Morten Monrad Pedersen
A core concept in many games – particularly engine builders – is the pivot point and understanding it is important for both game designers and gamers.
So, let’s talk about the pivot point and its evil twin.
The classical pivot point
If you already know what a pivot point is in an engine builder, you can choose to skip ahead to the next section.
Still here? Great. Let’s start by talking about engine building games. If we speak in broad and simplified terms many of those have two elements:
1) Building an engine.
2) Using the engine to achieve the goal.
The deckbuilding games Star Realms, and the Legendary series of games are good examples of this. They have cards than give you money and cards that deal damage to the game-controlled opponents which you must beat to win the game.
You start out with some weak cards and during the first part of the game you mainly buy better money cards. This builds your economic engine, so that you gradually can buy better and better cards.
You can’t win the game by just getting more money cards, though, so at some point you have to change your focus and start buying damage cards. This is the pivot point and deciding when to pivot is a core part of these games.
Star Realms. Basic damage card on the left and basic money card on the right. Image credit: Steph Hodge.
The same goes for many other engine builders such as Terra Mystica where the first part of the game is spent increasing your production of resources (workers, gold, etc.) which then go back into your engine to improve it even more. While doing this you pay limited attention to each round’s specific VP bonus rule.
In the second part of the game that changes and you pay very careful attention to those VP bonus rules and prioritize them higher than increasing your resource production.
A Terra Mystica scoring tile with the VP scoring of the round on the left. Image credit: Carmen Norris.
We can illustrate the pivot point using a highly simplified diagram that plots VP as a function of game turns for two players.
Simplified illustration of pivot points of two players.
The diagram show how crucial timing the pivot can be to win the game.
For the games I’ve mentioned the pivot is not quite as clear cut as I’ve been making it out to be for didactic reasons. Instead it’s a more gradual change.
There are games, though, where you can point to the specific moment where the pivot is made. An example of this is the last minute land grab strategy in Scythe, where you go directly from defensive engine building to a final explosive turn where you move everything you can to grab as many territories as possible (they give you VP), complete a secret objective (= VP) and do attacks to grab territories from your opponents and gain VP from winning combat. You time this pivot so that you can surprise-end the game in the same turn and thus make sure that your opponents don’t have time to counter you.
Pivot points are mainly associated with engine builders, but they also exist in other genres. E.g. maneuvering your armies into a favorable position and then starting the attack in a war game.
The second pivot point
In engine builders you get more and more powerful and the game often ends shortly after the pivot point. This can lead players to feel that the game ended just as they were going to enjoy the fruit of their labor and that the game would have been more fun if they had gotten just one more turn.
Often, though, they’re wrong about this. The game wouldn’t have been more fun in the next turn and there are multiple reasons for this, e.g. the constant acceleration can lead to so large differences in engine power that the extra turn can easily end up as playing out the boring proof of a specific player winning. For the purpose of this post the relevant reason is a second pivot point.
We can use Scythe as an illustration of this. Scythe has an “achievement” track with 10 different “achievements”. The game ends immediately once a player has accomplished 6 of those.
The achievements of Scythe, well, 9 of the 10 achievements. Image credit: Gavin Meek.
You’ll choose 6 of those 10 over to go for over the course of the game. This lets you choose between 210 different combinations and each lead to different strategies and game flow. Once you accomplished an achievement, you’re at the end of the line for that strategic path.
If the game was to continue to 10 achievements, you’d at some point have achieved 6 of them leaving you 4 options to choose between and after that 3 options etc.
This means that at this point you’d be forced to choose between two orders of magnitude fewer options and at the end there’d be no choice and you’d be force to go for the last one.
My point here is that in any true engine builder you’ll reach the end of the line of your current strategic path and be forced to pivot and choose among the lower number of remaining paths. Furthermore, you’ve likely already partially completed which leads them to involve less choice and given your powerful engine you’ll complete them quickly making the choice of which path to complete first unimportant.
Such a narrowed and inconsequential strategic choice is almost always less interesting than choosing among the much higher number of options for which the game is tuned and which are very important for the outcome of the game.
Furthermore, going much past the second pivot point will have all players (at least the winners) end up in a situation where they’ve done almost everything the game has to offer and have almost the same end-game configuration as all previous games, which lowers the replayability.
Therefore, it makes for a better game if it before or at the second pivot point.
Voluntary and forced pivot points
So, in engine builders we have two pivot points. One where you make a voluntary, interesting, and important decision to pivot and one where you’re forced to make a less interesting and inconsequential pivot.
The pivot points are easier to discuss and use in game design if we have separate names for them. Unfortunately, I have never seen them named separately nor compared and contrasted in this way, so I’ll name them myself and as the voluntary pivot point and the forced pivot point. Please chime in the comments if you’ve seen them named previously.
Some games work well without pivot points, but for those who have them a gamer can play better by being aware of the pivot point decision and a designer can make her game better by consciously using a voluntary pivot point and ending the game before or at the forced pivot point.