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.