Post by: Grant Rodiek
Game design peer and fellow farming game designer Doug Bass of Meridae Games asked me the following on Twitter:
To this, I answered yes. Free topic? Oh yeah. He then asked:
Interesting. This isn’t something I’ve explicitly thought about much, but it’s something I imagine I incorporate quite a bit into my designs. Let’s get into it, shall we?
What is a Catch Up Mechanic?
A catch up mechanic is something that exists in the game in order to keep things close and tight until the very end. It’s also referred to rubber-banding as someone can get stretched way far back, then slung forward to the front.
One of the most obvious examples of this can be seen in Mario Kart, the video game. Often, the player in the lead will get weak power ups when in first place. However, the player in last place will tend to get ridiculously powerful abilities. As a result, if you’re in 1st, you need to be good to stay there. This levels the playing field when unevenly skilled players are at it, adds a layer of strategy when advanced players are at it, and frustrates whiners.
To summarize, the catch up mechanic exists to keep one player from sprinting ahead early and staying there. After all, if everyone knows who is going to win 15 minutes into the game, the next 45 minutes (or more) won’t be fun for anyone.
In general, a catch up mechanic will be very frustrating for players more interested in player skill and serious competition when playing. It’ll generally make them feel as if their good play was useless as a bad player can simply catch back up by merely failing the most.
I’d also argue that bad catch up mechanics can be gamed or used as a form of strategy. Generally speaking, you want the player who wins to be the one who played the best (augmented by some degree of luck, which is up to the designer). I think a bad catch up mechanic is one that can be gamed such that savvy players deliberately play poorly knowing they can abuse a catch up mechanic skillfully in order to take the top spot. Granted, if you like such a strategy, perhaps implement it not as a catch up mechanic but an alternate path to victory. It’s a philosophical point, but an important one.
Some Simple, Good Examples
A few simple examples of relatively simple, light catch up mechanics in games include:
- Altering turn order. The value of turn order changes for every game, but it typically revolves around being first or being last. Some games will put the player with the most points in the least advantageous turn order.
- Target the leader. In the case of ties, you’ll see some punitive game events target the leader, or in the case of ties, the leader will suffer the worst.
- Light Bonus. If a player has a bad round, he gains a small bonus to improve his chances in the following round. In The Speicherstadt, players get 1 additional coin at the end of the round if they don’t win any auctions. This is usually not by choice and is such a tiny advantage it doesn’t upset the game. It gives them another tool, not a trophy.
- Incentivize Abilities. In Alien Frontiers, the Raiders’ Outpost costs 3 dice in a straight. It’s not the easiest to pull off. Furthermore, it’s not really a useful action for the player in the lead. It is, however, great for a player who has nothing else to lose and needs to get back in the game.
I generally don’t think to add catch up mechanics to my games. But, I do generally design for close games that come down until the very end before it’s decided. Typically, I do this by limiting player resources and actions. It doesn’t matter how far ahead you are, if you only have so many actions, you can only accomplish so much.
For example, in Farmageddon, players can only play a maximum of 2 Action cards. This means everyone has an equal shake to upset the game. Furthermore, players who get an early start with big crop harvests (Wary Squash is worth $15) often spend a lot of resources to do so. Foreclosure consumes 1-2 crop cards just to use, Crop Rotation costs 1 Crop to use, Foul Manure often costs 2 crops to use, and Wary Squash requires 4 crops to harvest. That means Bob might be way ahead, but he’s also out of gas. I’ve seen players go 3 full rounds without planting anything in Farmageddon come out on top. Every turn matters until the very end.
I limit players in York similarly. For example, all players have a maximum of 15 Units and only a few actions with which to move them. Sure, you can spread thin to hold more territory, but you’ll be an easy target for wolfish opponents. All combat results in attrition, so even if a player wins a battle, he’ll likely need to slow down to replenish Units before returning to the offensive. Finally, there are only 2 scoring rounds, which are spread apart. You may get ahead early, but you’ll need to continue for 3 more rounds before scoring again. A great deal can happen in that time.
Often, when I play a game that feels like a foregone conclusion for much of the experience, I don’t feel it’s in need of a catch up mechanic, but often a little more balance in its core.
Action cards are often a good way to keep everyone in the game, especially powerful, decisive ones. In Forbidden Desert, players gain really powerful cards that essentially multiply the effectiveness of typical actions, but in a very limited sense. If used properly, these help keep the players in the game without removing a challenge.
Another example are the ship/water movement cards in the Birth of America series, specifically 1812: Invasion of Canada and 1775: Rebellion. One side may be dominating a particular area, making it nigh impenetrable by land. Except, the other side will use a warship to ferry an army around your lines to disturb the stalemate. Was it fair? Sure, you knew they had it and that they could use it. You have them too! But, is it a catch up mechanic per se? No. It just keeps the game interesting and eliminates the runaway leader problem.
Having multiple resources is often a good way to keep the race fair. For example, in Settlers of Catan, players will have good resources for 1 or 2 of the resources, but not all of them. This forces trade or expensive dock trade-ins. A player rich in wood will only be rich for so long. In order to build things, she’ll need to part with it in trade.
Another simple way is to use resources to gain resources. Sure, I have a pile of gold. If you force me to spend it to acquire other things, that’ll cap my lead somewhat. This is largely based on tuning, but if you force a constant amount of inputs, nobody can get too far ahead.
It also may be the case that your game simply doesn’t need a catch up mechanic. If the game is short enough, or the information regarding scoring is hidden, you may not need such a mechanic. Often times, the perception of being in the game is just as viable as actually being in the game. In Modern Art, nobody knows how much money everyone else has. Plus, there are so many ways to win that game. I’ve played many times and revealed at the end thinking I was a competitor, only to find I was hundreds of dollars from the winning slot. Did I mind? No, because I had fun the entire time.
Some easy tricks to keep things fair are to change turn order or give very slight bonuses. You can also implement bigger, lower level changes like introducing hidden scoring or allowing for dynamic action cards.
At the end of the day, really think about how players will win the game and what is required of them. Focus on mechanics that keep your players engaged for the duration and limit everyone so that no one player can keep dominating everyone unless you want that.
Ultimately, if you feel your game needs a catch up mechanic, look deeper than the symptoms to find the root case. You may not be in need of a band-aid addition, but a more fundamental change to improve the game.
How did I do, Doug? And everyone else? If you have any good examples of catch up mechanics, share them. If you know of some bad ones, share those too. Chime in!
Good analysis! I was recently thinking about this in connection with the new Vlaada Chvatil game Tash-Kalar, which has a very explicit catch-up mechanism. Each player gets a ‘flare’ card that they can play if the opponent gets too far ahead, and gives them a boost. If you play it you get a new flare card.
You rarely see something as explicit as this. I like Tash-Kalar and enjoyed my one playing of it, but that mechanic strikes me as a little heavy-handed, and indicative that the game design itself is an unstable equalibrium with a runaway leader problem.
((Self-promotion alert!)) We talked about this in episode 3 of Ludology, which spawned the great Power Grid debate.
Thanks for the kind words and for adding an example. I have no problems with pertinent self promotion! Speaking of, as soon as I run through the catalog of my current podcast I believe I’m tackling Ludology next.
The flare cards in Tash-Kalar do sound a little heavy-handed. Hearing this makes me think there may be two categories of catch up mechanics – punish the leader vs. help the loser. Is one better than the other, or perceived differently by players?
I will have to check your coverage of Power Grid in Ludology, as I think that game does it beautifully and I am very interested in this topic.
Thanks for tackling this topic. You did a great job of addressing the potential pitfalls of catchup mechanics and suggesting alternatives. I agree it is a delicate issue that needs to be well thought out and not used as a band aid that will alienate skilled players. But done right, I think it can really enhance a game.
Besides the examples you listed, another one that comes immediately to mind is upkeep. For example, in Agricola, having multiple family members is a huge advantage, but it is offset by the “need to feed”. Stone Age is the same way.
A stellar example of well-done player turn order adjustments is Power Grid; in that game, turn order has so much influence on multiple aspects of the game that it is common for it to be gamed. In this case, I think it only adds to the excitement and I cannot imagine the game without it.
Both of these games are examples of catchup mechanics done right. Without them, both games would be very different and probably not as enjoyable.
Thanks again for taking on this topic!
The catch-up mechanics in Power Grid (giving advantageous turn order to the players further behind) are obvious but well done. Turn-order advantage in that game is significant but someone has to go first or last. It might as well be the player that needs the help.
Catch-up mechanics can be implemented poorly. There is another game, which i would prefer not to name at the moment, that has several heavy-handed catch-up mechanics. Other aspects of the game I like, but I just can’t play it because it feels like it doesn’t matter how well I do.
And finally, I’d like to emphasize that point you made about secret information. I can think of several games where a significant part of the scoring is calculated at the end or kept secret until the end. This maintains the tension without forcing scores to be closer.
Nice write-up, Grant.
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Good post as usual! Often the best approach to a catch up mechanic is just to identify and eliminate/modify what’s causing the runaway leader problem. Usually this is a positive feedback loop. Scale back or eliminate the loop or apply a negative feedback loop to regulate it. (I sound like a broken record)
I was going to write about negative and positive feedback loops for this post as they are often a root cause of runaway leader issues. But, I didn’t want to just rehash what you already said so well! I should link it.