Musings from a not-so-serious gamer

Random thoughts from someone who loves the idea of games, spends way too much time on BGG, does actually play games, but isn't all that passionate about them.
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All-pay auctions are everywhere

Kevin B. Smith
United States
Mercer Island
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There is a form of auction known as "All-pay"[1], where everyone has to pay their bid, whether they won or lost. According to wikipedia, "All-pay auctions are primarily of academic interest..." Well, I'm here to tell you that this auction format is alive and well in board games.

I think I first saw this mechanic when researching some auction-based games I had not heard of (and ended up not getting). As one review described, it's a nasty mechanic, leading to overbidding and wars of attrition. I immediately realized that it's a mechanic I would not enjoy in a game, so whenever I read about auctions in games, I check to see whether they are all-pay or not.

It was only this week that I realized this mechanic shows up in other ways that you might not realize. One example is the Pharaoh track in Ra and Ra: The Dice Game. Over time, you can buy tiles (Ra) or keep die rolls (Ra Dice) that advance you on the Pharaoh track. At the end of each round, whoever has the most gets a bonus, and whoever has the least loses points. Yup, it's (more or less) an all-pay auction. In a 2p game, which is how I play Ra Dice most of the time, it is exactly an all-pay auction.

Interestingly, I had already realized that I would not compete in the Pharaoh track. In Ra Dice, I'll never keep a Pharaoh roll. The only way I advance on the Pharaoh track is when my 3rd roll produces one, and I don't have the choice to re-roll it.

In 7 Wonders, I found myself ignoring military. At first, I thought it was due to my inherently pacifist nature. Now I realize that I was subconsciously refusing to participate in an all-pay auction. In that game, if you have more military strength than your neighbor, you get a bonus, and if you have less, you get a penalty. Whether you have zero or "opponent minus one", the outcome is the same.

The most recent game I noticed an all-pay auction in was Airlines Europe. There is one stock that is difficult to obtain, and whose "price" (payoff) is not affected by adding routes on the board. It pays off at a fixed rate, $X to whoever has the most, and lower amounts to lesser shareholders. Once again, this is a form of all-pay auction, and I don't want to participate in it.

The fundamental problem for me is that these "auctions" become an arms race. In order to stay ahead you must commit more and more resources. And to avoid losing, your opponent(s) must do the same. All that wasted effort, and anyone who stays out of the fray gets to do all the things the participants are missing out on.

As the computer said in the movie Wargames, "the only winning move is not to play."

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