Rewarding your players: Opportunity vs Efficiency

I enjoy playtesting other people’s games, because giving feedback forces me to clarify my thoughts and consider game design more fundamentally – to explain why I felt something whilst playing that game. The thoughts behind this article came to me during a recent playtest where the game felt at odds with itself, and the more I’ve explored it the better understanding I’ve come to have of some of these interlinked concepts.

One of the most important things in good game design is balance, but a perfectly balanced game would lead to the same outcomes every time. Arguably then a game needs some imbalance to allow players to exercise their skills in a way that rewards them for doing so.

When learning a new Euro game, I ask if this is a game where I need to do a little of everything or if this is a game where I need to go hard on a few things. Though more generally this is the difference between broad and deep play experiences, it is often an indicator for whether a game is primarily rewarding players for playing efficiently or for taking opportunities.

Efficiency

In games that reward efficiency, players will generally be taking very similar actions and have similar paths to victory, and so the fundamental game play becomes about which player can do that ‘thing’ the best. Not all actions (or items or resources) are created equal, and so rewarding players for efficiency therefore relies on players exploiting the inherent value of actions (or items or resources).

Efficiency games tend to be lighter games and with shorter turns. Shorter turns allow for more turns to be taken over the course of a game, and the more turns a player takes the more chance there is for incremental efficiency advantages to convert to a lead. Games that rely on efficiency also generally have a very fixed action economy i.e. there is little deviation above or below some baseline for what a player can achieve on their turn. This allows players to exercise their skill by finding ways to beat that baseline.

If an efficiency game has a fixed action economy and a low number of turns, players have not had enough chances to create a lead and feel unsatisfied with their ability to execute. In a game that has a wild variance in action economy or in inherent values (‘OP’ or ‘trash’ cards) the game feels more rewarding of luck than skill.

Century Spice Road is a great example of a game that rewards efficiency. The underlying action economy in the game is pretty easy to calculate, as each turn you play a card that converts some coloured cubes to other ones. Though the cubes aren’t numbered, their value is easily calculable thanks to the victory point cards that award points for different cube combinations. Essentially each turn you growing your resource pool by a fairly standard amount each turn (as are other players) and then converting those into points. In Century however there are some cards that you can add to your deck that are demonstrably more efficient (above the curve) than others. Since the majority of cards are ‘on the curve’ this makes taking and using those cards (and conversely not taking the cards that are below the curve) a good indicator of victory over the course of the game.

Opportunity

Games that rely on players to take advantage of opportunity tend towards engine (and deck) builders, where the inherent value of something (actions, items, resources) is generally tightly balanced but the value that it has to you will vary depending on your strategy. This falls into the category of instrumental value.

Paladins of West Kingdom and Everdell are two games that immediately came to mind when I think of games of opportunity. In both games there are very few actions that are hugely over or underpowered – no must have cards or huge first player advantage. Which actions you want to take will depend quite heavily on how much you value that action, but also on how much other players value that action (as they may take it before you can).

I’ve noticed that games like this tend to follow a similar learning curve:

  1. In the first game the overall points scored are low, because players don’t yet know how to optimise their actions
  2. In the second game, points scored are high because players know how to strategise and optimise
  3. By the third game points scored are lower than in game 2. This seeming paradox is because as player skill improves there is more chance of a valuable opportunity being lost to an opponent, and so timing factors can force suboptimal plays.

Games that reward taking advantage of opportunity give players a fairly broad scope in how they achieve victory, and usually push towards deeper synergistic play. This means that players are rewarded for identifying and pursuing a strategy with the least competition for resources (action spaces, cards etc.) from other players.

If an opportunity game has larger imbalances in efficiency (of actions, cards etc.), this creates a ‘power’ or ‘forced’ strategy which players must follow, and competition for that strategy becomes excessive. Because players are not appropriately rewarded for spotting the strategy with the least competition, they can feel reduced agency in the game.

Conclusions

It’s rare to see a game that only rewards efficiency of play or only rewards opportunity spotting, since in the extremes those play experiences can become stale. However, a lot of games will lean more heavily towards one than the other, and it’s important to understand where a game falls so that players can be appropriately rewarded (or incentivised). A game that confuses its approach with its rewards can lead to those negative play experiences already discussed.

A game where players are largely doing the same thing should reward players for efficiency by creating differences in inherent value. Avoiding mathematical balance is key here so that players are able to exercise their skills by exploiting these imbalances (or else they have no agency in the game).

In a game where players are rewarded for pursuing (very) different strategies, mathematical balance is much more important. This avoids there being a clear ‘best’ choice, and exercising player skill comes from identifying how the instrumental value has changed (for the player, and for others).

If you can think of any other great examples of games that embody some of these aspects, or even some interesting counterexamples, please do share them with me in the comments.

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