ABS — The Formula for Building Games
One night in May my gaming group and I played four different games one after the other. We played Isle of Skye, Cartographers, Tiny Towns and Point Salad.
While different from each other, it struck me that these games are very much the same. They all follow the exact same game structure.
The model they share is common to all games, board and digital, that use building as a core mechanic. I call this model ABS — Acquire, Build, Score.
During the acquire phase players acquire resources / cards / components in various ways. Here are some examples for typical acquire mechanics:
- Drawing cards from a draw pile
- Drawing cards from a face up open card market
- Draft selection
- Selecting a random tile from a bag
- Dice tossing
And many more.
The resources acquired are used to build things in the game. These “things” are anything that is put on the table in front of the player, the tableau or the main board. It could be actual buildings, roads, tiles, cards or even plain words or numbers.
Often, the rules for building are very simple and are tied to whatever was acquired during the acquire phase. For example:
- When acquiring resources, players pay with them to build buildings.
- When acquiring letter tiles, players may build words.
- When acquiring numbers, players may attempt to write them in order.
As you can see, a “building” can be many things.
Score guides players towards what and when to build. When we think about score, we ask ourselves when and how.
When do we score?
Scoring can happen immediately, at the end of a round and at the end of the game. Some games use all three; others use only one or two methods together. All games score at the end of the game.
How do we score?
Here we have a few variations. For example:
- Linear. Every “building” equals 1.
- Exponential. Every “building” of the same type to the power of 2.
- Triangular. 1 “building” = 1, 2 = 3, 3 = 6, 4 = 10, 5 = 15…
- Series. 1 = nothing, 2 = 5…
The interconnections of score, build and acquire create myriad play experiences, all of which comply with the ABS model. Let me show a few examples.
Examples of Games Using the ABS Model
A very popular example of a building game. This is how it complies with the ABS model:
There are two main acquire mechanics in Catan:
- Roll the dice and get (or not) resources.
- Trade resources with other players.
Buildings in Catan consist of roads, settlements and cities & development cards. The mechanism is (as in most games) straightforward: Gather the needed resources to pay for the building and build it.
Scoring in Catan is immediate. 10 points trigger the end of the game. The longest road is a variable score that moves between players.
Ticket to Ride
Another popular game, this time about building train tracks across the USA or Europe.
Pick one or two cards from the face up open market or from the draw pile.
When players have enough train cards of a certain color, they can “pay” with them to build a track on the board.
Players score immediately when they build tracks on the board, and also at the end of the game when calculating the personal secret missions.
Sushi Go is a fast card drafting game about making sushi.
Acquire & Build:
Typical to card drafting games, these two phases occur on the same turn. Players pass their cards to the player next to them, and then all players play a card (build) face down on the table. When everybody’s ready, all players flip the cards they’ve built.
Score is calculated at the end of each round and at the end of the game. There are three rounds in total.
As you can see, these are three distinct games, but all fit in perfectly with the ABS model.
How to use the model when designing games
The model comes in handy when you are trying to design a game from scratch, or attempting to fix or alter an existing design.
Phase #1 — Start with Building
If your aim is to design a game from scratch, a good place to start would be the build phase.
Start with the actual components. What will players build? Tiles? Words? Cards? Will they write something on paper? Will they draw anything? Maybe it will be colors?
Choosing components gives you the base needed for coming up with the rules of building.
As seen in my examples, the rules for building are often very simple. They can range from writing numbers in order on a sheet of paper (roll & write games like Welcome To… do that) to matching a card to a previous one (Uno), or just paying the cost of the card.
Imagine what the tableau would look like. Here are a few examples for inspiration.
I claim that by itself, the building phase makes for a very boring puzzle. (Writing numbers in order on a piece of paper? Where’s the fun in that?) What makes it interesting is the acquire phase.
Phase #2 — Acquire
After you have your components and your (simple) rules of building in place, start tinkering with the acquire phase. How will players gather resources, or the components needed to build whatever they are building?
Mix it up. Go over all of the “acquire” mechanics you know. Toss dice, pick random, pick from a common market, choose randomly from a common market, trade, bid, gamble, gift. So many ideas, but only a few will go well with the building components and rules.
Phase #3 — Score
First, determine when your players will score. Does your game have rounds? If so, how many, and what triggers the end of each round? What is the trigger for the end of the game?
Then, figure out how the score is calculated.
Score is, after all, the best and maybe sometimes the only incentive for players in games. If you see a dominant strategy emerging in your game (i.e., players build only a certain type of building in your game), fix it by giving a different set of buildings a better score.
As you go through the game development process, you will change a lot of your mechanics to better suit your game. Using the model, you can narrow down what is not working as intended. Maybe the acquire methods are too simplistic? Maybe the scoring is too deterministic? Find a different method and plug it into the model, and see how the play experience changes accordingly.
ABS — Acquire, Build, Score — is a handy model that you can apply to every building game out there. I encourage you to go and look for it in the games you play, whether board games or digital games!
In future articles I will show you how this model is used in digital games like Minecraft, and how engine building games use it in a slightly different way.
If you found the ABS model useful, please share it! I’d like to spread this idea as much as possible.
Curious for more?
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