Two designers in my group–Len Stemberger and Jean Ray Johnson–are working on area control games right now. As you would expect, this has led to quite a few conversations about scoring. In one particularly extensive conversation, John Eyster asserted that players don’t really have control over when scoring occurs in most of these games. This led me to wonder about the timing of majority scoring. This is what I came to.
The simplest approach is to set a fixed interval of game time between scorings. Wolfgang Kramer’s El Grande does this, with scoring occurring every 3 rounds.
The totally predictable nature of this approach is its biggest advantage and its greatest disadvantage.
Because players know precisely when scoring will occur, they also know when to push and when to relax. This supports a cycle of tension and release. El Grande is an elaborate game with many moving parts. Players need brief pauses in tension to regroup and formulate their next plan. The fixed time approach served this design well.
Because players know precisely when scoring will occur, they may also decide to ignore those periods of release as unimportant. Giving players a breather can be a good thing. Giving them a vacation is right out. Like proper form in weightlifting, the goal is a controlled release of tension rather than a sudden drop.
The lushest casinos and the dirtiest gambling dens know all about the boredom that can come from fixed-interval scoring. The classic example of this problem is the slot machine that pays on exactly every fifth pull. The player bets a nickel on pulls 1, 2, 3, and 4 but drops a dollar token on pull 5. Predictability like this leads to losses and is bad for the casino. Predictability like this leads to boredom and is bad for the player.
Many game designers have addressed this problem the same way that the casinos do–they have variable scoring intervals. This brings uncertainty to the system and uncertainty brings excitement.
The variable time solution does leave one problem for us designers to address however. Gambling houses are perfectly happy if a given game table goes dozens of rounds without a payoff. Our players are at the dining table. They will only wait so long between payoffs. We need controlled variability.
Imagine a bag containing eight tokens–five are blank and three have an X stamped on them. At the end of each round, a player draws a token and sets it aside. Scoring happens immediately when the third X token is drawn. After scoring, all tokens are returned to the bag and the bag its mixed. This method guarantees no fewer than three rounds between scoring and no more than eight but also gives players partial information. If there is only one X token out, this round will not score. If two X tokens are out, any round could be the one. As X tokens get drawn, tension rises. Approaches like this one give controlled variability.
I enjoy designs which empower players to set the pace. Games feels more alive when my actions directly influence the game state. This idea was at the core of Rolling Freight. Scoring occurs when the deck of route cards reaches the end of a section. Since players can always see how much remains in the deck, they always know how close the next scoring event is. Since players control the rate at which this deck flows, they also control the pace of the game.
Option 4. Variable Events
Several designs use events in a variable way to make the pace more variable. Sid Sackson’s Venture is the oldest example of which I am aware. Dirk Henn’s Alhambra is may favorite example. The Alhambra deck contains scoring cards similar to those in Rolling Freight but these scoring cards have each been shuffled into sections of the deck. Players again control the rate at which this deck flows and have a general notion of when scoring will arrive but can never be entirely certain.
Option 5. Player Controlled
What about putting scoring intervals totally in the hands of the players? Few games have gone this route. There is a great deal of design space waiting to be explored here.
Reiner Knizia’s card game ZERO does this by scoring each hand of cards after players have “knocked” twice. The first knock signals the approach of scoring. The second knock immediately ends the hand and triggers scoring. Each hand of ZERO could last through four rounds of play or forty. It is the players who decide.
What do you think? How does the pace of scoring affect your experience? Do you have a favorite approach? Share with your fellow designers in the comments below. And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog. If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing. 🙂