Our last column looked at ways for tied players to share points. Many situations do not lend themselves to sharing. Sometimes, sharing is completely inappropriate. Sometimes, it is simply unsatisfying. When faced with such a case, the intrepid designer can employ a variety of tiebreakers which I have divided into three broad categories.
Elimination tiebreakers remove all tied players from consideration. They receive no credit whatsoever. The elimination approach is often seen in simultaneous blind auction games.
Example: Our subjects from the last column–Ava, Bette, Carlos and Derek–are back. They are currently bidding for a house in a land development-themed auction game. This is a simultaneous auction. Ava and Bette each bid $50,000. Carlos bid $35,000 and Derek bid $20,000. Since Ava and Bette are tied, their bids are eliminated. Carlos’ bid moves up to first place and he gets a lovely $35,000 house. Ava and Better look on angrily and Derek just watches.
Locking tiebreakers take the ostrich’s approach by burying their head in the sand and refusing to acknowledge the tie. Wolfgang Kramer’s Forum Romanum uses this to amazing effect. So long as two or more players are tied for majority control of an area, that area will not score. Since workers are a finite resource in Forum Romanum, this leaves players with the deliciously painful conundrum of either abandoning contention for an area or trying to get by with fewer pieces than her opponents.
Ties can be broken by invoking a different element. This method of tie breaking is extremely common when determining who should start a game. These tiebreakers can be wholly random as in the case that the first dealer in a card game is the player who draws the highest card. They can also be completely skill-based as the pool tradition of choosing the break by shooting for it.
In the late 1990s and early 200s, it was fashionable for designers to include amusing but trivial mechanisms for breaking the tie to set start player. Reiner Knizia’s Vampire for instance let the player with the longest canines start. Ted Alspach took this trend to its logical conclusion by releasing a set of cards and then a smartphone app entirely dedicated to the job by featuring tiebreakers like “the player with the longest email address is the start player” and the “player who has most recently purchased games online” is the start player.
Second-factor tie breaking is also a common tool for determining the sole winner of a game. As you might imagine, players are not likely to tolerate a wholly random tiebreaker for the win but skill-based ones are quite common. If two or more players are tied at the end of Power Grid, the winner is the player among them with the most game cash in hand. Since cash reasonably represents a player’s performance in that game, the approach is generally acceptable to most players.
Second-factor tiebreakers also make regular appearances in games which offer an in-game reward that cannot be subdivided.
For instance, many basketball tournaments feature the alternating possession rule. The ball obviously cannot be divided between the teams and must go to one team or the other any time play must resume. The alternating possession rule holds that the ball goes to the team which lost the jump ball (opening tip off) at the beginning of the game. If play stops and later restarts in the same game, possession would then go to the team that won the jump ball and so on.
Games with more than two players/teams can achieve a similar alternating possession effect by awarding a marker to one player which moves around the table each time it is used to break a tie.
Alternating possession can be made even more meaningful by holding the tie breaking marker in place. I particularly like this approach when players also have the agency to take the marker for themselves. I have played several worker placement games that favor the start player in all ties and offer an action to become start player. Adding such layers to the decisions in a game can be immensely satisfying.
A vicious version of second tier tiebreaking enables the favored player to win every tie, even ones that the player isn’t actually in! Ministers win ties for titles this way in Confucius. In a game like this, it is to the possessor’s clear advantage to encourage ties in multiple areas. This can add another layer of tension to an area control game. I think this would be doubly exciting in an area-majority game that allowed players to move or replace one another’s markers.
Elimination, Locking and Second Tier are the major categories tiebreaker I’ve encountered. If you’ve seen others, please add them to the comments below. And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please subscribe to this blog. It makes a big difference.
In our next installment, we spend time with the mathematics of victory points. See you Tuesday!