The 10 Best Game Mechanisms You Aren’t Using, Part 3

In the last column, I challenged designers to incorporate simultaneous action selection and evolving card decks into their designs.

Today’s two mechanisms share a particularly peculiar trait–I was only able to find one good example of each.


7.   Dutch Auctions

When I professed the glories of simultaneous selection games, I chose to omit simultaneous auction mechanisms.  They were being saved for now.

In the world outside of games, auctions tend to be conducted simultaneously.  An auctioneer supervises while  bidders raise their palettes to indicate bids.  Or the robot at eBay tracks the highest offer and supervises increments.

Auctions in most games are stately, turn-based affairs.  Each player in turn raises the bid or passes. The highest bidder wins.  There are some variations but these are largely cosmetic. So common is this approach that the person teaching me a game on one occasion referred to this mechanism as a “standard auction.”

Why have game designers and publishers come to rely on something so far from completely open auctions?  I believe that it is the dependence on an auctioneer.  Since manufacturers are unable to place an auctioneer into the box, the rules must serve as substitute.  Since the auctioneer would usually keep order, it must again be the rules which do so.  And so we get the the turn-based eurogame waltz.

Some games use closed-fisted auctions in which all players choose and reveal their bids simultaneously.  The most brutal among them require all players to expend their bid whether they made the winning bid or not.  The problem these suffer is that they can be so unforgiving.  Missing a key bid can put you irrevocably far back.

Of course, it would take M.A.T.A.* Reiner Knizia to show us another solution.  His The Merchants of Amsterdam was released originally in Europe by Jumbo and in the US by Rio Grande Games.  It provides a different kind of simultaneous auction.

Dutch auctions provide a remarkably simple solution to simultaneous auctions. A dial is set at the maximum price and ticks down from there.  When the indicator reaches the price you’re willing to pay, press the top and pay.  If two players reach at the same time, the hand actually touching the button wins.  It’s a solid auction mechanism. Knizia’s game The Merchants of Amsterdam is sadly dry and had no lasting impact but the mechanism is there, waiting for an inventive designer to bring it to the next level.  Could it be you?

* Master of All Things Auction


6.   Subgames

Computer game designers frequently include subgames in their releases.  In their best implementation, these subgames provide variety to the challenges of play or allow players with differing skill sets to each shine in their own way.  At the least, they provide a change of experience and change up the monotony of a game.

Tabletop designers are generally happy to provide one a single play experience.  Few include minigames.  This is natural.  Balancing a game is long tedious work.  Few of us are willing to sign up for the extra headaches of balancing several games in the same box.  Far better to give each game in its own box rather than trying to fit them all into one overarching game.

Many publishers also shy away from publishing a game which contains subgames.  They also prefer to give each minigame its own box.  Smaller, focused games are much easier to pitch, much easier to sell.

This means a world of open design space waiting to be explored.

Neopets: Adventures in Neopia took that challenge seriously. Each player has a pawn to move around the eponymous Neopia in a routine roll and move manner. Nothing special there. But reaching a destination launches a minigame for all players.

Because each destination is associated uniquely with its own minigame, players can focus the play on the games in which they excel.

Being intended as a game for kids, the minigames in N:AiN are also kids games. Modern designers working with modern tools could bring greater variety to this framework.

For instance, a eurogame approach might be set at a festival in the middle ages. Players walk from event to event, challenging the other players: a dexterity minigame at the archery challenge, a press your luck minigame at the juggler, a simultaneous selection minigame at the joust and so on.


And now we reach that crucial moment in which I put the challenge to you. Have you seen any dutch auction games? How about games that emphasize subgames? Add your comments below.

We’ll be back together on the first Friday of the new year with a resolution to better employ changing roles and the box.


15 thoughts on “The 10 Best Game Mechanisms You Aren’t Using, Part 3

    • Interesting point!

      Since some game shows incorporated minigames (Let’s Make a Deal and The Price is Right spring to mind) I would imagine that their home game versions would as well.

  1. I think a great example of the “dutch auction” mechanic you describe is “Going, Going, Gone” by Scott Nicholson (aka. “Board Games with Scott”). And it is a VERY fun game.

    • I have not had a chance to play this game yet. It does certainly look like a fun simultaneous auction game.

      It does not appear to be a Dutch auction however. In a dutch auction, prices only go down wheras bids can go up in Scott’s game.

  2. Your “real world” examples of auctions, including eBay bidding are not simultaneous auctions. They are open auctions. Open auctions and standard auctions are basically the same, except that less information tends to be passed in open auctions, but they resolve more quickly.

    A dutch auction could be done in either an open or standard format, though Merchants of Amsterdam is open. I could definitely see a standard dutch auction being used in many Eurogames. In fact, you could probably implement one in most existing Eurogames that already hold normal standard auctions without much net effect.

    I think subgames already exist. They just tend to be more integrated into the rest of the game to be noticed. Take Troyes, for example. The whole invading hordes from outside of the city, as well as the building of the church are both minigames that exist within the larger game. In fact, each mechanism within the game operates like its own little subgame, which can each be mastered.

    • Ben I appreciate your points. thank you for contributing!

      I respectfully disagree with your assessment of open auctions being basically the same as standard eurogame auctions however. There is no turn order in an open auction and this makes a huge difference in tempo.

  3. Sethala says:

    I think you’re right in that the large popularity of “turn-based auctions” as opposed to open auctions is simply because of the “simultaneous bid” problem – if you have an open auction and no impartial auctioneer to moderate it, once two players bid the same amount on an item and neither wants to bid higher, it becomes hard to tell who should actually get it. The physical dutch auction timer is nice, but it does bring it a bit closer to a dexterity game, which is something that I don’t really feel fits with board games that aren’t otherwise dexterity games.

    I haven’t played a lot of auction-based euro games myself, but I think Black Gold is a good auction example. It still goes around in a turn order with bidding, but there’s no limit to how many times you can bid, and you’re allowed to bid more than you have (although you have to face a steep penalty if you win with a bid you can’t pay), so there’s plenty of bluff-bidding going on as well. Admittedly, the last time I was actually at a real auction I was too young to fully understand what was going on, so there might be things about it I’m missing.

  4. I actually am working on a game that is in early stages that uses something similar to your minigame/eurogame idea. It is themed around a haunted circus and you can/have to enter each tent and beat a mini game to gain resources to defeat the boss tent’s minigame battle.

  5. garyd65 says:

    As I read your thoughts on sub-games my mind went to Stefan Feld’s Trajan and Bora Bora. In a way these games are made up of multiple smaller games that are so tightly intertwined as to render them inseparable. So, while these are not strictly made up of sub-games it seems to me that they are an evolution of the sub-game concept. I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on this.

    • I have heard great thinks both about Trajan and Bora Bora. Sadly, I have not yet had the chance to try them. I shall move them to the front of the list and report back ASAP. 🙂

  6. I use a dutch auction to sell the initial stocks in horses in my stock market horse racing themed board game Post Position . One of the reasons I enjoy using it (other than the speed of the auction) in the game is the novelty of it. Many people are not familiar with it, so I get to teach them something new. 🙂

    The link below is a video of an auction at the UNPUB protozone at Congress of Gamers.

  7. Steven says:

    I recently played “The Tick” board game (based on the cartoon) with my son, and it has four sub-games that you use to fight villains. Sadly, they’re all entirely luck-based, and the whole game is a terrible roll-and-move.

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