Variant: Is an Auction a Lazy Game Mechanic?
There are a ton of games that use auctions in order to distribute resources. Prominent examples include Power Grid and Princes of Florence. A more recently released game, Fleet, uses an auction to distribute licenses. With Fleet and Princes of Florence, some of the items up for auction are just flat out better. The players have to realize this and bid up the price to a level where the additional value of the better item is cut off by the greater expense. That way it all evens out.
I wonder if this isn’t lazy. The best games are well-balanced. There might be a wealth of alternate strategies or areas of focus, but there is no one “best” option. In fact, if there is a best option – especially if it is obvious – then that can lead to the downfall of a game. I detest games where I feel like I’m basically an AI because the decisions are easy and immediate. I want to play the game, I don’t want to just facilitate the game playing itself.
Typically, it is the designer’s job to balance the game in a way that is engaging. But auctions can circumvent that. If there is a “best” option, the only way to make it not the “best” is to make it so expensive that it is less attractive. In essence, that puts the onus of balancing the game on the players rather than the designer. Players have to recognize what is worth more and less and respond accordingly. While an experienced group can usually do this well, new players will easily be swamped. And if groupthink creeps in, the game can lose all semblance of fun.
Power Grid and Fleet use this, though they aren’t so bad. The Power Stations or Licenses are fairly obvious as to which is worth more and the players can respond. Of course, it may not be immediately obvious how much better they are. But the worst is Princes of Florence. The Jester is simply the best item that can be acquired 90% of the time. What’s worse, the Jester provides two points to a Work’s value. On first blush, especially for a new player, that may not seem like a big deal. But veterans know better.
Those Jesters also help you get the Best Work bonus – which can be critical to success. If you look at the expected profit a round one or two Jester can bring, it is worth nearly a third of your starting money. New players just don’t expect that. If Jesters aren’t bid up to be properly in line with the expected value of other objects, then the player with the most Jesters wins. In other words, the Jester is so game breaking that other players have to balance the game.
Now, I enjoy all three of the games noted here. But, speaking entirely as a non-designer, I wonder if there isn’t a better way to balance a game than simply making highly unbalanced items up for auction and leaving it to the players to even things out.