Variant: The Catch-Up Mechanism | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Variant: The Catch-Up Mechanism

Image via BGG User Aarontu

Image via BGG User Aarontu

Some games can have a “runaway leader” problem. It’s also sometimes called the “rich get richer” problem, but basically it means that the person who is in the lead gets more bonuses or has accumulated more power. And, as such, he can increase his lead over the other players who are yet to get there. In that situation, it’s unlikely that anyone else can catch an early leader.

Not all games suffer from this problem, but some do. Games where you level up or that feature an economic snowball will see this most prevalent. So designers come up with “catch-up” mechanisms – ideas about the game that make it harder on the leader or give trailing players a bit of a bonus. But not all of them are created equally. Some are more ham-fisted.

The one that most commonly draws ire is Power Grid. Now, I really enjoy the game and would happily play it any time you liked. So this isn’t just a rant. But it’s important to critique one aspect of the game that, sadly, doesn’t quite work as intended.

Essentially, the players in the lead have to auction first (bad), buy last (bad) and enter cities last (bad). Players who have not built as many cities get to auction later (good), buy earlier (good), and enter cities earlier (good).

While this seems good in theory, in practice the benefits to the trailing players are so substantial that a winning strategy is often to hang in the middle of the pack, save up your resources, and then have one or two explosive turns to try to pull out the win. When using the “catch up” mechanism by deliberately underperforming becomes a viable strategy, you know you’ve lost your way.

But let’s contrast that with Tash-Kalar. The more pieces you get on the board, the more creatures you can summon and the more abilities you can generate. You can also kill the other player’s bits. And when you do, you might end up in a situation where one player has a ton of stuff on the board and can easily summon new ones, and the other has so little on the board that he can’t realistically compete. To solve this problem, Tash-Kalar has the flare.

Each player gets a flare card. The card is playable only if the opponent has an indicated number of units more than you do. And those flares typically allow you to place a piece out of turn, move an existing piece, or get an extra action. Essentially, it allows you to get a jump start on summoning a new creature. And, once you summon, you gain abilities and get right back into the game.

Even though the flares are nice, they aren’t so nice that they make you want to fall behind enough to use one. They do feel like a reset – getting another chance that the game wouldn’t otherwise provide. But it only tangentially impacts overall strategy.

There’s no perfect science to the catch-up mechanism. Some games don’t use or need them. But if a designer thinks it’s necessary to include one, then they should be sure that it really just catches them up. And doesn’t become a reason to underperform.

There is 1 comment.

  1. Andrew said on September 22, 2016 at 2:23 pm

    Played Power Grid for the first time a few weeks ago. That catch-up mechanism was brutal. I trounced the competition all game and just barely held on for a win because I was paying more for resources and placement connections. It felt kinda cheap and ruined a bit of the experience.

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