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Are auctions evil?

Page: DesignArticle.Article-AuctionEvil - Last Modified : Sat, 11 Feb 12 - 2277 Visits

Author : Eric Pietrocupo

I decided to write this article many months later after a hot discussion on the board game designer forum that can be found here.


Some of the comments on this thread have been summarised in this article. As you will see, I am against auctions, so this article will talk about auctions more negatively than positively. You can always see the original thread to see the pro and cons posted by other users.

In general, auctions are a tool like any other mechanic. It's just that this mechanic is over used in board games compared to real life. Before the existence of E-Bay, you probably never participated to an action in a real life situation. According to board game geek, I have calculated that approximately 20% of the strategy games have auctions/bidding mechanics in them. If we follow the marketing rules that once 20% of the population own an item, it's a common item, I would say that auctions is a common mechanic.

Thematically illogical

Rules and laws does not work unless it is enforced by an entity. Laws are enforced by the police and the court. In auctions, the entity that enforce the rule of the auction is the seller. The rule being: "the player who bid the most wins" because that is what the seller is looking for: Make more money.

It's impossible in real life to have an auction where there is no seller. For example, if there is a bottle of wine on a table owned by nobody, it will be impossible to 2 or more people to have an auction for the wine bottle because there is no seller. The money bid will go nowhere and there is nobody to enforce the rule to make sure that the bottle will go the the highest bidder. So you better have a mechanic that does not involve the seller to resolve the situation. For example, rock paper scissor is very common in real life situation.

In order for a board game to work, all the players must agree to follow and enforce the rules of the game. As soon as a players not to follow the rules, also called cheating, the game cannot work any more. Now most board games takes advantage of this board game feature to create auctions where there is no selling entity. So the bottle of wine example above would be possible in a board game because the players enforce the rules of the auction and the money vanishes to the "Bank" when it's used.

This is why most auctions are thematically illogical. Now many adults does not care because they are simply boring, but for those with a sense of imagination that what to feel the game as a real experience will simply be kicked out by the theme.

There are games that have valid auctions in them (with a real selling entity that is most of the time another players) but that is a minority of the games.

The Fake Balance

The most common argument is that auction is the best way to balance a game. This argument is far from being true. The only way to achieve perfect balance with auction is to play with only experience players and with probably always the same group of players. Else the game will ALWAYS be unbalanced.

The first problem is the ability to evaluate the value of the item auctioned. This is mostly dependent on players experience. If newbies does not have any bidding guide line, they can easily overbid or under bid. These bids will unbalance the game and probably kick the newbie out of the competition. Some might say that it's normal for newbies to always lose, but I would say that people don't replay games they do not own that many often since many gamer are stuck with the "cult of the new". So there will always be newbies to a game and they will always lose.

The second problem is that sometimes players are forced to bid on an item they do not want in order to raise the price to make sure the other player does not get it for almost free. This force the players to analyse the value of an item for other players and force him to bid to prevent him from paying not enough. But sometimes already hard to calculate their own value so you don't want to bother about others. So if people don't care, or if people fail to recognise that he is getting something too cheap, them nobody will block that player and that will unbalance the game even more. Newbies are generally not going to do that kind of blocking and turn order of the bidding can also influence which player is forced to block another player.

So there is not any balanced achieved, and the game could end up being played differently according to the group which gives a different game experience that sometimes the designer cannot predict.

Designer's laziness

Why can't the designer define a value for the item sold, is it because he is too lazy to do so? Auctions is like a patching mechanic that can fit in many situations. It's a bit like quick time events in video games. When designers don't know how to resolve a conflict, an easy way to do it is to add an auction.

So it creates a game where the designer had no idea what to put in there and decided to place an auction to make the players finish the game design for him. The problem is that this kind of design is overused, most auctions mechanics are used to patch things up. So this is why I consider that adding auction is a lazy decision from the designer because another better mechanics could have been used instead.

Alternative mechanics

There are many alternatives to the auction mechanics, I'll just name a few that has similarities with the auction system.

Vinci: In vinci, you layout 6 civilivation randomly distributed which each have an increasing cost where the first one is free. When a player pay and pick a civ, the other civilization price will drop and a new civ will be added at the end of the line.

This kind of mechanics creates an auction like situation where the more pricy a civ look, the more people are willing to pay for it. Else they can simply wait and get it for cheaper. So the player's taste/need will influence the value. But there is no need to block players getting something too cheap, there is less chance to overbid or under bid because the value are there.

Ra: This is an auction game, But I just want to mention that by having fixed values, it makes it easier for the player to evaluate a hand.

Puerto Rico: You add gold on the roles that were not used, so you give rebates for taking something the player does not want. In this case, all the roles have an equal value, you do not need to spend more to get a role, but there will be a natural selection that will make some roles worth less.

Eclipse: Instead of having an auction for the first player, the first player to pass (do no more actions) will be the first player for the next turn. Easy and simple.


So my suggestion is that if you have auctions in your game, try to find a way to remove it especially if you have many auctions. I think the best auctions games is when a player has something to sell to another players. But having an auction to get something the game gives you is bad most of the time.

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