Rewards, Not Penalties

Luther Hendricks has a design philosophy he regularly invokes: rewards, not penalties.

Give players a choice.  Ask them “would you prefer to earn a reward for jumping through a hoop or would you prefer to receive a penalty for doing nothing?” Luther contends that players will choose the reward every time.  He believes that players will generally make this choice even if the structure of the penalty is smaller than the reward.  Luther believes in rewards, not penalties.  People play games to enjoy a sense of success. Avoiding failure is dreary. They want accomplishments. They want the sense of harvesting the fruits of their labors.  They want rewards, not penalties.

And he’s right.

The analytical side of my brain is often numb to this point.  As far as the mathematics is concerned, these two options are the same:

(a) This 6 die attack loses 3 dice when the range is greater than 1.

(b) This 3 die attack gains 3 dice at range 1.

Luther sat me down and explained it to me in small words my addled brain could understand. Setting aside that (b) is a shorter rule, Luther explained that it is also the better rule.  It is better because it empowers the player.  If she chooses to move his character in closer, she will earn a reward.  Rule (a) by contrast penalizes her for failing to move in closer.  Rewards, not penalties.

Contemplating his theory revealed the importance of this design decision throughout the world of game design.

Attacking starfighters in the X-Wing Miniatures Game roll an extra die when the target is at range 1.  Defending starfighters roll an extra die when the attacker is at range 3.  No one loses dice in either case.  Rewards, not penalties.

Every missing animal type incurs a penalty at the end of Agricola.  This was not clear to me the first time I played and it soured me to the game.  How might my experience have been different if players earned bonuses for each animal type rather than a penalty for their absence?  Rewards, not penalties.

What makes gambling games so addictive to so many people?  Small losses coupled with big rewards.  Humans will endure setback after setback so long as a reward is within sight.  This trait gave us the perseverance to cross continents, fly into space and cure polio.  For good or bad, we have a drive to gamble because we’re hungry for that payout.  Rewards, not penalties.

What is it about a CRPG that makes us grind through the same monsters again and again? it’s because those little piles experience points pile up to make us powerful and those little piles of treasure accrue to buy the shiny prestige items.   Rewards, not penalties.

Traditional classrooms give students the feeling that they begin the year with a perfect score.  Every quiz, assignment and test is an opportunity to fail.  Should a student be ill, their strongest hope is to be excused from all missed assignments.  Classrooms that use a gamification model start students off with a score of zero.  Every quiz, assignment and test adds to that score.  Missing an assignment is equivalent to earning a zero because no points have been earned.  Which of these classroom models best reinforces positive academic behavior?  That’s right.  Rewards, not penalties.

How do you employ rewards and penalties in your games?  Which do you employ more?  Can you think of a game that benefits more from penalties than rewards?  Which do you prefer?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


15 thoughts on “Rewards, Not Penalties

  1. ingredientx says:

    Agricola is an interesting example. I really started to grok the game when I realized that finishing with at least one grain, vegetable, and one of each animal type was effectively 2 points for each category (going from -1 points to 1 point).

    That said, I’d argue that framing it as a penalty serves Agricola’s core engagement better than a reward would. Agricola is about medieval farming, and medieval farming was backbreaking work. So Agricola has to be a brutal and punishing game, or at least give the impression of being one.

    That’s why I get an exhilarating feeling playing it. If I’m able to get all five of my family members out, or convert my house to stone, or cover all my board’s empty spaces, I feel like I’ve accomplished something really difficult. I don’t know if I’d get the same exhilaration with a reward system, even though the two systems are mathematically identical.

    • ingredientx says:

      I just thought of another example. The trick-taking game Sticheln is a game all about punishment. It even goes as far as to have players establish their “Pain Colors” at the start of each round. Any card you win in a trick gives you a single point, unless it’s in your Pain Color, in which you lose its face value (which can run pretty high!).

      So that’s another example where framing the scoring in terms of punishments, not rewards, makes the game “feel” difficult.

      Age of Steam’s original rules, where shares are the only way to generate income early in the game, but saddle you with debt for the rest of the game and are negative points during scoring, are another example of a punishment implemented in a way to make a game feel difficult.

      So I think “reward, not punishment” is good for most games, but not all games. There is a market for more sadistic games, so long as they’re skillfully done.

    • I suppose it’s true that punishment adds to the theme of Agricola. I myself never really considered the game that rich in theme, though. As a mechanics-heavy Eurogame, I just saw it as a system that resulted in my feeling dread every time I played it. (To be perfectly honest, I have yet to play the physical version. I only play on my iPod.) With the theme’s not being that abundant other than, “You’re on a farm!”, I always felt that my dread was out of place. It has resulted in the game’s being less and less fun for me each time, even when I do manage to eke out a win. The game, being about batting away the negative points, just seems like a drain to me.

      • ingredientx says:

        Totally fair. For my money, I enjoy games with more “sadistic” gameplay, and I don’t mind theme/mechanism pairings that are merely evocative or metaphorical, as long as they fit into the general presentation of the game. That sort of thing really does come down to personal preference, though.

        I don’t play a lot of thematic/narrative games, but I do play a lot of strategic Euros. Looking at Stefan Feld’s games, you see a whole lot of punishment-over-reward, from the Plague in Notre Dame to the people’s demand in Trajan to pretty much everything about In the Year of the Dragon. I’m sure there are plenty other punishing Euros out there if I went through my collection. Are there American-style games that offer the same level of punishment, or do you guys think this is mainly a mechanism-oriented Euro thing?

      • In funny that you suggest that this more sadistic gameplay is more common in Eurogames, since the common perception of Eurogames is that they’re highly strategic but otherwise more positive experiences. Thematic games are often considered more sadistic, such as the combination of a traitor mechanic as well as the “hand of fate” in Battlestar Galactica or the penalty after penalty after penalty faced in Arkham and Eldritch Horror. But I can’t think of any thematic games off the top of my head (mostly due to the fact that I honestly can’t know all games) that just hand you negative points. It’s a stretch for me to think of any Euros that do either, aside from Agricola and Ticket to Ride.

        It’s funny that you mentioned Stefan Feld, though, considering the only experience I have with him is Castles of Burgundy. That game might as well be called Points because there are so many bonuses involved. The game is free of penalties.

      • ingredientx says:

        Stefan Feld is known for his punishing mechanisms! And yes, various interlocking mechanisms that give various point payouts, but Castles of Burgandy is one of his few games that doesn’t hammer the player in some way.

        I already mentioned Trajan, Notre Dame, and In the Shadow of the Emperor. I forgot to mention Amerigo, which has the end-of-round pirate attacks that cause point penalties if the players haven’t prepared for them.

  2. Dean Ray Johnson says:

    The most commonly cited story I know about rewards/punishments comes from the original World of Warcraft beta.

    WoW’s designers wanted the players to get up from the keyboard and go do real-life things occasionally, so they decided to nudge players in the right direction with a penalty to experience-gain. When players were in the game for a certain amount of time, they gained a “fatigue” penalty that reduced the XP gained from monster kills by 50%. Beta testers hated this, naturally, as they didn’t want to feel penalized for playing their favorite game all day.

    So the designers flipped it around. They halved all experience gains in the game, and when you were logged out for a certain amount of time, you gained a “Rested” state, which doubled all XP gains. Exact same mechanism, but now the players loved it. The people who played all day didn’t feel harmed, and the people who only played once a week felt like they got a bonus to catch up to the hardcore players.

  3. I’m a big fan of this style of design. You can see it in the wake-up chart in Viticulture, which was heavily inspired by Fresco’s wake-up chart. In Fresco (a game I still love despite what I’m about to say), you’re heavily penalized if you decide to wake up earlier than other players. Granted, it’s a calculated choice based on your priorities, but I prefer the way the Viticulture wake-up chart works: All of the options except for the earliest wake-up slot give you a special reward. There is no penalty–it’s just a matter of choosing the right reward.

  4. Here, here. Penalties are my kryptonite as a player. Most games that are essentially constructive I can play competently. But give me a game where managing loss is a major part of the strategy and I tend to lock up and turtle, except for the occasional playing where I over correct and and barrel through ever penalty in the game like Wile E. Coyote on an Acme bender.

    Since you mentioned gamification, Kevin, I’m curious what you do in your classroom. I have looked at a couple prefab systems and none of them have been what I wanted. Have you found or developed something that works well for you?

  5. This is a very cool discussion and Luther is right.

    It’s a variation on the Glass Half Full, Half Empty way of looking at life. One way is Optimism, the other Pessimism. Games for me should be fun – so Optimism rules for the most part. I do admit though that there are thematic cases for occasionally a glass being half empty.


  6. jeffinberlin says:

    I do design games with this in mind, and if there is a choice between framing a mechanic as a penalty or framing it as a reward, I always choose the latter.
    But some mechanics can only be framed as a penalty, and there is nothing “pessimistic” or “glass half-empty” about that.

    Kevin uses an extreme classroom example, in which he claims it’s “either-or.” But, technically, if a child in a “rewards classroom” chooses to do little or nothing and does not accumulate enough points throughout the year, there will most certainly be a penalty: that child will not pass into the next grade! Apathy is a huge problem with students, and it can certainly be encouraged by a “rewards only” approach (“Why should I work hard, if I have nothing to lose when I don’t?”) Nevetheless, I still support fully an education system (both in school and at home) that is more heavily weighted towards rewards than penalties. But if my child is not motivated by the rewards to complete his requirements, than “penalties” such as missing soccer practice in order to catch up are necessary.

    So, too, in games, I would argue that the question is not simply “Rewards, not Penalties” but a more nuanced approach of “Rewards vs. Penalties” and a designer asking him/herself how much of either is important for a particular game. I would agree that framing penalties as rewards as often as possible is usually a good thing–as I practice that myself–but I would also argue that penalties are not always a bad thing and–when not overly used–can also lead to a good amount of game tension.

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