!
Player driven catch up mechanisms
In some games, such as King of Tokyo, when it becomes clear than one player is ahead, other players can resolve to focus their efforts on preventing that player from winning. The success of this is heavily dependent on the game, as well as the temperament of the players as it is a heavily interactive form of player balancing.
Increasing the value of objectives as the game progresses
Games with multiple rounds, or an ongoing roster of objectives, can make each subsequent round count more towards victory than the last. In this way, if a player has not succeeded initially, they know that the following rounds may be worth enough to make up for their shortfall. The scale at which this is done differs, with Wingspan increasing the victory point value of communal objectives each round. There is a balancing act in player with this approach, as players have to feel that each round is worth winning.
Providing additional support to players that are behind
In games where the current leader is public information, other players can be rewarded with additional support. This can come in forms like being placed first in the turn order (Fresca), to getting additional resources or abilities to help you gain more points in following round. I think care has to be taken to ensure the support doesn't feel like you are punishing the players in first place, and that the rewards too exciting that it promotes players trying to end up behind.
Hiding the score
While this isn't necessarily a catch up mechanism, I think that its worth talking about as it tackles the same problem. If you can clearly see that you are behind, it can make you feel like the situation is hopeless, but by masking this information it can make both players feel like they are in the running if the scores are relatively close. This can be done partially, through the use of secret objectives that are reveal at the end of the game, or fully by having players count their entire score when the game finishes. This tends to only work in games where the scores are hard to track, and does still require the scores to be relatively close for the tension to remain.
Slowing down the leader
This is a form of catch up mechanic that, rather than provide benefits to players that are behind, adds additional obstacles to the players in front. The player who is first to a set number if victory point cards wins in the deck builders like Dominion and Arctic Scavengers, however these cards serve no other purpose in your hand and slow down the progress of the players as they collect more. In some ways this type of mechanism can be used simply to give the appearance of a tighter race, as all players will eventually have to get over these same obstacles.
What I implemented and why
For One Last Heist, I have decided to implement the following in the next playtest sessions:
All loot tokens (victory points) will be placed in a players individual loot bag (hiding the score)
The loot tokens available each round will increase each time (Increasing the value of objectives as the game progresses)
I had a few criteria when reviewing what catch up mechanics to use. I didn't want to add a large number additional components to the game as I want to keep the price point low and the box small. The burlap loot bags complement the theme and also double as storage for the tokens in the box. As the game is relies on out guessing your opponent, adding more characters or providing abilities to players that are behind also added additional randomness that I wanted to avoid.
What did I learn?
Giving the appearance of a tight race, or masking who is winning, can be used as effectively as an actual catch-up mechanic
A balance must be struck between making sure players always feel they have a chance, without making decisions too meaningless by rewarding players that are behind too heavily
I should focus on balancing my game where I can first, before committing to any form of catch up mechanic