What do you think about catch up mechanics? What catch up mechanics have you used? What kinds do you hate? Below are a few perspectives from members of the League of Gamemakers. Feel free to share your own thoughts below in the comments!

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Luke:

“Catch up” mechanics are everywhere. They may be obvious or they be hidden subtly in some of your favorite tabletop games. Catch up mechanics are some kind of structure that gives an inherent advantage to a player who is behind.

(Aside: To paraphrase James Ernest, catch up mechanics don’t actually exist – if the player who is behind gets an advantage, they might not actually be behind. In other words, there may always be a leader in a game, it just may not be the player who looks like they’re in the lead on first glance. Thus, catch up mechanics are just “mechanics” that obscure who the leader is.)

Some games may require a catch up mechanic, and it may make sense to use one, but often it seems that if a game is begging for a catch up mechanic, it already suffers from a serious design problem: a runaway leader effect. The runaway leader effect can be a game killer, and designers need to do their best to squash runaway leader effects in their games.

A runaway leader effect often stems from a mechanic that allows a player to move closer to victory while also enabling that player’s subsequent actions/turns to also be improved within a game environment that’s too rigid to allow dynamics to shift the balance of power.

Dominion money cards

Imagine if the money cards in Dominion were worth Victory points equal to their money value. If you can’t imagine it, sit down and play it. The player who builds up their money the fastest will have both the most victory points and the best buying power, and they’ll get farther and farther ahead as the game goes on. The low interactivity of dominion would prevent players from having some kind of alternate path to cut off a leader.

Dominion’s victory cards do something that many games do – they move you closer to victory, but they actually interfere with the efficiency of your future turns. This isn’t a catch up mechanic, it’s a “headwind” something that slows down the player who surges ahead. The more VP cards the player has, the harder it is for that player to have productive turns. A headwind is a more elegant way of preventing the runaway leader effect than a catch-up mechanic.

Another approach is to ensure that strong multiple paths to victory exist in a game. If a player is leaping ahead on one path to victory, perhaps that might not be an issue, because that may be leaving open other routes for players to pursue unopposed.

close VP race in Viticulture

When playtesting a Euro game, I like to see the VP markers remaining close throughout the game. If players are moving down the path at clearly different rates, it’s indicating that one path to victory may be better than another. If one player gets 3 vp each turn, and another player gets 5 vp each turn, there may be a problem with the game. If there’s an actual “acceleration” of movement down the VP track, there may be a runaway leader effect. When paths to victory are more balanced, there will be more persistent jockeying for position. If there’s a player consistently behind, that might be ok too – as long as their approach will lead to more late game success.

Christina:

I don’t think a catch-up mechanic is necessary for shorter games; you can always do a “best two out of three” if you’re that far behind. But I sure appreciate it in long ones, and while I don’t necessarily need a handout for being last, a balanced game should have more than one path to victory that a smart player can work to their advantage.

Peter:

Peter: Good question! Is it a contrived mechanism to keep games competitive/balanced, or is it a tool in the mechanical toolbelt to use when needed? I’m leaning towards the former – it’s a patch. I’m considering two examples: Power Grid and Suburbia (both of which I really enjoy, despite any issues):

Power Grid is entirely wrapped up in turn order – it’s everything from making the leader buy a plant first to letting the lowest rank player buy resources first. You might say that makes the mechanic interwoven enough to deserve a spot in the game for balance needs. But you have players who now need to engineer turns and “hold back” if needed to pull off certain scores. If the actual leader can hold back in 3rd spot due to some poor turns by the player “in the lead”, then I think it’s a contrived system which isn’t even measuring the true leader – all to simulate balanced play.

As for Suburbia, the “red lines” (I love the game but this is very contrived…) the instructions need to tell you to go for cash first and not reputation, because you’ll create a horrible ratio out of the gate and screw up your chances. This is probably because the red lines are mainly to pull back a runaway leader in end game. I think the solution is probably to put the balance in the tiles themselves, but like Power Grid, I do find myself engineering my position with these arbitrary parameters.

Brad:

Brad: With casual or family games a catch-up mechanic is good to keep all the players involved. With a more strategic game players want to be rewarded for playing well, so a catch-up mechanic could be frustrating.

Steve:

This is something I grapple with a lot. It’s especially challenging in multi-player games. I think it boils down to: the apparent end of the game should be as close as possible to the actual end of the game.

It’s the problem of “de facto player elimination”, where a player might not technically be out of the game, but they have a whelk’s chance in a supernova of squeezing any sense of victory out of the experience.

The important thing is to minimize that. Catch-up mechanisms seem to be the obvious thing to use here, but they can have a downside: one player’s Catch-up is another player’s Stolen Win.

Coming at it from the other side, I’ve been experimenting with a multiplayer mechanic I call an Accelerated Ending. The idea is not to give a losing player a chance to take the lead; instead, when there is an overwhelming loser, make sure the game ends quickly.

Jeff:

What Luke said about Dominion!

Christian:

I think if you’re looking to add a catch-up mechanic, then what you really need to do is go back and fix the mechanics of the game to begin with.

If players are continuously falling behind without a way to keep up or overcome gradually, then there’s a flaw in the current design. Slapping a catch-up mechanic on it seems more like a bandage rather than a fix.

This is a flaw that I’ve found in Splendor recently. When playing Splendor with two players, I can tell you who will win with almost certainty within gathering 3 or 4 cards. The reason being, there’s this engine building process that, once a certain path is chosen, there is no changing or fixing it.

Games like this often make people in the end say that there should be a catch-up mechanic, but what they should really be saying is that the game itself should be a little more forgiving throughout and allow for a changing of strategy.

Brad Brooks

iOS Developer

Brad designed Letter Tycoon (a word game for capitalists) which won the 2015 Mensa Select award, and the upcoming Rise of Tribes. He is currently in need of a time machine to address his idea vs. execution imbalance.

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  1. Jessey on August 18, 2014

    Lots of good points in the League article – I don’t think any of them are wrong (as long as they are each tempered with the reminder that ‘it depends what your goals are for the game’). I think that one was missed: a catch up mechanic can be, by design, the central mechanic of the game – and that can make it interesting in a quite different way.

    GOSU is the perfect example of this. At high level play (which you get to after about 2 games), the catch up mechanic is where all of the strategy is. It turns out, the catch up mechanic is more of a slingshot, and if you can be *just barely* in last place when the second round begins – giving you access to the bonus abilities from the catch up mechanic – you can springboard yourself into a winning position and often (but not always) carry that momentum to victory. *This* creates one of the most interesting parts of the game: the careful tug of war in the first round where all players are trying to strategically be in last place (it’s not enough to be in last, you still need to be close enough in terms of board position to the other players for the slingshot to be effective).

    In summary, it depends.

  2. I like the variety of opinions from the whole league on this one. I really like Luke’s concept of headwind is pretty important. I was struggling with having too much elasticity in my design for Hedron, it was viable to hang back and use the catch-up mechanic to slingshot yourself to victory. It was risky, but it could definitely work. Thinking about making victory more costly rather than being charitable to losing players definitely improved the design.

  3. Nick Bentley on August 19, 2014

    This subject is near and dear to my heart – BGG was kind enough to let me do a designer’s diary on the subject recently:

    http://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/32438/designer-diary-caught-catchup-or-my-attempt-deep-m

  4. Andy Lenox on August 20, 2014

    I think the single most visible catch up mechanic in gaming is that of Mario Kart items. Let’s just forget about the power of the blue shell for a minute and look at how this works.

    When you are in first place, you are handed items that seem weak. When you are further behind in the pack, you are handed items that are pretty universally awesome at blasting the guys in front of you.

    People who complain a lot about this game say, they have no recourse for when they are in first, and are blasted by these better items. They don’t have nicer items to hold on to in order to spring back ahead when they lose the lead… but this is not how you hold on to first place in this game in the first place.

    In Mario Kart 8, you are almost universally given green shells, banana peels, and coins. You are also occasionally given a horn. Both shells and peels can be flung out in front of you to try and stop someone ahead of you, like most of the other items, but can also be held out behind you to defend against incoming projectiles. Having your coins maxed out at 10 can improve your recovery time when someone does take you out. The horn, although rare, can even protect you against the dreaded blue shell.

    So, being in the lead has a different strategy altogether, where you are minimizing the built in catch up mechanics rather than utilizing them. You need to play defensively and drive perfectly to keep the lead.

    These mechanics are so ingrained to the game system, and very visible as a core mechanic, but is also can be a built in catch up mechanic. You need to be skilled in racing, but you also need to know when to hold items or use them at the right times. The game shifts from a game of targeting to a game of defense when you move to the lead. I’d say that this is an example of a good catchup mechanic. It’s a racing game at it’s core, with a catchup subsystem that, if mastered, doesn’t do much to help non-skilled players.

  5. Peter Vaughan on August 20, 2014

    @Nick – thanks for sharing that designer diary! Awesome that you have a game called, “Catchup” – great analysis into the mechanism. So many great things to take away from your story. Particularly the weight of the fix – something I struggled with when I have been designing games. It’s always frustrating when you have a 0 or a 1 value and each one is too strong! Also curious to me is the fact that you didn’t want close games (granted between experienced players), something which Luke and I have discussed as a measure perhaps of a solid euro. I’m excited to see this app now and the AI!

  6. Lewis Pulsipher on August 22, 2014

    A lot depends on how much (or little) players can hinder (or help) other players. If they cannot much, then a catch-up mechanic is the substitute. So games intended to be about conflict, such as wargames, rarely need a catch-up mechanic, whether for two players or for more. This is a question mostly for those who design games that are closer to puzzles (as most single-player video, and a great many Euro, games).

  7. Erik Kjerland on August 26, 2014

    Excellent discussion! I’m not immediately opposed to catch-up mechanisms, as I see them as a way to keep the game interesting and minimize runaways. It’s the implementation that determines whether I like it or not. My upcoming game Slaughterball has a simple catch-up mechanism: the coach in last place (last place coach or LPC) gets to determine where the ball scatters to after rolling the scatter die. This can really help the LPC if he’s been rolling poorly for goals and slaughters. But, it also impacts strategy in that the LPC can decide to go for a shorter goal for less points, to keep himself in last place so that he can determine scatter to set himself up for the rebound and another shot. Playtesters have liked it so far. And there are ways to usurp scatter control from the LPC.

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