I am not an expert at auction games by any stretch of the imagination. I enjoy Vault Wars, but, other than that, I can’t even think of another auction game I have had a good time playing. I guess Castles of Mad King Ludwig was all right.
So how was it that I decided to throw an auction mechanic into my new project and ended up really liking it? It certainly wasn’t my intention at all.
First, I should probably explain point buildings in the game. The large majority of points that are earned in the game come from connecting these point buildings to other buildings that generate the resource required by the building. The resource is delivered, and the player who owns the resource earns points. Determining which point buildings get placed down on the board, then, is a huge factor in the game. If you own the brick-making building, for instance, you want as many buildings that require brick to get placed out on the board.
Initially, placing point buildings on the board was simply governed by a worker-placement action. You send a worker to the action space, you pick a building from a rotating selection, and you put it down somewhere. What was weird, though, is that even though it was the most important action in the game, people hardly ever took it. There are a few fixed point buildings that start out on the board, and people would concentrate on making and delivering the resources required by those fixed building to the exclusion of all else, even when I repeated over and over that people should be taking the new point building action more often.
There was just too much information. There was so much to parse just from what was going on with the map, that players weren’t inclined to look over to the action board and process the point buildings over there and which were good for them to get out onto the board. So I decided I needed to make getting these buildings out on the board automatic. Remove it from the worker-placement mechanics and force players to make a choice about which point building should be placed.
The first iteration I would call more of a vote. Three point building cards got dealt at the start of each round, and each player voted on the one they wanted on the board. There was a decision there, but it was usually pretty basic because it wasn’t too difficult to figure out which building was going to do you the most good. Moreover, someone still needed to determine exactly where on the board it could be placed, which could have huge implications as to who earned points off of it and when they earned those points. I determined that whoever had the fewest points got to place the tile, called it a catch-up mechanic, and let it ride.
It clearly needed to be more dynamic, though, so the next thing to do was turn it into more of an auction. Instead of just having a single vote, players could add to their vote by bidding their workers. Say you’ve got five workers you can use for the round. You can bid two of your workers to give yourself three votes towards a building, but that leaves you with only three workers to use for the rest of the round. And it’s all blind bidding, so you risk throwing those workers away for nothing if you don’t win the vote. Everyone reveals their bids simultaneously, and the building with the most votes is built, with the player who contributed the most votes to the winning building deciding where it gets built. And the player with the fewest points breaks ties, so there’s still a bit of a catch-up mechanic baked in.
I think this auction system solves one of the biggest problems you are likely to face in most other auction games. You sit down to play an auction game, you are given some number of whatever resource, and then you are asked to determine a value for whatever is being auction off based on this arbitrary resource. Best-case scenario, you are given some end-game point conversion value for the resource to give it some comparative value, but still, it is usually a random guessing game until you get a better feel for the game.
For this game, the first auction doesn’t happen until the beginning of the second round, by which point you have already gone through a round of using your workers and getting a good feeling for what their value is. By the time you go into the second round, you can formulate what you want to do that round and how many workers you will need to get it done. Then there is a very tangible cost to bidding more workers than you can spare.
It also helps that the worker placement aspects of the game don’t really feel very much like normal worker placement aspects. Every worker you have in, say, Agricola is vitally important. If you didn’t place a worker in Agricola because you spent him on some nebulous auction, that would result in a significant loss of resources – two more wood or three more food or something. Workers in my game, though, often end up providing very small gains or are contributed to performing communal actions like building roads that any player can use. This is because most actions in the game require a secondary resource – money – and that will often run out before your workers do.
I guess it would be more like bidding workers in Caylus rather than Agricola. Yeah, that’s actually a pretty good analogy. Just think about the implications of that.
Bidding workers has an interesting effect on the turn order of the game, as well. The main portion of the round is split up into two phases, where the workers you didn’t bid are then going to be used in either the first phase or the second phase – vaguely similar to Viticulture. Turn order, however, is changed between the two phases, with first player going to whomever has the fewest workers left for phase two. This encourages players to use as many workers as they can in phase one of the game, but, at the same time, everything they do in phase one costs money.
If you have too many workers and not enough money, it’s just not economical to dump all your workers into phase one actions because you won’t have enough money left to do what you want in phase two. The auction, however, gives players another option. They can dump their workers into the bid without having to pay for them, giving them influence over which building is placed and leaning out their work force to give them a better place in the turn order.
Every time I think about it, I get excited about how well the mechanics work together. There are just a lot of intertwining systems that leads to interesting, complex decisions, which is what I love more than anything in a game. And at the center is this auction system that just surprises me with how much I like it.
It is about figuring out what your opponents are most likely to do, given their board position, and then reacting to that in the appropriate way. And when I think about it like that, it’s actually kind of similar to what I love so much about games like Glass Road and Broom Service. Anticipating what your opponents will do is just fun, especially when you do it correctly.