Catch Up Mechanics

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.

Common Methods

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:

  1. Does it make sense, within the context of the game?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?


Good Games Are Balanced: Part 2, Player Choices

Underpowered Choices

Games present players with choices. If option B is always bad, there is no sense wasting space, ink and player brain power by writing the rules for it. (For example, in the game, “The Game of Life”, you can skip college and get a job. There is no situation where this is ever a good idea, which makes me wonder if colleges helped to fund the printing cost of this game. As an educational experience, it works, but as a game, it’s broken.)

Degenerate Strategies

Worse than an option that’s always the worst, is an option that’s always the best. This means that all other options aren’t even worth learning. A degenerate strategy is a simple strategy that also happens to be the best strategy you can have. Named as such because a complex game degenerates into choosing the obvious answer and resolving everything according to the rules.

Perfect Balance

This is bad also. If you were given the choice between collecting three yellow tokens, and three green tokens, but colour isn’t important, choosing is optional. You could choose randomly, or even tell your opponent to make the choice for you. It may seem obvious in that example, but in far more complex games there can be choices that don’t impact a player’s chance of winning. Once a player learns a choice is meaningless, it stops being fun. (Though such choices can be lots of fun before players figure it out.)

So What’s Good Then?

An option is bad if it’s always strong, weak or balanced. So, if it’s always anything, it’s bad.

The fun in a game comes from options that are sometimes good and sometimes bad. Try to have this be obvious in some situations, (to help new players feel smart,) but not obvious in all situations, (to help smart players feel smarter). You know you’ve done this right if there are situations where even you have absolutely no idea which option is better. This means the game can still be enjoyable for people who are better at it than you are.

How Do I Do That?

Complicate things. Add rules that change the best option. A good example of this is found in “Settlers of Catan”.

In Settlers of Catan, you could begin by building as many settlements as possible, or by using ore and wheat to upgrade your two settlements into cities. Which start strategy is better? That depends on how easy it is to find ore. If there is lots of ore, upgrade everything to cities. If ore is hard to get, build settlements. The tiles are normally placed randomly at the start of the game, so some games have more ore available than others.

Likewise, when you add things to your game, add them in a way that changes what the best option is, but not so much as to always make it obvious which option is now better.

Add auctions. Auctions are perfect when there is an option that’s better, but no one is sure how much better. If players need to bid certain amounts of game money, time or victory points to choose first, the game becomes more interesting. Sure, option A might be better, but is it still better if it costs a dollar? What about two dollars? Three dollars?

When designing around auctions, balance doesn’t matter any more. An option can be obviously better, but it must be difficult to work out exactly how much better. (And it can’t be so good as to be worth spending all the money you have on it.)

Reward Players for Taking Unpopular Options. This idea has been used many times in many ways, but a good example is to place a dollar on every option that wasn’t chosen. Next turn, if you chose an option that wasn’t chosen last turn, you get a dollar. If an option isn’t chosen twice in a row, it gets a second dollar.

What Do You Think?

DId I miss anything? Do you agree? How do you handle the balance between player choices?

Good Games are Balanced: Part 1, Player Special Abilities

What Is Balance?

Balanced and unbalanced can refer to many things in a game. Sadly, people don’t always say which. In this post, I’m only covering player special abilities, but always ask what was unbalanced.

Player special abilities are balanced if all players of the same skill level have the same probability of winning.

“But My Game Doesn’t Have Player Special Abilities”

Does one of the players have a turn before another one? Well, in the context of this article, going first counts as a special ability, so listen up.

What Player Special Abilities Aren’t

There is no global definition for “player special ability”, but for the sake of this post, I’m defining it to mean an ability that a player gains before the game has begun.

The ability for a promoted checker to jump backwards doesn’t count as a special ability, as it was an ability that was earned, not an ability the player began with.

An ability that all players have isn’t a player special ability either, even if the ability was determined before the game.

How Important Is Balance?

This depends on the style of play. If the game, like chess, is designed to test who is smarter, knowing that white is expected to win 55% of the time can cheapen white’s victory. If it’s more of a party style game, where the outcome is forgotten, as the game is more about having a laugh, it’s not worth adding complicated rules to fix the balance issues.

Sometimes, you may even want an imbalanced game. Suppose you have created a game where a large group of players all play against one overlord, who commands hundreds of evil monsters. Perhaps you want the heroes to win 50% of the time and the overlord to win 50% of the time, or maybe you don’t.

Given that the overlord will probably be the most complicated role to play, it will probably be played by the most experienced player. Maybe you need to balance for this, giving the heroes an extra advantage.

Also consider, the overlord is just one experienced player, while everyone else is a large number of people who haven’t bought a copy yet. From a business perspective, who should you give the victory to? One person who already has a copy of the game, or five potential customers?

Making Player Special Abilities Balancable

When thinking up a special ability, it’s usually good to have part of it undecided, better still if it’s a number.

Perhaps you have a special ability where a player is the fastest. Knowing your game, you know that if your player could travel as fast as they want, they’d win every time. If they moved slightly faster, they’d often lose, because they have the worst special ability. That’s perfect. All you need to do is work out how fast and you’re done.

Perhaps you have another ability called “death punch”. A player needs to get very close to make a death punch, but if he does, he wins. The trouble with this ability is it doesn’t have any numbers in it. You may still be able to balance it, but it won’t be as easy. Either you’ll get lucky and find that it’s already balanced, or you’ll have to change the numbers in the rest of the game to fit the ability.

Generally speaking, large numbers are easier to balance than small. Suppose the fast character could move two spaces instead of one. If this is too powerful, there isn’t much you can do, unless you’re ready to write rules for moving one and a half spaces. Suppose, however, the fast character moves 37 spaces instead of 25. If that’s too powerful, you can still try 36.


Suppose a character in your game has the “death punch” ability. Suppose you learn it is lots of fun to play with, lots of fun to play against, but the player with “death punch” normally wins. Death punch has no numbers to play with, so you can’t make it weaker, but you don’t want to give it up either, because it’s fun. This is where penalties come in.

In this example, you could have a penalty state that the player with death punch can’t move as fast, or can’t hold as many things. So long as the player doesn’t win more or less than his fair share of the time, it doesn’t matter how you achieve it.

Balancing With Mathematics

If you can make your game perfectly balanced using some simple mathematics, you probably have an extremely boring special ability. (Or, you’re designing a game for young children.) However, mathematics can be useful for estimating balance, but normally it won’t be perfect. Your first prototype should be balanced with mathematics if possible. (How to do that is worthy of several more articles which I won’t cover here.)

Balancing Through Play-Test

This is how the professionals do it. Play the game, write down who won and what special abilities they had. Swap around everyone’s special abilities, repeat. You may get a strong sense from just a few plays, but the more plays you can get, the more balanced your game will be.

Balance Shift Through Skill Level

There is a children’s game called “Hare and Hounds”. The aim of the hare is to escape the hounds by getting to the far end of the play area. The aim of the hounds is to work together as a team to make sure the hare has no possible means of achieving this.

When played between young children, the hare normally wins. This is because the goal of the hare is simple, while the hounds need a carefully thought out strategy that has a provision for every possible contingency. Played between adults, the hound always wins, as the hounds are much more powerful when used by an advanced player.

Likewise, a game balanced with beginners may unbalance as they gain experience. Also, a game balanced for experts may not feel balanced to beginners.

Some games do this on purpose and some games actively avoid it. Regardless of if you want your balance to shift with skill level or not, it’s important to know if it shifts, and in which direction.

Balance in Cooperative Play

A similar definition applies in games where everyone wins or loses together. You measure balance by comparing how often each different combination of special abilities wins.

What Do You Think?

Do you agree? Are there any player special ability balance issues I missed? Any tips and tricks for us regarding balance?

Beta Testing

So, you’ve made a prototype, tested it, rebuilt it a few times, played it with others, and as far as you can tell it’s looking good.Time to beta test.

What is the Purpose of a Beta Test?

So far, you’ve probably been setting up the game, teaching new players the rules, answering all of their questions, helping them with their strategy and personally seeing to it that they have a great time. That’s great, and so you should, but if you plan on making to commercial or even providing it for free on the internet, you’re not going to be able to provide these services any more.

The purpose of the beta test is to see if the game is ready to let go of your hand and walk by its self.

A good example of how games fail, is once I wrote “A player places two cards on the table.”

Many read that and said, “Okay, these are my two cards. Here are your two cards.”

I had to change the wording to “Two cards are placed on the table.”

How do I Conduct a Beta Test?

Get People. First, you need access to as many people as you can who are willing to help out. Do whatever it takes, bring food, let them keep copies of the game, spend quality time with them, work around their schedule and tell them you owe them a huge favour later. It works best for you if you can see them all at the same time, but that probably won’t work for them. It’s a good deal if you can get it, and it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Only Join if You Need The Numbers. If you must join a game, hand them the rules and say “teach me how to play”. Once they read the rules to you, pretend you don’t understand them. Make them show you how to play. People are amazing and being able to pick up the subtlest cues about how to play from sources other than the written rules. You need to have your poker face on and give them absolutely nothing.

Separate Them. If you have enough people for multiple games, do so. 6 2-player games is better than 1 12 player game. This is because players will do anything they can to avoid reading the rules. You can be sure that no more than one person per game will even look at the rules.

I learned this the hard way, but put them in other rooms if you can. Players will look at each other and say “Oh, that’s how you play.” then copy all their mistakes.

Don’t Set The Game Up. Present the game as close to the final product as possible. You may even want to include the shipping box and give them a knife, to see if you packed it in such a way that could cause the game damage. By placing the board on the table and all the cards and pieces in their correct spot, you may have skipped over the most confusing part of your game.

Let Them Play The Game Wrong. This can be painful, watching someone read “place the card face up” then placing the card face down. It can be so tempting to say, “Are you sure about that?” or “Read that paragraph again,” but don’t. Just make a note that fewer people would make a mistake if the rules had more pictures, and see how long it takes them to notice on their own. If it’s too painful to watch, leave the room until you’ve recomposed yourself.

Once They’ve Finished. If they haven’t followed all the rules correctly, say “you have played the game incorrectly”. Try to get them to see the mistake themselves, dropping as few clues as possible. If you outright tell them, they will say, “Of course! How silly of me! There is no other possible way of interpreting that rule!” but if you let them figure it out for themselves, they may point out all sorts of rules you haven’t made fully clear.

If they have followed the rules quickly, check to see if they ask for permission to play again. Make a note of how long it takes them to ask. If they don’t, ask them if they would like to, make a note of their answer.

Handling Questions

“What Do I Do?” “You pretend you have ordered this game online, it has finally arrived and you have enough spare time to play it.”

“Do I Open The Box?” “That’s up to you. If you prefer to play the game without opening the box, I’ll make a note of how that went.”

“What Does This Mean?” “I’ll make a note that it isn’t clear, however I’m not included in the box. If you purchased this online, you wouldn’t be able to ask me that.”

“Am I Doing This Right?” “I’ll tell you once you’ve finished playing, but I answer those sorts of questions before that.”

“I’ve Found an Error. “ABC” should read “XYZ”.” If false: “No, that printed correctly.” if true: “Well spotted. Everyone take note, “ABC” should read “XZY”.

“I Can’t Play Until You Explain This…” Physically take the rules from the complaining player and give them to his opponent. Say, “Could you explain this? He can’t play until you do.”

What Do You Think?

What tips do you have for a good beta test? Received any tricky questions while testing? What sorts of misunderstandings have you seen players make?

Alpha Testing

So, prototype is ready, what now?

Solo Play-Test

Unless you designed the game with a dedicated team of people, you probably don’t have anyone dying to play the game with you just yet. Or maybe you do, but right now, you shouldn’t.

People who are hungry to play everything you make are a gift from the gods, so you need to treat them right. The last thing you want to do is fill their appetite on a game even you haven’t played yet.

You will be amazed how much you learn and how many obvious mistakes you pick up playing against yourself. Your head will be so filled with wisdom from the first few sessions, you’ll be glad there is no one their trying to give their opinion on top of all that information.

When Do I Play-Test With Someone Else?

Not necessarily when you feel the game is ready, but as soon as you have learned everything solo play-testing can teach you. I’ve played games against designers who haven’t even figured out what the rule for ending the game will be.

Once, after playing, the designer asked what I thought.

I said, “The player who plays first generally wins, by the time the game is halfway through the winner is already guaranteed, the method for collecting cards causes huge problems and all these problems will get worse as the game gets bigger.”

He said, “Yes, yes. I already know that stuff. But despite all that, was the game fun?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Perfect,” he said, “Now that I know that, I can get to work fixing those other things.”

Before that play-test, he had already played it against himself, and I imagine he probably fixed all the glaringly obvious mistakes. What remained were issues that, with a lot of time, care, and math, could be worked on but not easily.

If we had begun the game and he had said, “Oh, I just realised, there is no rule that allows you to draw cards from the deck. Hold on, let me make one up…” I may not be so excited to test any more of his games. Those sorts of problems are the sort you must solve BEFORE showing your game around.

Appreciate Your Play-Testers

It’s rare to have someone snap and say “This is an outrage! I shall never test anything of yours ever again!”

It’s far more normal for them to think it silently, then suddenly be too busy/tired/stressed to play ever again. They will assure you that they’d play if the right circumstances came up, but if you treat them right, those right circumstances will come up a lot more frequently.

Don’t give them money. Two reasons: First, people who need cash to play a game are probably not your target audience. Second, if they charged you their normal hourly rate, you probably can’t afford them.

Instead, buy them food, cook them food, let them choose where the game is played and drive there, or let them keep a copy of the game afterwards. Maybe spending quality time with them is important to them, or maybe they’d prefer you waste as little of their time as possible.

Make sure your prototype is easy to understand and use. (This may mean making a new one as your first prototype should always be fast and rough.)

If they are also a game designer, play their games and lead by example in the level if high quality feedback you want from them.

When is Alpha Testing Over?
That’s a tough question to answer, but if you’ve changed the game since it was last played, not yet. If you have an idea about something that might make the game better, not yet. If no one has ever asked you for permission to play it again, not yet. If you’re not sure, not yet.

What Comes After Alpha Testing?
Beta testing. More about that another day.

What do you think?
Did I miss anything? Do you agree? Let me know.

Prototyping Like a Ninja

Whether you are an experienced game designer or just vaguely interested in what being one might be like, listen up. This skill is important, and may be what’s holding you back from designing your first game.

Good Games Start In Your Head

Fleshing ideas out in your head is awesome. Your head can cycle through hundreds of bad ideas to find a few that might have some potential. It’s usually quite simple to mentally show flaws of a bad idea, but not always. If you have an idea in your head, but have no idea if it’s amazing or horrible, it’s time to build a prototype, like a ninja.

Like a Ninja?

Ninjas, rightly or wrongly, are known for speed and efficiency. None of this punching people to death business or spending weeks planning the perfect strike in advance. A ninja drops from the ceiling, swings his blade, and finished.

Why So Fast?

The purpose of the prototype is to test if your idea sucks or not, and spoiler warning, it probably does. The more accurate purpose of the prototype is to teach you why your idea sucks so that the second version of your idea will be able to suck slightly less. So if you’re going to spend hours getting the finer details of your prototype perfect, you’re probably wasting your time, because once you see how sucky your idea is, all that work will be thrown away.

How Can I Be Fast?

First, go to your board game collection, craft box, toy box, recycling bin or garden and grab all your game pieces. Don’t bother to paint or decorate these pieces unless it is absolutely necessary to know one piece from another.

In video game development, this is called grey boxing. That’s because, when grabbing the easiest thing possible in your game creation software of choice, the quickest tool to find is usually one that produces grey cubes or rectangles. Sure, you could easily have any colour you want, but you’re a ninja. You don’t have time for colour selection. Just get in, swing your blade, and get out again.

Making Stuff

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you cannot find a card with all the statistics and special abilities of the half orc barbarian you wanted for your game. My first advice would be the Jack of Spades looks very orc barbariany, or the ace of diamonds has got plenty of room to write all the statistics. (Don’t be shy, write them. You can always buy your mum a new pack of playing cards tomorrow.)

However, sometimes there’s just not enough room on the playing cards, (or your Mum has taken them to her weekly bridge tournament,) So now you must improvise.

Some of these methods may come more naturally to you than others, so do whatever is easiest:

  • Write on the back of a small rectangle of cardboard. (If you’re planning on becoming a game designer long term, small rectangles of cardboard can be a great investment. Just ask your local print house if they can guillotine some scrap for you. They may even provide the scrap if you pay for the cut.)
  • Write on a scrap of paper, and put it in a card sleeve. (Another great investment, especially if your game needs lots of shuffling.)
  • Open your computer, and using whatever program you’re most familiar with, design it for print. (Remember, you’re a ninja. If it isn’t ugly, you spent way too long perfecting it.)

The same applies for game boards. Usually an unfolded cereal box makes a great game board. Or, if you’re not so fast with a pen, a table in Microsoft Word can make a nice grid that’s easy to write in. Or maybe even write “hex grid pdf” into google for your hexagonal game ideas.

What Next?

Don’t write down the rules. That comes later. Right now, play the game against yourself. Don’t be afraid to make up the rules as you go along, even changing them mid game if needed. This process of rebuilding and reshaping your game shall be slow, tedious and boring. So if you want your friends to stay friends, don’t invite them to help you, yet. But I’ll talk more about that another day.

What Do You Think?

How do you prototype? Got any ninja prototyping techniques to share with the rest of the dojo? Is there any topic you’d like me to write about in future?

Good Games Make Players Feel Smart

A puzzle can make someone feel smart once they’ve solved it. Trouble is, it only makes them feel a certain level of smart, that is, the amount of smart required to solve the puzzle. Many puzzle collections solve this problem by having puzzles at different difficulties, which requires a different amount of smartness for each puzzle.

A game between two people doesn’t work in quite the same way. This means that one game must make everyone feel smart, regardless of how experienced they are with the game.

To help an inexperienced player feel smart, the game must have obviously bad moves available. That way, instead of playing randomly while learning, the player can say, “Well I’m definitely not making THAT move!” or if they do make that move, they can say, “I see what I did wrong there. I’ll play better next time.” Either one of those situations results in the player feeling smart, as the outcome of the game feels related to their choices rather than their random guesses.

Once players become experienced, they stop making obviously bad moves. If the game is well designed, a new category of bad moves should now be visible to them. Bad moves that aren’t quite as obvious.

Games like chess achieve this quite well, with more and more bad moves becoming visibly bad as the player progresses. Sometimes, a move that looked bad to a beginner turns out to be good in a way that only an experienced player can appreciate.

If a game designer is lucky, their game will have levels of bad moves that even they haven’t noticed yet. I say lucky, because the only way to know what an advanced game of something will look like is to watch advanced players play it. Maybe the game will be fun for advanced players, or maybe it will become boring.

Although a game designer should strive to be very competent players of their own game, I don’t think the designers of chess would have stood a chance playing against the skilled chess masters of today. If people can outsmart you at your own game, it may mean you’re a poor player, but it can also means you’re a brilliant designer.

What do you think?
Do you agree? Did I miss something? Let me know.