Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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Pivot points, VP clogging, and catchup mechanisms

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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I’m a big fan of the Board Game Design Lab podcast. It has taught me a lot about game design and if you’re into game design, you should go subscribe to it and go through the back catalog - some of the episodes are pure gold.

In the latest episode on catchup mechanisms, however, there was an important point made that I disagree with (and a lot I agreed with). That disagreement got me to write this post on pivot mechanisms. A topic that I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time, because it’s important if you want to understand and design engine building games. It also ventures into the territory of catch-up mechanisms, which is a topic I also find interesting and useful in my work.

VP clogging

The point I disagreed with was about whether a specific mechanism in Dominion is a catch-up mechanism or not. So, to discuss that, we need to introduce Dominion.

Dominion is the game that spawned the deck building genre. You build your deck by adding good cards and removing bad ones, which results in a deck (your engine) that becomes better thus helping you compete to be the first to a specific number of victory points (VPs).

VPs are represented by cards that go into your deck and does nothing apart being worth VP. This means that the more VP you get the more they clog up your deck and thus make your engine less efficient. I’ll call this mechanism VP clogging (I haven’t seen any name for it) and it’s rather ingenious in my opinion.

This slows you down more and more as you get closer and closer to the end of the game, which makes the game feel tense, because the leader will feel the slow down first and so the other players can get close to her number of VP.

From gallery of mortenmdk

A simplistic graph that illustrates the slowdown in VP scoring of a Dominion player.

Catchup mechanisms should either hurt the leader or help the underdogs and since VP clogging hurts everyone the guest argued that it’s not a catchup mechanism. A argument which at the surface makes sense.

To understand why I disagree we must dive below the surface and talk about pivot mechanisms. As luck would have it that’s the topic of the next section. If that’s not pure serendipity, I don’t know what is.

Pivot mechanisms

Some engine building games consist of two phases, an engine building phase and a VP scoring phase. Examples of this are:

• Terra Mystica’s midgame switch from building a resource production engine to using that engine to score VP.
• Viticulture’s switch from planting vines and building structures to using those vines and structure to make and sell wine for VPs.
• Scythe where one strategy is to build a production engine and then do a switch to churn out resources and other stuff worth VPs or the last-minute territory grab of another common strategy.
• Friday where you first get rid of all the junk cards your deck starts with which burns life points and then when you’re within inches of dying you switch to acquiring good cards and rebuilding your life points.

What happens is that the player pivots from building his engine to using that engine to generate VPs or in the case of Friday switching from one type of engine building to another.

The effect of pivot decisions

In the graph shown earlier in this post the pivot point was very clear: The VP graph went from flatlining at zero to suddenly scoring VPs.

Deciding when to pivot can make or break your chances to win. If you pivot too early you’ll generate VP too slow, but if you pivot to late the game will be over before you’ve generated enough VP to win. Personally, I find this decision very interesting and it can create some tension filled home stretches.

We can visualize the effect of the pivot timing with two simplified graphs for VP generation for early and late pivots in VP based engine builders.

From gallery of mortenmdk

A simplistic graph that illustrates VP generation for an early and a late pivot where the early pivot wins.

From gallery of mortenmdk

A simplistic graph that illustrates VP generation for an early and a late pivot where the late pivot wins.

To be or not to be a catchup mechanism

Now, the scene is set and we’re ready to move on to the podcast topic and I’ll therefore return to VP clogging by combining the Dominion pivot-VP graph from the first part of this post with the two general pivot-VP graphs just above.

From gallery of mortenmdk

A simplistic graph that illustrates VP generation for an early and a late pivot in Dominion where the early pivot wins.

From gallery of mortenmdk

A simplistic graph that illustrates VP generation for an early and a late pivot in Dominion where the late pivot wins.

These graphs illustrates the crux of the discussion: The argument that VP clogging is not a catchup mechanism hinges on the idea that everybody is hindered equally by the mechanism. That’s not the case in Dominion, though, since the total hindrance of VP clogging is given by the number of turns you have each VP card in your deck and the player who pivots last with a better engine has fewer turns with VP points in his deck and thus is hindered less.

The superior engine of the late pivot will simply plow through the VP clogging barrier faster than the initial leader of the game who pivoted earlier and so the mechanism hurts the leader the most. This means that the non-catchup argument loses its hinge and we can see that we actually have a catchup mechanism.

No, this is not a potshot

Before saying goodbye please let me stress that this is not potshot or criticism of the guest of the BGDL podcast episode, Joseph Z. Chen, since I generally agree with what he’s saying, it’s just this specific point that I disagree with and I find it a very interesting point worth a blog post.

And now go check out the Kickstarter for Joseph’s game Fantastic Factories which is solo playable .
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