Bottom-Up Scoring

Len Stemberger is a designer in the North Houston design group. He is currently developing an area control game which features marker manipulation–placing and moving markers.  His core engagement is to keep players constantly jockeying for position in as many areas as possible at all times.  With this core engagement in mind, we began looking for the best scoring mechanism to serve it.

As we bounced various ideas around, we hit upon a mechanism which was entirely new to me and darned interesting–a system that scores both upwards and downwards.  We provisionally named it “bottom-up scoring” and decided to share it with you.  We hope it gives you an interesting tool to work with.


Bottom – Up Scoring

Area majority games generally score downwards. Awards are passed out by looking at first place, then down to second place and so on.  Bottom-up scoring does some of that.

Set collection games generally score upwards. Increasing your set increases your reward.  Bottom-up scoring does some of that too.

The first step to creating a bottom-up scoring scheme is to select a top-down scheme as you might for any other area majority game.  For our example, I’m using an exponential scheme.

First Place

8 points

Second Place

4 points

Third Place

2 points

In most area-control games, the first time a player placed a marker into an area, he is considered to be in first place.  He essentially occupies the top spot.  If scoring occurred with only his marker in the region, he would receive the best possible award for the region.

Example: Danielle has a cube in the green region and it scores.  Since no other cubes are present, Danielle scores first place, 8 points.

In Len’s game, area manipulation and scoring each occur on every turn.  This is important to understanding why how we arrived at our new scheme.

Our concern centered on the massive start-player advantage that occurred when the start player placed a marker into a region on his turn and then immediately scored that region–He would get the first place prize simply for going first!  That sat well with none of us.  We needed a different plan.

In our bottom-up system, the first time markers are placed into an area, they are thought of as beginning construction in that area, only just beginning to improve and expand the area.  The player who placed these markers essentially occupies the bottom spot. When scoring occurred with only her markers in the region, she received the worst possible award for the region.

Example: Danielle has a cube in the green region and it scores.  Since no other cubes are present, Danielle scores third place, 2 points.

Massive holdings in an otherwise empty region are no better than a single cube in that region–like having the best castle in Boise, Idaho.  This is better than no award at all of course, but no longer so massive an award.

Example: Danielle has five cubes in the green region and it scores.  Since there are still no other cubes present, Danielle scores third place, 2 points.

Now in order to reach high awards, the player must work for majority in popular regions.

Example: In addition to Danielle’s five cubes, and Dean has two cubes and John has 1 cube.  When the region scores, John scores third place, 2 points. Dean scores second place, 4 points. Danielle scores first place, 8 points.

Working for majority in popular regions puts players in conflict throughout the game.  Putting players in conflict throughout the game increases player interaction.  Increasing player interaction increases engagement.  Delivering engagement is what games are all about.  We were looking at a winning scheme.


Tie Breaking The Bottom-Up Scheme

Having established the basic structure, we immediately moved on to debate the best tie-breaking scheme for Len’s core engagement.  Our best suggestions fell into three general categories.  Rather than asserting which is best, here are all three.  Each had its merits, depending on the spirit of the game and playtest data.  Len wisely decided to collect more data before making any final decision.

First in wins.  Markers placed later are considered to fall behind those placed earlier.  The only way a later player can get ahead is to exceed the previous count. This is generally best if the game has a start player disadvantage.

Last in wins.  Markers placed later fall ahead of those placed earlier.  A later player can get ahead by tieing the previous count.  This is generally best if the game has a start player advantage.

Friendly ties.  Tied players each get a full share of their position’s award.  This is generally best if there is no discernible advantage associated with the order of play.


Have you designed an area-control game? How did you award points?  How would Bottom-up scoring have changed the dynamics of your game?  Share with your fellow readers 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.


Scoring Frequency

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.

Fixed Time

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.

Variable Time

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.

Fixed Events

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. 🙂