Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #161:

Designing Strategy: The Auction Grand Unification Theory

by Shannon Appelcline

Over the last two years I've spent some of these column inches talking about strategic game design. It's the heart of any tabletop strategy game, but also an exceedingly important part of any online strategy game, and something that could make most of our online roleplaying games better--by offering them a more solid mechanical basis.

In the time I've spent talking and thinking about strategy I've also come to a conclusion, based in part on some comments by Doug Orleans. It's this: many or most game mechanics actually have a common basis, and that common basis is the auction.

Notes on Auctions

Last March I spent an entire column talking about auctions in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #144, Strategic Insights: Auction Games. It's worth offering as a reminder my definition of auctions from that column. I said that auctions had the following characteristics:

  1. Usually involve players bidding against each other to buy a resource from the game system (not from another player).
  2. Usually involve an exchange of a monetary marker for a resource, or else (more rarely) of a resource for a monetary marker. These are not barters or exchanges of like goods.
  3. Usually involve rigid methods for making bids and changing prices.
  4. Usually involve a price either increasing or decreasing over time.
  5. Always involve the best price being taken following the end of the auction period.

Since that article I've realized that more than just auction games use these ideas. To be precise, I've identified three other major styles of gameplay that utilize many of these auction mechanics, sometimes changing them up in some very regular ways for their genres. These auction-inspired genres are: trick-taking games, conflict games, and majority-control games.

In this week's column I plan to look a bit more at each of these game types, and see how they each fit under the grand-unification umbrella of auctioning.

Trick-Taking Auctions

I first talked about trick-taking games even longer ago, in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #117, Strategic Insights: Card Games. You've probably played a trick-taking game of some sort; most of them are partnership games like Bridge, Spades, or Euchre, but there's also more oddball games that are still quite popular, such as the penalty trick-taking game, Hearts.

In my previous article, my full definition of trick-taking games was this: The main activity of this sort of gameplay is taking individual sets of cards ("tricks"). Most commonly a trick involves each player playing one card and the "best" card of that set winning the trick. Many trick taking games are led off by bidding, whereby each player says how many tricks he'll be able to take. Most trick taking games mark their victory based on how many tricks each player takes, but as the example of Hearts shows, this isn't always the case. That still looks pretty accurate.

Now what's important here when thinking about auctions is the fact that, in trick-taking games, you're given a limited set of resources (a hand of cards) and each turn you play a single resource (one of those cards) and you win a commodity (a trick; or sometimes specific valuable cards within the trick). Looking back to my definition of auctions you'll see that: players are bidding to buy a resource, they're just bidding cards to buy tricks (#1); you exchange your card from your hand in order to win the trick (#2); there's a rigid once-around bidding method (#3); the price sort of increases over time, in that you have to play higher than anyone else to win, and as more people play, that increases your minimum bid that could win (#4); and the best price/card always wins (#5).

That's every single point of my auction definition met, just with some changes in what we define as "money" and what we define as "commodities". In fact, using my previous definitions of auctions I'd call it a freeform auction (meaning that you can bid higher or lower than previous bidders) with open turn-based one-time bids. Victory is determined as all-payer, single winner, meaning that everyone loses what they bid, but only one person takes the commodity (the trick).

Lest you think I'm making up connections where they don't exist, it's worth considering a game that falls more directly in the middle between auction & trick-taking games: Relationship Tightrope, by Reiner Knizia. Relationship Tightrope starts out looking like a pretty standard trick-taking game. You're randomly dealt a handful of 10 cards. However, the cards themselves are numbered 1-50, rather than being divided into 4 different suits. The play itself looks like a trick. You first put out a "reward" card, which defines the value of the trick (it's valued from 1-10). Then, each player plays one of their cards, in order. The player who played the highest card gets a number of "blue points" equal to the reward-card value and the played the lowest card gets a number of "pink points". So, is it an auction game because you have clearer valuations (1-50) and a clearer commodity than a trick (the reward)? Or is it a trick-taking game because you're dealt a hand of cards that you play in tricks?

It's both, because the two categories of games are very closely related, and Relationship Tightrope (along with other games such as Stefan Dorra's Land Unter and Wolfgang Kramer's 6 Nimmt!) is the missing link.

Overall, trick-taking games seem to be separated from the auction main by a few factors:

  1. Bid Markers are Discrete. You have a hand of (usually) 13 bid markers, and can only bid one at a time, and cannot replace them or "make change" for them. These are all very tight constraints for an auction, but there are some serious auction games which offer similar constraints. Reiner Knizia's Razzia is an almost identical example: you get 3-4 bid markers, and can only use one on a turn, and can't replace. Reiner Knizia's High Society is another game that uses discrete bid markers; you have a set of monetary denominations (as cards), and once you've put one out, you can't make change: you either add to your bid, or get out.
  2. Bid Markers are Random. Each player receives a random selection of bid markers with notably different valuations. This is pretty unheard of in most pure-auction games. Games like Razzia which give a handful of discrete bid markers carefully balance which players get which markers so that they have about the same total value; more often people get identical bid marker totals in most auctions.
  3. Bidding is Freeform. Unlike in most auctions, if you can't play a higher bid marker, you're still required to drop some bid marker, which could be lower.
  4. Play of Highest Bid Markers is Restricted. Whenever a trick is led the auction is mostly constrained to a set of 13 bid markers (A-K of that suit). However in most trick-taking games there's a set of higher bid markers (A-K of trump) but they can only be played under certain constraints (being void in the led suit).
  5. All Auctions are All Payer. This has already been noted, but it's worth repeating because it's pretty rare in true auctions. (Fist of Dragonstones being a notable exception.) Whatever bid marker each auctioneer puts out is lost, whether they win the auction or not.

As can be seen, though they fit the auction criteria well, trick-taking games also have many of their own rules which tend to further specify the game genre.

Conflict Auctions

I've never written about conflict games because I've never been convinced that their underlying game design is that interesting. You have units that fight each other. Traditionally, most of the game design is spent on ensuring interesting simulation rather than interesting mechanics. Nonetheless, most people are probably familiar with conflict games because they've played Risk. You move little plastic markers around to conquer the world.

I don't want to run through my whole list of auction points again, and I'll heartily agree that conflict games are a further stretch from auction games than trick-taking games, but nonetheless I think they still have core similarities. In short you're trying to bid for a commodity, which tends to be territory in most conflict games, and you're bidding for that territory with army units. Typically, the player with the most units will win any individual bid.

Again it was a "missing link" game which convinced me of the connection, in this case Verrater by Marcel-Andre Casasola Merkle. This is clearly a conflict game. Every turn a battle is fought between two territories. However, rather than having armies each player has "supply cards" numbered between 2 and 8. In turn order (kind of like a trick) each player commits up to 5 of his cards to the battle, on one side of the conflict. When it's all done whichever side has the highest total wins the conflict. By stripping away the random element and the geographically constrained element of most conflict games we find something that looks a lot like an auction: you put down your money (supplies) and the highest bidder wins.

Another game called Condottiere is even closer to a pure auction design. Again the conflicts are fought with cards, but this time there are some tight constraints (namely that you have to keep playing cards, or drop out, even if you're winning) that are very reminescent of the constraints found in many auction games. And, just last night, I played yet another missing link game, this one Korsar by Reiner Knizia. Here you're playing pirates fighting over treasure ships, but again the conflict is played out via cards, and there are again tight constraints placed on much card play.

As with trick-taking games, we find that conflict games tend to change the core precepts of auctions in many ways:

  1. Bidding Can Be Forced. Usually one player (the attacker) controls how many forces each player will bid by choosing to attack a specific territory with a specific number of units in it. (Really, this means that opponents choose their future bids a bit earlier, when they decide where to place their pieces.)
  2. Auction Outcome is Partially Randomized. The number of units you bid is a strong indicator of outcome in most conflict/auctions, but there also tends to be a random element (typically one or more dice) which can allow a lesser bid to win against a larger bid.
  3. Auctions Are Loser Pays. The normal auction idea of a winner paying his bid is turned on his head, and instead the loser pays his bid, typically by removing all of his units. Often the winner has to make a partial payment, based on the strength of the loser.
  4. Bid Markers Are Geographically Constrained. Each player's bid markers tend to be geographically constrained: they're located in certain places on the board and can only be used against nearby units. Some games do minimize this idea, often by allowing large-scale boat movement (A Game of Thrones) or just by allowing free reorganization of pieces (as in Attack!'s "strategic move action).

Yes, as I already said, conflict games are somewhat more removed from the pure-auction core, but at the sme time they include enough of the features that both sets of mechanics are worth considering when making either type of game.

Majority-Control Auctions

And finally we come to a third major category of games: majority-control games. I haven't got around to writing a column about these yet, and they're less common in the American market, but they're a very frequent game type in European designs. The base idea of a majority-control game is this: there are a variety of territories (or sometimes companies or other virtual entities) which players gain partial control of through specific markers (playing pieces on territory or taking stock in entities) and players are then rewarded depending on whether they have majority, secondary, tertiary, or worse control of the territory or entity.

El Grande is often considered the grandfather of the genre. Here you have a map of Spain and you play caballeros (which are square markers in your color) to the board. Three times during the game all of Spain is scored; in each territory the player with the most caballeros gets a high-point value, the player with the second-most caballeros gets slightly less, and the player with the third-most caballeros usually gets a tiny bit.

Here we again see our old model: each player uses a specific resource (here, caballeros) to take control of valuable commodities (here, victory points), with the highest bids (here, most caballeros in a territory) always winning. In many ways, majority-control games are also a "missing link" between pure auction games and those more distant conflict games. Because, in majority-control games you tend to have those geographically-constrained bidding markers, but this time you don't have the randomness or the forced bids (attacks) which make conflict games look more different.

In many ways majority-control games are just a method to play X auctions simultaneously, where X are the number of territories (or virtual entities) which players are fighting for control of.

As with the other games investigated here, majority-control games do tend to have some unique features. These include:

  1. Bid Markers Are Geographically Constrained. This matches the conflict games, as noted above. Each bid marker can only be used against other bid markers placed in the same local.
  2. Auctions Are Usually No Payer. Unlike just about every auction game out there, you don't lose your bid markers when the auction is complete (although some majority-control games, such as Mammoth Hunters do give the possibility for bid marker loss). Really, you could look at this in two ways. To one extent you have lost your marker because it's now geographically constrained (only useful in that auction), but in another way you're really just having a bunch of auctions that never end; it just so happens that you get some rewards at benchmarks during the auction.
  3. Auctions Are Usually Multiple Winner. Most majority-control games recognize 2-3 winners in any territory, but the winning bidder tends to get the most reward, and lesser bidders lesser rewards.


The more I've mulled over auctions, the more I've been convinced that they are actually a grand-unification element in game design. No, not every game falls back on this sort of highest-bidder wins element, but many do. Doug Orleans gave me yet another example recently when he said, "Rock Paper Scissors is a simultaneous auction with non-monotonic currency." He's right.

To one level, this Grand Unification Theory is partially theoretically. It's amusing and interesting to see how distant games are actually related. However, as a game designer, if you see and understand these similarities it'll increase the size of your game design repertoire.

Because you realize that they're related you can put further auction elements into a conflict game, or use common conflict elements in a "pure" auction game. Why not have a reverse-payer conflict-type element in a pure auction game? Or why not have a pure auction game, but use the majority-control element where bids stay out for the whole game? Contrariwise why not introduce more traditional auction elements into conflict, say giving players the constant opportunity to up their investment by pulling in troops from nearby territories?

The possibilities of any game design are endless, but outlining & connecting up mechanics give us the opportunity to see many of those possibilities.

[ <— #160: The Power of Enthusiasm | #162: Strategic Insights: Majority Control —> ]

Miniseries ...

Recent Discussions on Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities: