Strategic Insights: Majority Control
by Shannon Appelcline
Last week, in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #161, Designing Strategy: The Auction Grand Unification Theory I talked about a number of design mechanisms which were ultimately related to aution games; this week I'm going to follow that up by diving more deeply into one of those mechanisms: majority control.
Defining Majority Control Games
The general idea of majority-control games is that there are various entities within the game, and players can gain control of those entities in discrete units, with players' ranking of power within each entity determined by how many control units they have, relative to the other players.
Typically scoring is done for each entity, one of more times during a game; the more control a player has of an entity, the more he scores.
The most common themes for majority-control games are territory control and stock control; as we'll see, those two themes outline two of the three most basic types of majority-control games.
The most basic question of any majority-control game is: What entities are being controlled? There are probably countless answers to this question, but only three have been broadly used in the genre. This is a broad question which often answers other questions about the game design as well.
Share-Based Entities: In this sort of game, the board presence of the controllable entities is weak. Players usually gain control of entities through stock, usually represented as a card. Shared-based games tend to have card specific marker placement and entity space limitations (meaning that you get shares thanks to cards, of which there are a limited quantity) and there tend to be no opportunities for later marker removal or movement. Acquire was one of the earliest of this genre, though it's quite a bit different from more recent games, including Union Pacific and Goldbrau.
Area-Based Entities: In this sort of game, the board presence of the controllable entities is strong (or at least stronger). Players usually gain control of entities through placement of tokens into geographically related regions on a board. Area-based games tend to have geographically constrained marker placement and sometimes geographically constrained marker movement. More often than not there are no limitations on the number of markers in an entity. The grand-daddy of this sub-genre is El Grande, though there are numerous others such as San Marco, Trias, Web of Power, and Mammoth Hunters.
Tile-Based Entities: In this sort of game, the board presence of the controllable entities is strong and the board is an evolving environment. Players usually gain control of entities through placement of markers onto tiles as they place them. These games tend to feature geographically constrained marker placement (limited to the tile you played) and one-time scoring (for each entity, as it is completed), with scoring marker removal (meaning that you get your markers back after each scoring). Carcassonne is the most prominent member of this genre, with Entdecker being another example.
An Aside on Terminology: Back in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #102, Designing Strategy: The Components, I differentiated between two broad sets of playing pieces. Tokens were those wood or cardboard pieces that you tended to keep on the board while markers were those cards, bank notes, or other items that you tended to keep off the board. Technically, share-based games tend to use markers (most often stock cards) to show control while area-based and tile-based games tend to use tokens (most often wooden cubes). I've used the term "marker" throughout this article, mainly because "control marker" sounds better than "control token".
Control Marker Addition
The next question is: How are control marker placed?
Free Choice Marker Placement: A player may place a new marker anywhere, sometimes at a set cost. Medieval Merchant is a rare area-based game that lets you put down new markers anywhere on the board, while Acquire is a rare share-based game that lets you purchase stock in whatever you want each turn.
Geographically Constrained Marker Placement: Many area-based games use their innate geography as a basis for which control markers can be placed. Tile-laying games like Carcassonne and Entdecker limit you to placing a control marker in the tile that you just added to the board. Games like Mexica and Maharaja give you a special builder unit, create costs for him to move around, and then limit your building to where your builder is. El Grande has a fairly unique method, limiting placement of new markers to those areas around the King token. Trias is an interesting game where your control markers on the board spawn new control markers (through reproduction).
Card Specific Marker Placement: Players draw cards via some method. (This could be an open draw, a closed draw, an auction, an I-split-you-choose, etc., and is somewhat beyond the scope of this article.) They then may only place control markers within entities for which they have matching cards. This is a core method of many shared-based games and sometimes used for area-based games. In Goldbrau, Union Pacific, and Web of Power you all have a number of face-up cards which you can choose between on your turn. Web of Power is a rare game where limited set-collection (pairs) can turn matching cards into a wild card, allowing free placement.
Chaotic Card Marker Placement: Some games, rather than having a specific, consistent method of placement, instead allow you to place markers in arbitrary ways dependent on specific cards that you get. Mammoth Hunters, for example, has cards that sometimes allow free-placement of hunters and sometimes allow placement in specific terrains.
A related question is How many control markers are placed? Each game tends to have a specific answer to this one, often "1", "2", or "dependent upon the card you played".
Control Marker Limitations
Also related: Are there limitations to control marker placement?
No Limitation: There is no limitation. This is rarely the case literally, since every game has limited markers, but sometimes it's the case in practice if component limits are quite high.
Control Marker Limitation: There is some limit on how many control markers each player has; when they exceed this they are sometimes allowed to use a control marker subtraction method to get back used markers. El Grande are Mammoth Hunters are both examples of games where this sort of limit can appear at the very end of the game, if you're doing well.
Entity Space Limitation: In share-based games there is typically a set number of shares (cards) available for an entity, and when they're all out, that's it; many games like Union Pacific depend upon this method by clearly depicting how many shares are available, thus making it clear when a player has an absolute majority. El Grande, through its expansions, sometimes limits the space in an entity through the inclusion of specific control boards, which have space for only a set number of control markers.
Control Marker Movement
In addition: How can control markers be moved?
No Marker Movement: Most majority-control games only allow the addition and subtraction of control markers, not their movement.
Free Marker Movement: A marker can be moved anywhere on the board. This is rare, but there's an action in Maharaja which lets you move a house, rather than having to build it anew.
Geographically Constrained Marker Movement: Theoretically, games could allow free marker movement, but only between nearby entities. Trias does this by allowing your dinos to get separated due to continental drift. Most other majority-control games don't.
Chaotic Card Marker Movement: Movement between nearby areas, but only as arbitrarily allowed by card play. El Grande and Mammoth Hunters both allow this through their card play.
Control Marker Subtraction
Finally related to control markers: How can control markers be removed?
No Marker Removal: If you're out of control markers, you're stuck. Carcassonne offers an example of this, where management of limited control markers is an important aspect of gameplay (though they can also be removed by scoring, as noted below). In share-based games, it just doesn't matter, typically.
Limited Marker Removal: Players can remove a limited number of their own control markers a turn, with 1/turn being a common choice, as in Tongiaki, which isn't quite a majority-control game.
Necessity Marker Removal: More often, players are allowed to remove their own control markers as they run out of control markers and need new ones. I know that El Grande allows this; I'm sure others do too--it's usually something that's buried in the rules, and that you only look up if someone runs out of pieces.
Scoring Marker Removal: Some games automatically remove markers upon scoring. Carcassonne is an example where each entity is only scored once, and then all markers are removed. Mammoth Hunters is an example where whenever scoring occurs, some markers might be removed based on how many there are.
Entity Limit Marker Removal: Some markers are removed when an entity reaches its marker limit. Goldbrau is the one example I'm aware of here. There are 6 shares in each business, and whenever all 6 shares go down, any singletons are taken out.
Antagonistic Marker Removal: Here, opponents can in some way remove control markers. In San Marco there's a special action which lets you remove 1-6 control markers (possibly including your own). Trias ties this into its geography, where you can "drown" your opponents' control markers through continental drift. Mammoth Hunters allows some chaotic removal based on cards: some cards let you remove enemy hunters.
Moving onward, How are the entities valued?
Set Entity Valuation: Each entity has a set value, clearly shown at the start of the game. El Grande is an example of this, where the scoring values are printed right on the board. Alhambra has set values, but these values increase as the game goes on.
Entity Size Valuation: Each entity is valued based upon its size. For example in Trias valuation is based upon how many hexes form a continent at scoring time. This is also true in Carcassonne, Entdecker and most other tile-laying majority-control games.
Player Controlled Valuation Growth: Each entity starts off with a set (low) value, and then players can grow that. Sometimes this ties directly in to entity size valuation; in the above tile-laying examples players get to decide to a certain extent where their tiles go. Acquire is a similar example, but with much more tight constraints on where your tiles can go. Union Pacific conversely has a unique method whereby players get to freely decide which entity to add valuation to each turn, with some constraints based on cards in hand and room for entity growth.
Third-Party Valuation: Here scoring is somewhat or entirely based on a third-party which can be introduced to various entities. Mammoth Hunters is an example, where mammoths can be added to spaces to increase their value.
Majority Score Timing
Next: When are entities scored?
One-time Scoring: An entity is just scored once, most typically when it's completed, as is the case for Carcassonne or Entdecker.
Third-Party Marker Scoring: Some third-party marker must be moved around to places to score them. In San Marco the Doge marks where a scoring occurs, while in Maharaja the Raja marks the city being scored each turn.
Chaotic Scoring: Scoring occurs at arbitrary times, usually marked by the play of some card. El Grande is an example of a game where individual locations can be scored when a specific card is selected.
Irregular Scoring: Scoring occurs a certain number of times during the game, but that exact timing is somewhat randomized. Union Pacific and Alhambra are examples of games that randomize scoring periods by inserting scoring cards into a deck.
Regular Scoring: Scoring occurs at regular, known times throughout the game. In El Grande, for example, scoring happens every three turns.
Majority Score Division
Finally: Once you've scored an entity, how is that score divided up?
Set Scoring: The scores for the top two or three players in an entity are set, usually with the first player getting the most, the second player somewhat less, etc. El Grande and San Marco are examples here, with the values for each player listed on the board. Alhambra is similar.
Halved Scoring: Each player gets half the points of the player ranked above him. Sometimes this rounds up, sometimes down, and often "set scoring" is actually based on this. Entdecker is an example of this. The first player gets points based on the size of the island, the second half of that, etc.
Per-Capita Scoring: Each player gets points based on the number of markers he has in a space. Mammoth Hunters is one of the few examples I know of with this type of rule. Each player gets one point per marker in a space, doubled if there's a mammoth, trebled if there's two or more. Web of Power takes a different tact: the first player gets the points for all control markers in a territory, while each other player gets points for the number of markers the player ahead of him had.
Divided Scoring: An overall valuation for the entity is set, then that's evenly divided among all markers. Goldbrau does this, with remainders going to a special "boss" marker.
A Few Examples
Here's a few examples of these elements in use in actual games.
El Grande: This is the game that brought majority-control games into the German design mainstream, and influenced a number of the more recent majority-control games, clearly including San Marco, Trias and others. In El Grande you have a map of Spain and you place caballeros (your control markers) onto its provinces, each of which has a specific value. Each turn you take a specific action card, which tells you how many caballeros you can place on the board (all adjacent to the special king marker) and also gives you a specific action, which can have many different effects.
At its core El Grande is an area-based majority control game with geographically-contrained placement and necessity marker removal. There is also set, regular scoring with set-entity valuation.
However, the action cards can introduce a large-number of one-time weird effects, including chaotic marker placement, movement, and subtraction, modified set-entity valuation and chaotic scoring. I've always thought that this chaos is what really makes El Grande work; without the chaos it'd be a pretty boring game.
Maharaja: In this game, by one of the same authors as El Grande, but almost 10 years newer, you move an architect around India's cities, building palaces and houses. Each turn the Maharaja moves to one of those cities (determined in advance), which scores. Each player gets "majority points" based on their palaces, houses, and the presence of their architect. They're then all given money based on their ranking, which is used to fund future palaces and houses in future rounds. (Victory in the game is ultimately determined by the ability to build 7 expensive palaces, not the majority control itself, a level of indirection somewhat uncommon in majority-control games.
Maharaja is thus an area-based majority control game with geographically constrained placement, with some entity space limitation and very limited marker movement. (There's only space for 7 palaces in each city, but unlimited space for houses; likewise only houses can be moved.) Afterward there is set valuation and scoring, determined by a third-player marker. A little chart of rankings shows who gets what, depending on how many players there are; the Maharaja marker will tend to go through every city in order, but players can slightly change the order each turn.
Maharaja clearly has a much less complex majority-scoring mechanism that El Grande, but that's made up for the fact that it incorporates a few other systems into the game, most notably a simultaneous selection system (what I call "action bluffing" in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #155, Strategic Insights: Bluffing).
Union Pacific: Finally, UP is a share-based majority control game that was apparently originally influenced by Sid Sackson's Acquire. Here each turn you choose between drawing shares from a face-up set and playing shares from your hand; shares must have been played to the table to count, and thus there's a constant battle between grabbing shares to keep them from opponents and getting your own shares down, so that you can score based on them. There is a map, where players put trains, but these solely increase the value of the companies.
Union Pacific is a share-based majority control game with card specific marker placement and entity space limitation. There's no changing markers (shares) around once they're down. For scoring you have irregular scoring based on player-controlled valuation growth with halved scoring.
Majority control is a very popular area of game design, primarily due to the continued success of El Grande. I've played a ton of majority-control games, including everything listed here (though only in a computer form for Acquire), but there are plenty of others that I haven't.
I've also written reviews of many of the games discussed here, including: Alhambra [5/5], Carcassonne [5/4], El Grande [5/5], Entdecker [5/5], Goldbrau [4/3], Maharaja [5/4], Mammoth Hunters [4/3+], San Marco [4/3+], Trias [3/4], and Union Pacific [4/4].
Majority-control games are somewhat strange, because their mechanic seems somewhat odd and slightly non-simulationistic. However the share-based games really show how they can represent reality, with each player gaining some reward from holding partial control of an entity. Consider majority-control mechanics in any game you're putting together, board game or MMORPG, where this type of shared ownership can exist.