Catch-Up Mechanisms How Games Combat The Runaway Leader Problem

posted in: Theory | 7

Hang around a modern board game hobbyist long enough and you’ll inevitably hear their critique of the behemoth of American board games: Monopoly. Central to that critique will be two arguments:

  1. Roll and move is a bad mechanism because it doesn’t involve any decisions by the players
  2. There is a runaway leader problem. Once someone gets behind in the game, there’s not really anything they can do to catch up.

Implicit in this argument is the assumption that good modern board games have eliminated these problems. While the first point is well-taken (modern games certainly do have more decision points than Monopoly, and roll and move is all but extinct), have we really fixed the runaway leader problem? Before doing a bit of research for this article I would have assumed that the answer to that question was unequivocally in the affirmative. Now I’m not so sure it’s that simple.

Attempting to Quantify

When preparing to write this article I brainstormed 4 different methods games use to fight the runaway leader problem. What surprised me is that I had the most difficult time finding many examples of what I would perceive to be the most direct catch-up mechanisms. I then did a quick survey of my own board game collection and placed each applicable game into one of the 4 categories, or listed it as having no catch-up mechanism. While this is absolutely not a representative sample, I do think it provides some interesting insights. Before I get to the result of my survey, here are the 4 categories:

  1. A specific catch-up mechanism, either helping those behind or harming those in the lead.
  2. Point floors–games where a typical person will have a score relatively close to the leader so long as they make even halfway intelligent decisions.
  3. Catch-up mechanisms built into the core of the gameplay itself in a more subtle way.
  4. Self-balancing via player interaction. Any game where players have enough of an ability to target the leader to give the others a chance to catch up.

Now, of course, there are certainly methodological leniencies here. For instance, I distinguished between categories 1 and 3 mostly through gut feeling. If I could point to a section of the game and say “that there is the catch-up mechanism” then I placed it into category 1. If I couldn’t do that, it went into category 3.

Along the same lines, there are also a few games that span multiple categories. In those cases I placed it in the category where the effect was most severe. For instance, I’ll talk about Power Grid in a moment as a prime example of a category 1 game, but technically it could also fall into category 4 because players could attempt to route-block the leader. It also kind of fits into category 3 as well. But neither of those two aspects of the game are as effectual as the actual catch-up mechanism.

Surprising Results

What were the results when I looked at my collection? The rarest type of game was category 1, with just over 8% of my games having a specific catch-up mechanism. The second least common was category 3, with just under 10% of games having catch-up mechanisms seamlessly integrated into the gameplay (and two of those games were from the same ‘system’, so I could have counted that as just 1 game). About 22.5% of games fit into category 3 with a point floor, another 26% relied on the players to balance, and nearly 34% did not have any catch up mechanism that I could think of at all.

Perhaps these results do not surprise you, but they did give me pause. My game collection is fairly well-rounded, with a good number of Euro, American, war, card, and party games. I don’t tend towards any one particular style of game. Does this mean that modern games aren’t quite as divorced from Monopoly-style games of yore? Is the runaway leader problem not as significant as people think? Is my game collection a pile of filth? Maybe, perhaps, and no. (My game collection is excellently curated, thank you very much). Let’s look a bit deeper into the categories and see why games may or may not need to implement a catch-up mechanism.

Category 1: Ball and Chain

As I mentioned before, Power Grid is a perfect example of this type of mechanism. In Power Grid, each player is trying to power a network of power plants of various types. In order to do that, they have to purchase raw materials (coal, oil, etc). As people purchase these materials, the prices increase, and they’re purchased in reverse turn order. Expanding your power grid on the map is also done in reverse turn order, increasing the costs for those towards the front of the pack, and giving the players behind a chance to block the leader’s expansion.

As players buy these resources, you can see the price increase.

The costs these rules incur upon the leader are so significant that Power Grid actually becomes a game of attempting to manipulate your position in the turn order to maximal effect. This does an amazing job of keeping players in the game until the very end, but many people are rubbed the wrong way by the fact that the catch-up mechanism is a fundamental strategic consideration in the game.

My favorite example of a ball and chain mechanism are the “speed bumps” in Suburbia. In Suburbia you are managing two levels of income: actual money income to give you the ability to purchase more tiles, and population (victory point) income. As you accrue victory points, you will run over these speed bumps on the score track that bump down both of your incomes one slot. As your victory points increase, the frequency of these speed bumps also increase.

This is a brilliant mechanism. It doesn’t eliminate a strategy of going for points early and aggressively, but it does make that kind of single-minded approach more difficult. It keeps players engaged throughout the game, because they can’t rest on one particular combo or approach. Once you start getting victory points, you need to account for the massive losses you’re about to take.

What can we learn from this? A category 1 style game will most likely be great at keeping all players involved throughout the game because the effect of the mechanism is so strong. But, for the same reason, it might play a key role in shaping the entire strategy of the game itself. While this is what comes to mind when one thinks of a catch-up mechanism, it may also be too heavy handed for some people.

Other examples of Category 1 games: Churchill, Dungeon Lords.

Category 2: Point Floors

Found primarily in point-salad style Euros, the category 2 game is one where points are accrued even through beginner-level play to the extent that everyone feels like they’re keeping up with the leader, even if they actually aren’t. In this kind of game, the lowest score might be only 70-90% of the winner’s score, no matter the skill level of the players.

Key games in this category would be The Castles of Burgundy and Tokaido. Since nearly every action either generates points directly or puts the player one step towards inevitable points, there are a lot of points that are merely padding, while the margins for victory are smaller.

How can you fault a game that looks like this for being generous to the players?

Because the people trailing the pack probably don’t have as much knowledge of the game as the leader, they may be unable to recognize how far behind they actually are. In that sense the category 2 game uses psychology to disguise the appearance of a runaway leader problem rather than fixing the problem itself.

I don’t mind this kind of game, but I do know that some people detest it. I think people who tend towards more hardcore Eurogames might find it wasteful and unnecessarily soft. The category 2 game isn’t necessarily a catch-up mechanism itself, but it does give the illusion of being one.

Other examples of Category 2 games: Five Tribes, Terra Mystica, Above and Below.

Category 3: Subtle incorporation

I might as well call this the “Dominion” category, because it’s the first game I thought of when brainstorming for this article, and also the hardest game to categorize.

Everything’s a card

For all of its innovations, the most brilliant part of Dominion was making the victory points cards that go into your deck. What this means is that getting victory points fundamentally weakens your engine. Therefore you need to have such a good deck that you can grab enough points to secure the victory before you have to shuffle your discard pile, or factor in the fact that your engine is going to grind down to a halt as the game progresses.

This creates a beautiful tension in the game where everyone circles around building their engines for a while. But, once someone purchases a victory point card, the entire game suddenly shifts into a mad rush to either outpace that player in points or build up an engine that can overtake them extremely quickly.

Netrunner also does a beautiful job of incorporating catch-up mechanisms into the game itself. This fantastic article explains it in more detail, but the short of it is this: there are two fundamental actions in Netrunner for both the corp and the runner. They can either build up their board state (economic resources, ice, defenses, icebreakers, etc), or they can attempt to score points (either through advancing for the corp or running for the runners). For both sides, attempting to score points costs both time and money. Particularly for the corp, advancing and scoring an agenda will take, at a bare minimum, two credits and most of an entire turn.

Therefore every time one side scores points, they have almost always done so at a cost to their own tempo. The one exception to this I can think of is ice destruction, where the runner can simultaneously make a run (which brings a chance to score) and improve their relative board state. This is one reason that ice destruction has historically been an extremely powerful ability, and why nearly everyone in the competitive scene right now agrees that it’s too strong.

Trigger warning for Netrunner players

Compare this to a more traditional CCG like Hearthstone or Magic: in both of those games, the board state can easily snowball into a victory. If you place a minion on the board, you are both improving your board state and furthering victory because that minion can then attack the opponent.

While this category may not be able to be categorically distinguished from category 1*, I’m going to keep it separate if only to highlight exceptional catch-up mechanisms. In my mind this is the best category to be in, simply because it’s seamless, subtle, and it seems to provide more interesting interactions and decisions in the game without overpowering it.

Other examples of Category 3 games: Quantum, Codenames.

Category 4: Player Balancing

This is the classic multiplayer conflict game solution: just let the players choose to beat up on the leader. Nothing exemplifies this more than Cosmic Encounter, which is entirely centered on this kind of interaction. Peter Olotka, one of the designers of Cosmic Encounter, once proclaimed in an interview that “balance is for wimps”.

So are stable win conditions

In Cosmic Encounter, every player receives a special ability that ranges from useful to absurdly broken. They’re given attack cards that can range from 0 to 40. Other cards drawn randomly from the deck can also do ridiculous, broken things. Absolutely nothing in this game is balanced or fair. But, one of the fundamental actions available is the ability to ally with either side in a battle. Because of that, games of Cosmic Encounter tend to be very close to the very end.

Any game with player conflict can fit into this category, and many of these games do not have any other catch-up mechanism. Look at Twilight Imperium, Dominant Species, or Kemet. In all of those games it’s possible (and easy) to fall completely behind, past the point of being able to catch up on your own. But in every case that doesn’t tend to happen because of the players self-balancing.

To some this might seem like a cop-out, because the designer doesn’t need to think about balance of a runaway leader problem. To me, though, these games are often my favorites because they encourage careful diplomacy and player interaction. The big downside, however, is that any game that relies on players to balance can create kingmaker situations where one player who has fallen behind at the end of the game can essentially choose who wins based on who they attack, block, or target. New players who don’t understand the importance of keeping the leader in check may also unintentionally kingmake through inaction.

Other examples of Category 4 games: Blood Rage, Fire in the Lake, Eclipse.

Category 5: No catch-up mechanism

These are the games running out in the wild with no restraints whatsoever. Looking at my list of games, many of these are either very short games or designed for only two players. Twilight Struggle certainly has runaway leader problems. Once you have influenced a country it is strictly more expensive for your opponent to reverse that. Because of this, if two players of differing skill levels are playing, the better player should probably handicap themselves somehow or the game is going to be a beatdown.

It looks innocent, but it’s mean.

Descent and Imperial Assault seem to embrace the runaway leader problem by providing additional rewards to the side that wins any given mission in the campaign. This helps them win the next mission, which provides more rewards, so on and so forth. Thus campaigns of these games tend to overwhelmingly swing towards one side or the other by the time the campaign reaches its close.

Through the Ages also doesn’t have any catch up mechanisms, and, particularly in the first edition of the game, the leader is incentivized to beat up on the weakest player with their superior military as much as possible.

Through the Ages doesn’t seem quite as unfair as Descent or Imperial Assault, though. I suppose this is because if you are that weak player getting pummeled to the ground, it’s because you didn’t keep your military strength up as a deliberate choice. Thus the consequence seems to be more directly related to your choices rather than the results of a mission that is based on choice, but also a lot of dice rolling.

This category, despite being the most frequent among my games, is the hardest to do well. Through the Ages is a fantastic game, but it can be absolutely brutal. This by itself will drive away many players. The second edition addresses many of these problems, by both implementing a small catch-up mechanism (tactics cards eventually become available in a common pool), and by softening some of the more powerful war cards.

It’s not impossible to have a good, or even great game without having any catch-up mechanism, but it is more difficult to do, and many games would be better without their runaway leader issues. Firefly and Machi Koro immediately spring to mind as games that need some way to help players who have fallen behind.

Other examples of Category 5 games: Axis and Allies, Sekigahara, Food Chain Magnate.

What can we learn from this?

I think there are a few lessons we can learn from this evaluation. First, direct catch-up mechanisms are probably not as common as you would think. Games frequently rely on the players or a point floor to provide that effect. Second, finding an innovative and integrated way to provide a catch-up mechanism is extremely difficult, and we ought to give credit to the games that manage to have this.

Finally, as a game designer, you ought to always keep the runaway leader problem in mind, and see how your game manages to mitigate it, or if it can survive without any catch-up mechanism. If you do incorporate one, look at the negative experiences that mechanism may create and see if you can find a solution for that problem.

This process may create a bloated pile of band-aids for your game that are worse than the problems they’re trying to fix, but thinking through problems this way might result in some novel, elegant solutions that you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

*Even if categories 1 and 3 are combined in my survey, it’s still the least represented.

What are your favorite catch-up mechanisms in games? What are your least favorite? Comment below!


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7 Responses

  1. Interesting assessment. The catch-up mechanics you mention in this article are, in my opinion, not catch-up mechanics at all. They are, rather, simply part of the strategy of the game as you mentioned. Dominion, Power Grid, and many others leave this “mechanic” on the table for all to see, and often the winner is the player that can most effectively mitigate the mechanic.

    I would argue that there simply is no such thing as a true catch-up mechanic. They simply become part of the strategy of the game. The only true catch-up mechanic would be one that gives the losing player(s) points/resources/ect. at random and inconsistently. This is necessary so that it wouldn’t become part of the strategy to stay behind the curve. I think a mechanic similar to this would be totally unhealthy and not widely appreciated.

  2. The first catch-up mechanism I thought of was Charity in Munchkin (not a game I’ve played for a while) – I think that qualifies as what Bubba describes: “gives the losing player(s) points/resources/ect. at random and inconsistently”

    What do you consider the catch-up mechanisms in Codenames to be? The possibility of the leading team guessing the assassin? The narrowing set of remaining cards leading to 0 clues for a team with many remaining? Making a comeback doesn’t seem like the norm in my experience of it so far, and a victory by the opposing team guessing the assassin feels as hollow as the loss is painful.

    • Matthew Giesmann

      The 0 number clue is the extreme catch-up mechanic in Codenames, but I think the +1 guess qualifies. Especially as the remaining cards narrow, losing teams can make up a lot of ground in the last couple turns cleaning up clues that they missed early on. I actually really like the +1 guess – It encourages more ambitions clues early on and rewards taking risks later on. I guess it would qualify in the 3rd category, because both teams do have the +1 guess… it just benefits the losing team more and they are more likely to have extra cards left over from previous clues.

    • Marc Davis

      Codenames has two small and subtle ways for the losing team to catch up. The first is based on the fact that teams almost always go for the easiest word connections first. Maybe whatever expert Codename play is looks different than that. But the latter clues are often much more difficult. But the team behind gets an easier time because more words overall have been eliminated. So more potential clues are open to them that may have been closed before. It’s not a large help, but I think it does impact the game somewhat.

    • AH! Munchkin! You sir, are correct. And that’s probably why that game is only useful to laugh at and not to play!

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