The opportunity cost of grinding your opponent into hamburger is that you will not make OSHA happy.

This is the second article I’ve written that talks about some cool mechanics I discovered while designing Ars Victor. You can read the first one at:
Building Tension: The Ars Victor Glory Track

Every game is a series of choices. Making those choices rich and interesting is the goal. Sometimes the cost of those choices is explicit — e.g. “30 credits” or “two wood and a sheep” — but always, every choice has a hidden opportunity cost. Elegant opportunity costs make a game easier to internalize, and more fun to play.

Loosely speaking, an “opportunity cost” is the cost of the choice you didn’t make. Even in game systems that don’t have an explicit cost, there is always an opportunity cost. If you get to choose A, B, or C: then the opportunity cost of choosing A is that you don’t get to do B or C.

What is an Ars Victor?

under pressure

Ars Victor is my two-player game of sci-fi tactical combat. It’s a descendant of Memoir 44, the Command & Colors games, Battlelore, etc. Thematically, each player commands a fighting force, which you use to destroy your enemy. Mechanically, gameplay is fast and focused. This family of card-driven battlefield wargames uses cards to limit a player’s decisions, and simple rules keep movement and combat quick and decisive. Ars Victor takes this family of games into a limitless science-fiction future, and gives you a sci-fi slugfest in an hour or less.

In designing Ars Victor’s army building system, I found a cool way add an opportunity cost to the traditional point-buy mechanic. It adds an entirely new dimension to the army building strategy, and I thought it would be interesting to share what I discovered.

How It Works

A point-buy system is any system where you have to spend points to choose a set of game assets. This is commonly seen in the miniatures wargaming world, where you’re given a budget to purchase your forces. This is done to establish some ostensible measure of equality: we each have 1000 points to spend on our forces, so we should be “equal”.

In Ars Victor, you get 80 points with which to buy your army. Units cost between 3 and 10 points, and have different capabilities.

So far, this is a vanilla point-buy system. It gives us a number of different ways to make army-building interesting. A few of the obvious ones:


Quality vs. Quantity

A ten-point Assault Infantry costs more than three three-point Conscripts. The Assault Infantry is a tough, murderous, SOB that may or may not die. The Conscripts are fat meat-shields that are roughly as threatening as limp cabbage. Which do you want?


Functional Differences

Cavalry and Heavy Infantry are both 7 point units, but they each have distinctly different capabilities on the battlefield. The Cavalry is great at gaining ground and skirmishing with its Bug Out and Take Cover abilities. The Heavy Infantry can hold its own in close combat, but is most terrifying when it has clear lanes of fire.


Diminishing Returns & Synergy

While Medium Infantry are one of the most powerful units in the game, there are some things they just can’t do. Do you really need that fourth Medium Infantry? Or would you rather have a single Lancer? HINT: it takes 3 moves to get to a capture point on the first move.

None of these features are unique to Ars Victor — they’re typical characteristics of point-buy systems. Where Ars Victor makes it interesting is the opportunity cost, and what it changes.

When is it too much?

One More Bolter

With a traditional point-buy system, there’s a hidden limitation: optimal builds will all cluster around the maximum point value that players can spend. If I have a 995/1000 point build, it will always be improved (even if only by a hair) by spending those last five points on something.

In the Warhammer 40k world, I call it the “one more bolter” syndrome: when you’re trying to squeeze the last bit of dakka into your list, so you duct-tape a machine gun to the side of your tank because its the only thing you have points left for.

This may seem like a built-in behavior of a point-buy system — of course you want to spend all your points! But what if it didn’t have to be that way? Could a point-buy system actually encourage asymmetrical match-ups? I think I found a way that it can.

The Opportunity Cost: Staying Power

Here’s the trick: those 80 points you get to spend? Whatever points you don’t spend become your starting Glory.

Glory is sort of like your “Army Hit Points”. You knock down your enemy’s Glory when you kill their units or hold capture points. It never goes up, and you win when you reduce your enemy’s Glory to zero.

This means that the bigger the army you bring, the easier it is for your enemy to knock you out. Your opportunity cost is: for every point you spend on units, that’s one less “hit” you can suffer before you lose the game.

Army Building In Practice

Adding this opportunity cost has had huge implications on not just army-building strategies, but the rest of the game. A Glory imbalance at the beginning of the game immediately sets the tempo, and starts creating tension. I talked about that in my previous post. As far as army-building strategies go, the space of viable builds becomes a lot more interesting. Here are a couple of examples from the rulebook:

Cheap and Cheerful


Here’s a build that brings a lot of units, but is ready to lose them.

  • The bulk of your units are cheap, meaning you’re not going to lose a lot of glory if they die. On top of that, the Mediums, Assault, and Cavalry all have Fall Back, which means you don’t have to lose them.
  • Ten units gives you plenty of bodies on the field, to replace your inevitable losses.
  • Thirty six glory on the board is a lot. There are only 44 points worth of units here — you can lose everything except your HQ and still be in the game!
  • Starting out with this much Glory will probably give you an advantage over your enemy at the beginning of the game. You can afford to let a fast opponent hold cap points for a turn or two while you bring up your forces.
Split Personality


On the other side of the spectrum, you have builds like this.

  • You’ve only got eight units in the game. This is generally considered the minimum effective number, because of banner distribution. When you lose units, you’re going to be wasting command points on big-number cards.
  • Your “marine” units are fairly survivable (Medium, Cav, Assault, Heavy), but your Brute, Scavenger, and Field Gun are not. Scavengers tend to have a low life expectancy, and Brutes are vulnerable to a concentrated effort. Field Guns are safe as long as you keep the enemy away from them, but they’re vulnerable to close combat.
  • With only twenty five Glory on the board, you can’t afford to take losses. Unfortunately your cheap Mediums are resilient, and your expensive Brute and Field Gun are not.
  • Similarly, you’re probably going start with less Glory than your opponent. This means you have to rush to get those capture points to even things out ASAP. But most of your force is slow — your Cavalry is your HQ, so you gotta be careful with it, leaving your Assault Infantry’s Insertion ability as your only real mobility.

These two different builds don’t just have different mixes of units, they have different strategies that are heavily influenced by the opportunity cost they chose. An expensive, low-Glory army has a different set of challenges and strengths than a cheap, high-Glory force.

What Do You Think?

If you’ve played Ars Victor, what other interesting army builds have you come up with? How did the Glory opportunity cost affect your design?

What other titles or systems have you seen that have interesting opportunity costs?

I’ll be posting more about the parts of Ars Victor that make it so much fun. In the meantime, you can find out more on the Ars Victor web site, our BGG page, and our Facebook page!

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Stephen DeBaun

Game Designer/Publisher at Trip West Games

Stephen DeBaun is a board game designer by day and software developer by night. Check out his latest title, Ars Victor: The One-Hour Wargame.

12 Readers Commented

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  1. Chris Keating on March 24, 2014

    Interesting – but those two builds don’t compute – the 2nd is cheaper than the first, not vice versa

  2. Stephen DeBaun Author on March 24, 2014

    The “Starting Glory” is the amount of points you have left over, after you buy your units.

    The first army, even though it has more pieces, only costs 44 points. That leaves you with 36 Glory on the table when the game starts.

    The second army, has fewer, more expensive pieces — adding up to 55 points worth of troops. That leaves you with 25 Glory to start with.

    • Chris Keating on March 24, 2014

      I can see in the “Split Personality” build;

      = 31, not 55.

      Have I missed something, or have you?

      • Stephen DeBaun Author on March 24, 2014

        Ah! That’s the hit points you’re counting. The point value is in the tiny yellow box next to the hit points.

        • Chris Keating on March 25, 2014

          Ahhhhh, I get it 🙂 Btw, this post has my long-unused army selection nerves twitching 🙂

  3. Sam Brown on March 24, 2014

    Neat. Another mechanic I’ve seen similar to this is the point-buy in the minis game Malifaux. It’s usually played with a very small number of minis – even smaller than these forces. But players building their forces have two things other than “more bodies” to put their point-buy into. There are faction specific upgrades (sometimes model specific, even) that are optional buys. And any leftover points turn into a magical resource that can be spent to re-roll checks, and endure wounds once the game is underway. It’s another neat way to solve the “what to do with these last few points?” problem in wargame design.

    Your solution fits the design goal of Ars Victor: It’s simple and fast, sticking to the ethos of a pick-up-and-play game.

    • Stephen DeBaun Author on March 24, 2014

      Nice! I haven’t played Malifaux.

      Do those extras end up having a major effect on your build strategy? E.g. are there builds that focus on taking advantage of having lots of rerolls, vs. not?

  4. Keith Matejka on March 24, 2014

    Battlelore second edition has something like this. I think unused build points give a player extra lore for each unused points. The lore cards in that game are super powerful, so it’s a reasonable tactic to not maximize units and just grab that precious lore.

    • Steve DeBaun on March 26, 2014

      There’s a discussion about this in the BGG thread on this article:

      The big difference I see is that Glory isn’t something that directly affects your board capabilities like lore cards. Lore cards are just another thing to spend points on that help you achieve your goals. Glory sort of *becomes* your goal.

  5. Mikael Fehlberg on March 25, 2014

    Good article, I really like the idea that those unspent points may be put to use somewhere else. Do you have any interaction with “Glory” out side of a win condition? eg. Certain troops that can “spend” glory, or interact better when they have it?

    • Steve DeBaun on March 26, 2014

      Not directly. I actually toyed with a few systems that interacted with Glory early in the design. Every interaction I added just seemed to clutter up the decision making process. What I concluded was that Glory was best left as “pure” as possible.

  6. Mark Hansen on July 4, 2014

    It kinda reminds me of the show “Cutthroat Kitchen”, on Food network. Chefs cook competitively, but they can buy obstacles to throw in the way of their opponents. At the end of the competition, the winner takes home the amount of money they have left over after buying the obstacles.

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