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Using mechanics that reflects reality, the problem with auctions

Page: DesignArticle.Article201001120516AM - Last Modified : Tue, 13 Jul 10 - 3417 Visits

Author : Eric Pietrocupo

In real life, you are using tons of mechanics. For example, if you are waiting to take the bus, you are using a line management mechanic: first to arrive, first to enter the bus. Why should games be different? Games tries to give the player an experience which is generally a reproduction of a real life experience. But if you do not use the right mechanics, you will not recreate the experience appropriately. For example, if I make a game where you must wait to get in the bus and the first person to enter the bus is determined by auction, I have just killed the experience because it does not make sense to set up an auction to enter a bus. That is the problem with many games have, they use mechanics that does not make sense and it kills their game experience.

The problem with auctions

I hate auction games. One day, I tried to ask myself, why do I hate auction so much? I think I don't like the competition given by the auction, I find it hard to evaluate what is the value of the object being auctioned and I don't like the mind games behind it. But I think the real problem is that auction are used in places that should not be, like in the bus example above. In real life, an auction mechanic is an under used mechanic you see most of the time in real auctions like Ebay. But in the board game world, the auction is an overused mechanic used for anything.

I remember playing a game where you acquired some sort of civilization upgrades through auctions. That game was horribly boring because in my mind, never a civilization had acquired a technology by auctioning it. There has been technology races, and that was maybe the objective of the designers, simulate a technology race, but for me auction does not simulate a technology race. Personally, I would have use a mechanic like this for a technology race:

Tech race mechanic: Each x resource spent makes you roll an additional die. If one of the die rolled is a 6, you gain a new technology.

Which mean that a players which invest more resources is more likely to develop a new technology. But the player who only roll one die also have a chance to succeed.

Some might say that the mechanics are similar, since in both ask for players to invest a huge amount of resource to get what they want. True, but there are many other elements that makes both mechanics really different which makes auction inappropriate.

 Auction MechanicTech Race Mechanic
Investing more resources increase your chances of successYesYes
Investing the most resources makes you always winYesNo
You can win by spending few resourcesNoYes
More than one player can winNoYes
People lose resources spent if they failYes or NoYes
Need a third person to control the mechanicyesno

If you compare both mechanics above it makes more sense in a technology race that you could succeed with few resources ( it has been done in history, it's called a breakthrough) and that many players can win (multiple civilizations can create the same tech at the same time) which are options the auction does not offer.

To hold an auction, you first need something to auction and you need somebody to control the auction. You can't auction a technology as a tech race because there is nobody that controls the auction. Still you could re-theme the game and say that there is a god willing to give technology away if the civilization are willing to pay him resources to acquire it. In that case, it would have made more sense to hold an auction.

I talked about it once on a forum and there is an example where somebody wanted to make a zombie game where you auction weapon. I said to him that it did not made sense that surviving people start auctioning weapons. Who will control the auctions, the zombies? But I said, you can change the theme to make sure the auction fits. Let say that your game takes place in a TV show, at the beginning they auction a weapon and then they throw you in a maze full of zombies. Now it make sense since the entity controlling the auction is the TV show. So there are always ways to re-theme a game to make sure that an auction mechanic could blend in.

Beautiful mechanics that makes no sense

It seems that some mechanics are chosen for the decision branch they create which could be called strategy. It seem like if people designed board games around: "give strategic choices to the players" rather than "make the player feel like if he was doing it for real". Which mean that in many games mechanics are added for the only reason of adding strategy. Mechanics are not added for giving the player a better experience.

When I want to talk about mechanics that makes no sense, the starcraft board game is always my best example. In Starcraft, you place order tokens on some planets to indicate what are the actions you are going to do. So far, it seems OK because you could say that they want you to plan ahead what is going to happen. The only problem is that these orders are resolved in reverse order like a computer stack (first in, last out). Now tell me, when did it occurred in your life that you thought about what you were going to do ... in reverse order? It probably never happened and never will. So this mechanic is totally breaking the Starcraft experience.

But it does not mean that the mechanic is bad, in fact it is a beautiful mechanic but used at the wrong place. There are other situation where a mechanic like this would have been wonderful: a time travel game. You could make a time travel game where you must plan what happens in the future before knowing what happens in the past. For a game like this, the stack mechanic would have been perfect. But since Starcraft does not involve any time traveling, it does not work.

Another example is memoir 44. Many people who did not liked this game had problems with the order cards. It seemed illogical that for example, one of their flank could not move at all for the whole game because they did not draw the card to be able to move it. Somebody told me that these cards where an abstraction of all the problems and details that could happen to communication making your units not receiving their orders.

I have no problem with abstraction of mechanics. It's true that sometimes you need to simplify many details into one high level mechanic so that the player does not have to think about all the details behind it. The order card mechanic is also interesting and it has been seen else where. What was illogical, is that one of your flank would be able to do nothing for the whole game. Think about it, if you were on the battlefield and you were getting attacked, you would not simply have stayed there and wait until you received order. You would actually moved and fight back. These actions would not have been as efficient as if you received orders, but you would have still did something. So instead, they should have done that you could sacrifice any card to move any flank you want but that action would be much less efficient that actually playing a real card. That way, no flank could possibly be blocked.


So I strongly suggest that people looks how it is done in real life and try to use similar mechanics in order for their game to reproduce the right experience. If the game can make the player feel what he would actually feel in real life, it makes the game much more immersive.

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