I was unsure about whether to include this in my “Good Games Are Balanced” series. I decided against it. Although catch up mechanics can lessen the impact of a poorly balanced game, and one of the techniques even has “balance” in the title, this is a different topic.
What Is a Catch Up Mechanic?
Catch up mechanics, (or mechanisms as defined by people who get easily confused between game features and people who work on cars,) is any game feature that allows the person losing to have a chance of victory. Mechanic (or mechanism) is difficult to define on its own, so I won’t do that here.
“There Is No Such Thing as a Catch Up Mechanic”
This phrase has been thrown around a lot, and there is quite a lot of profound truth to it. The idea is that if you can easily catch up, you’re not far behind. If it’s impossible for you to catch up, you’re not even in the race any more.
This highlights a very important point that the person who is closest to the finish line isn’t always the person most likely to win the race. It reminds us that people’s relative positions on the track isn’t as important as estimated chances of them winning from their current state.
However profound, the phrase still exists and it’s still useful. We just need to stop thinking about “catching up” in a strictly physical sense, and think about it in a “probability of winning” sense.
Probability Of Winning
Imagine you are about to play one of your favourite games with a close friend. What’s your probability of winning? This depends on how skilled you both are at it. If it’s below 5% you may not even bother to play. Still, assume you’re both fairly evenly matched, so it’s 50%.
Now the game is set up, you randomly determined player turn order and your opponent is going first. So your probability of winning has now dropped to 48%, because this is a game where it’s good to go first.
Some time has passed and you’re looking over the board. You estimate your chances of winning are 34%, but then you notice a good move. Suddenly your chances of winning are 78%. This number is continuously getting higher as the game ends, with you eventually winning on 100%.
Sounds like it could’ve been a good game.
Probability Of Winning In a Bad Game
Here are some examples:
- You determine that you are get the first move. Your probability of winning is now 100%
- You are several turns in and, after a critical error, your probability of winning is now 0%, but you are required to keep playing to the end.
- Five players, the probability of each player winning is 20%. A few turns into the game, the probability of everyone winning is still 20% each. Mid game, still 20% each. Final round, still 20% each. Someone wins, so it’s 100%, 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%. It’s exciting if a game plays like that every once in a while, but if every game always plays like that, why not just set up the final turn and start the game there?
When To Use Catch Up Mechanics
Catch up mechanics bring everyone’s chances of winning closer to even. This can be useful in the first two examples above. The example of everyone having the same chance of winning until the last turn is an extreme example of overdoing it.
How much catchup to add depends on the type of players.
Some players enjoy a friendly social game where everyone gets a turn to win. For that audience, go heavy handed on catch up mechanics.
Some players think that games should be a pure test of skill. Therefore, the more skilled player must always win, and the less skilled player must always lose. You may think that “chess” fits this description, but compared with the game of “go” or perhaps a university mathematics exam, the chances of the less skilled player winning at chess can be quite high. My hypothetical extreme example of this, is a game called “who is taller?” Players skilled at being taller tend to always beat those who lack this skill. Such an extreme lack of chance would never be fun, but that only serves to illustrate my point.
Player Balance. Simply by letting players choose who they want to help and who they want to hinder, you can be sure that the person who is winning will be knocked back into place. Be careful though. This can very easily be overdone, leading to the 20%, 20%, 20%, 20%, 20% scenario. (That said, Munchkin fans never seem to notice this problem.) Also, it doesn’t work for 2 players.
Luck. Adding dice generally works as a catch up mechanic. If you’re losing, you want as much randomness as you can get. You’ve already lost, so it doesn’t matter if you start losing more. Adding luck and chaos to the mix can turn your 0% chance of winning into a 10% chance.
Bonuses and Penalties. You can rule that the person winning will always get a penalty and the person losing will always get a bonus. That’s great, but there are three things to keep in mind:
- Does it make sense, within the context of the game?
- How will it change player strategy? Is it now better to stay behind then pull out for the victory last minute? Is the game still fun when everyone is trying this?
- Are you overdoing it?
What do you think?
How much catch up mechanic suits your taste? How do you like to add/remove catch up features? Do you agree with me?