Set Collection Deep Dive
Whether its the mechanic upon which a whole game revolves around or just a part of a big box game, set collection is one of the most common and popular mechanisms in board games today. Whilst the name itself is a give away, set collection boils down to players gathering groups of like items in order to achieve a larger goal within the game. This can be from gathering trains to create routes in Ticket to Ride, to creating sets of tiles mosaic tiles in Azul. The purpose of this article is to go in to what makes set collection so popular, and what I can learn from the success stories when designing my own game.
So what's the attraction?
With set collection appearing in some format in such a wide variety of many games, it's worth asking why, and I think there are a few reasons.
Ease of designer implementation
Resources that can be traded and spent are a common feature in modern games, so adjusting your game so that players are rewarded for hoarding sets is easy to implement from a designers point of view without adding extra player admin. If alternative scoring opportunities are required, or an additional area of player competition, then set collection will often allow for both of these with little to no added complexity.
Ease of player comprehension
Set collection is often found in lighter, 'gateways games', and there's good reason for this. Collecting groups of like items is extremely easy for new players to understand. Even classic family games like Monopoly (sorry but I refuse to link this one) take advantage of this with the coloured sets of properties. Mechanisms that are easy to pick up and don't get in the way of the core fun of the game are key for new player enjoyment, and there are few simpler and more intuitive than set collection.
Scratching the itch
So set collection is easy to implement and understand, but that doesn't make it enjoyable. Hobbyists from all walks of life pride themselves on set collection, and it seems there is some human need to complete sets of items. Board games have capitalised on this, scratching this itch to complete a group, often rewarding players for getting that final piece.
So what makes a good one?
Now that we have an idea of why the mechanic is so prevalent, lets look into examples of some good ones. This mechanic requires some kind of obstruction to players completing sets that has to be overcome, making the feeling doing so that much more enjoyable. Designers over the years have added this in a number of ways:
You love completing sets, but unfortunately so does your opponent. This influences your decision on what resources to go for, both in terms of adding to your own sets and preventing your opponents completing theirs. If you know your opponent is already close to completing a set, this will put you off going for it yourself, but is it worthwhile taking one just to make their life a little more difficult? This player competition can also force up the price players have to pay to collect a set, which leads up onto:
This often takes the form of a market of cards that all players have access to, for example the worker placement game Stone Age. This utilises a market where the price of cards is dependent on how long it has been available to players. This lets players decide how much they are willing to invest in order to add to their set, but in waiting to purchase a card to get it cheaper they may allow an opponent to take it from them, adding a great source of tension.
Risk vs reward
The fingerprints of the 'push you luck' feeling can often be found all over the set collection mechanic. Many games make completing sets a dangerous endeavour, forcing players to risk big to win big. Jaipur, Archaeology and Sushi go are but 3 games that utilise set collection with a backdrop of risk management. Sushi Go and Archaeology both have cards that only reward players when the full set is reached, meaning if your plans are thwarted your two sashimi's or pieces of a broken pendant are next to worthless.
Both these games implement a way of stopping players from filling their sets, players drafting cards from under you in Sushi Go, and the ever feared sandstorm in Archaeology. Both of these loom heavy over players when making their decision, weighing it up against the promise of points if you can just can that final item. Other examples of this are the train routes in Ticket to Ride, which may see your lines be blocked off if you wait too long for a longer route, or high scoring but challenging objective cards in Tides of Time.
Does it work at 2 players?
Set collection at 2 player can run into a number of challenges, some of which I have touched on in my previous post on drafting here. For set collection to work there has to be sufficient demand for the items available players are collecting, which you risk losing when reducing the player count. The larger Ticket to Ride maps can suffer from a lack of competition, meaning players have little to obstruct them from completing their goals.
The previously mentioned Archaeology reduces the number of items available at 2 players, and Jaipur ensures a constantly rotating market through the use of camels. Only having one player to focus on can also magnify the negative player interaction, as you know exactly what sets they are going for, so this should be considered when deciding what feelings you want to invoke from a game.
What have I learnt?
To summarise what I have learnt when looking into this mechanic:
Collecting sets is an intuitive and rewarding mechanic for new players
For the feeling of completing a set to be enjoyable, there needs to be something that's trying to stop you
This can come from the game in the form of investment cost or the risk of losing your set, or from the actions taken by other players
For this to work at two players, there needs to be sufficient competition for what you are collecting
I hope this article has been useful, and would welcome ideas on what you think makes this such an appealing mechanism and some of your favourite examples. To keep up to date, sign up to updates below: