Catch Me If You Can: The Runaway Leader and Catch-Up Mechanics
You’re 30 minutes into the board game, and there’s already a clear winner. The lead only increases with each passing turn. There’s no hope of winning, and you’ve lost the will to continue.
Many games deal with this challenge of the runaway leader. There are a number of ways to deal with this issue, including some that may surprise you. There are actually a lot of different philosophies and approaches — each with their pros and cons.
First let’s cover the most obvious solution — the catch-up mechanic — before discussing the philosophy on why the catch-up mechanic may not be the best idea. I’ll also cover some more subtle approaches and the psychology behind what the problem really is.
Any discussion about catch-up mechanics in tabletop gaming wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Power Grid. The catch-up mechanic in Power Grid is a very powerful one. Some say it’s brilliant while others feel it’s too heavy-handed and unthematic.
In Power Grid, players are vying for the best power plants and resources in order to power as many cities as possible. Scoring is tracked by how many cities players are able to power and the winner is the player who can power the most cities. The catch-up mechanic in Power Grid favors players who are behind by granting two significant advantages. The player who is winning must bid first during the power plant auction. This opens up the possibility for the last player to gain a great power plant without needing pay much. Additionally, the player in last place gets to purchase resources first. As resources become more scarce, their cost goes up, so going first provides a huge advantage in this regard.
This mechanic is often lauded as a prime example of an effective catch-up mechanic. It certainly accomplishes the goal of helping players who are in last place and making things more difficult for players in the lead. And it does so in a fairly clever way.
However, there are two main criticisms with this approach — one of which is a criticism of catch-up mechanics in general. First, it’s not thematically explained and the complexity of the mechanic can take the player out of the immersion of the game. Second, the mechanic plays such a heavy role in the game that experienced players will play around the catch-up mechanic to such a heavy extent that the catch-up mechanic becomes the game in a way. A savvy player would never put themselves in a first place situation until the final turn because of the heavy disadvantages that would provide. For new players, it’s counter-intuitive that you don’t actually want to be in first place. And if you removed this catch-up mechanic from Power Grid, I think it would be safe to say that it would not feel like the same game.
Suburbia is another game where the catch-up mechanic plays a heavy role in the game. In Suburbia, players are trying to build the town with the largest population. Whichever player has the most population by the end of the game wins.
As players grow their town, their population increases. However, as their town’s population (score) swells, they also incur a tax that decreases their income and reputation, making it more difficult to continue growing. The game becomes a matter of pacing and timing. The catch-up mechanic becomes a significant consideration and knowing when to surge forward with your population because you can afford to pay the taxes becomes a key part of the game.
Settlers of Catan
Power Grid and Suburbia have systematic catch-up mechanics that are baked into the rules of the game. Other games use social pressure and table talk to achieve the same goal.
In Settlers of Catan, players can trade resources with each other. If a player is in the lead, they are less likely to get trades and the opposite is true if a player is behind. Additionally the robber allows players to steal resources and deny resource production. The player who is winning is most likely to be on the receiving end of the robber.
This kind of catch-up mechanic feels distinctly different than the systematic mechanics in Power Grid or Suburbia. It places the power in the hands of the players. When given a choice, players usually make decisions that hinder the leader and help the losing player. The end result is similar to the systematic approach, but grants players more agency and interaction. This also has the advantage of smoothing out any power imbalances the game may have. The down side is the unpredictability and the possibility for king making.
Munchkin is an extreme example of a game that uses this social pressure kind of catch-up mechanic. It’s a style of game described as “take that” in which players deal in direct conflict and intentionally hinder a targeted player.
Munchkin is a fairly casual card game that is often criticized by more experienced hobby gamers for how the game ends. The game features so much “take that” that the winner isn’t determined by who played the best but rather by who manages to score once everyone is out of ammo.
Rewarding Good Play
In systematic catch-up mechanics, like in Power Grid and Suburbia, we’ve seen that it merely becomes part of the game and doesn’t serve to catch up players who are playing poorly. In games like Catan and Munchkin that use social pressure to bash the leader, the catch-up mechanic has a equalizing effect that penalizes a player who is doing well — which brings up a philosophical question:
Shouldn’t we reward players who are playing well?
Have you ever played Mario Kart? You’ve been driving well, so you’ve been in 1st place the entire race. You’re about to cross the finish line for the win, but then you get hit by a blue shell — designed to specifically target the player in the lead — and the player just behind you passes the line for the win.
Catch-up mechanics are specifically designed to reward players who are losing and penalize players who are winning. But yes, it can also solve the runaway leader problem.
Is there a different way? Yes, and the detailed answer requires us to dig a little deeper into the root of the issue. The real problem is that when players feel like they have no chance of winning, they become disengaged and are no longer invested in the game. The emphasis is on how the player feels and realizing the problem is a psychological one allows us to tackle it with some interesting and more subtle approaches.
I’ll cover the psychological approach as well as explain why the catch-up mechanic in Suburbia might not actually be a catch-up mechanic.
The Psychology of Winning
As mentioned in the previous post, introducing a catch-up mechanic into a game has its faults. Experience players can often play around it, and the mechanic has a tendency to heavily define the way the game is played.
More subtle approaches to addressing the runaway leader problem prey upon players’ perception and get at the root of why it’s a problem at all. When players see that there is a runaway leader, they feel they have no chance of winning and playing out the rest of the game is pointless. Without using a catch-up mechanic and assuming players are interested in winning, there are two ways of preventing that feeling of despair.
First, the game can either obfuscate who is in the lead by either making it difficult to calculate/track (e.g. Ticket to Ride, 7 Wonders, Carcassonne, Dominion) or by making it impossible to know through hidden sources of points (e.g. Suburbia, Settlers of Catan, Sagrada). Second, the game could be designed to allow any player a chance of winning or the appearance of a chance of winning, even if a player is far behind towards the end of the game. This is usually achieved by allowing luck or other factors to create huge swings in point totals. The appearance of catching up to the leader can also be an effective strategy, which I’ll talk about later.
Let’s dive into some examples by starting with games that obfuscate who is winning.
Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride is a classic example of a game that is difficult to determine who is winning until the very end. In Ticket to Ride, players are laying down train tracks across a map of the United States. Players are awarded points for laying down tracks as well as completing tickets that indicate which two cities you must link. Completing a ticket grants you points while failing to complete a ticket subtracts the same number of points. It’s a large swing between being able to complete a ticket or not. Since the tickets are kept secret, players can only guess at what tickets and how many points other players have. By keeping the point totals unknown, it keeps everyone engaged because they believe they have a chance to win.
7 Wonders and Carcassonne
In 7 Wonders and Carcassonne, it can be difficult to calculate the point totals of each player. 7 Wonders is a point salad game where victory points come from a variety of sources. In Carcassonne, points are also scored in a variety of ways but also requires counting tiles. Players often have a feeling of who may be in the lead but rarely take the time to calculate precisely how far ahead other players may be.
In the previous post covering catch-up mechanics, I described the taxes in Suburbia as a catch-up mechanic. As a player’s population (score) increases, heavier and heavier taxes are levied in order to slow that player down.
Thematically on point, so it sounds like a great catch-up mechanic, right? So here’s the thing — it’s not a true catch-up mechanic. It’s not really a catch-up mechanic because it doesn’t actually allow players who are behind to overtake players who are ahead. Players with greater populations are levied higher taxes, but for players who are behind, they inevitably have to reach the same population level and have the same taxes applied to them as well in order to overtake the leader.
This is a solution to the runaway leader problem I like to call “leader headwind”. It has the appearance of a catch-up mechanic but doesn’t actually help players overtake the leader. How it works is the more you score, the more difficult it is to score. This has the effect of making the point totals closer towards the end of the game, which gives players the feeling that they may be within arm’s reach of overtaking the leader.
Dominion is a deck building game that is a classic example demonstrating leader headwind. In Dominion, the victory points you gain are shuffled into your deck but serve no function. Players with many victory points have less effective decks because the victory point cards become dead draws. So as you are winning, it becomes harder and harder to gain additional victory points. However, the same condition applies to any other player who is trying to overtake you in points.
Choosing the right approach
As I’ve shown, there are quite a few ways to deal with the runaway leader problem. Choosing the right approach is a matter of evaluating how heavy your game is, whether it’s more social or strategic, and also considering the length of the game. If your game is short enough, enduring a runaway leader may be only be a brief moment and doesn’t necessarily need fixing. If your game is intended to be light, it might not be able to support a true catch-up mechanic. If your game is inherently social then negotiation or “take that” mechanics may be appropriate. Obfuscating the leader can also solve the issue, but you have to be careful to still have some indication of how well players are doing comparatively otherwise the game may not feel competitive.
The reason why I wrote this post about the runaway leader problem is because it’s a problem that I recently had to address in my game, Fantastic Factories. Until recently, Fantastic Factories featured a scoring track and the game ended once any player reached 15 or more victory points. At first, this was an intentional design. I personally value transparency in scoring because that allows players to easily evaluate how well they are doing in the game.
However, that same feature is what made players focus on the runaway leader. Once a player gained a lead, it was obvious to all players. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Fantastic Factories is an engine building game and picks up a lot of momentum towards the end.
In the end, I made two changes. First, I eliminated the scoring track and changed the game ending condition. The game used to end at 15 or more victory points. Instead, the game ends if any player obtains 12 victory point tokens or builds 10 cards. This takes the focus off the actual victory point count and makes it more difficult to calculate player scores.
Second, I noticed that a common mistake among newer players is they build more factories than they need. Building a factory is a very costly action, and building one you don’t use will put you behind significantly. In order to soften the cost of the mistake, I assigned victory point values to each card built. That way, if you build a factory that you end up never using, it’s not a completely wasted turn.
This also had a secondary effect. Previously, a score of 10 vs 15 makes it appear as though the winner won by 50% more points. However, if each player had 10 additional VP from the cards they built, the final score would be 20 vs 25, which appears like a much closer game despite the score difference being 5 in both cases.
In the end, it does obscure the leader somewhat, but with playtesting, I found that players stressed less about who was winning and focused more on building up their own engine. I believe the fun in Fantastic Factories is assembling your engine and discovering interactions between your factories, and any change to the game that allows players to focus on that core experience is a good change.
If you are looking for insights from other sources, Ludology is an excellent podcast that studies the ins and outs of games. Here are a couple episodes where they specifically talk about catch-up mechanics and win conditions.
Make Them Play is a great site for reading about game design. This particular article talks about feedback loops and how games can snowball or slow down towards the end of the game.