Power Grid is one of my favorite games, and despite how much I love it, I still get annoyed at the auctions: “I bid 16”, “17”, then people just count up for minutes, increasing the time between each number is called, and often making faces. While I can appreciate those faces, often, those parts of auction games often just end up… boring. They’re slow, there’s very little tension, you can’t plan ahead too much, and as soon as you drop out, you don’t really care much about the rest of the auction.
Now some people love those auctions. I don’t know why, but some do, and that’s fine. If you like them, then go ahead, you have my blessing! However, if you don’t, then let’s take a look at a few ways you can address this problem, and games which have done it.
One caveat: I don’t like Modern Art much. I won’t mention it here. It probably does most of these, feel free to add it to all of these examples if you care. I don’t think I missed any twists that ONLY Modern Art does. I’m also not talking about blind bidding, because that is an entirely different mechanism.
Incentivizing players to make their best offer: Part of the problem is that auctions are about players getting more value than what they paid. What that means is that what you’re encouraging is to low-ball as much as the players can get away with: maybe they’ll win with a ridiculous bid, or, worst case scenario, they’ll bid higher later. That focus can be interesting—it’s a great moment when you can pull it off–, but it can also be very tedious.
The simplest way to mitigate that incentive is to make the auction go around only once, like in Goa, Ra, or The Estates. One player starts the bid, and every player gets a single chance to bid. Usually, the player who started the auction will have the last word, incentivizing them to start the bid on something they’re interested in because of how strong that final say can be. It kind of pushes you to go as high as you’re comfortable going, and to assess other players’ desire for it: can I get away with a lowball? In my experience, once around auctions are not quicker than the standard ones, because each decision takes a lot longer, but they are a lot more tense.
In between Infinite and One, there are other ways to limit how many bids your players can make. For example, in Infamy, each time you bid you pay 1$. If you get outbid, you get your bid back, but that 1$ is lost, representing the time and energy it took to actually get to the person you’re trying to bribe. It’s a less draconian way of doing the once-around: you still get a second chance, but you still would have been better off nailing it on the first try.
Even more nuanced is the way High Society does it: you have a set of money cards which you cannot break down into smaller denominations. Once you play a card, increasing your bid requires you to add a card, without changing what’s already on the table. If you bid high early, you still have all the versatility of your smaller values, but you have a very limited amount of those.
Incentivizing dropping out: In the end, an auction a “Last one standing” situation, and so making sure people drop off quickly can make the auction go faster. For example, many games give something to players who do not win an auction: in Dream Factory and Rising Sun, the winning bid is split up between the auction losers. This is interesting for two reasons: one, because it’s a catchup mechanism as well as an auction fixer; but also because it adds a very important layer of strategy in how much money you give your opponents, which they can then use on the very next auction against you. They also make you care after you drop off, because it still determines how much money you’ll get.
For Sale does a similar thing, although it presents it differently. Instead of rewarding the dropper, it makes players want to avoid being that Last one standing, because that player pays the entirety of their highest bid, while all other players only pay half. There’s more nuance there, but as far as the auction is concerned, that’s pretty much what it comes down to. Taking away the card aspect, it’s very similar to the previous twist mathematically (you spend less vs getting new money), but it also feels veeery different. While mathematically, giving money to your opponents is a much bigger swing than getting that 50% discount, it doesn’t feel as bad. Loss aversion is such that you don’t care about others taking your breadcrumbs, but you do care about paying double what others are.
One thing I did in one of my prototypes (which never went very far) was to make dropping order during the auction phase the turn order during the worker placement phase. Players would often be just as happy passing as they would be winning the auction. However, after the first player had passed, or the second in a very high player count game, that incentive would be close to worthless, which actually encouraged the other players to keep on bidding even further: sure, they could get 3rd place now, but if they weren’t going to get 1st, they should at least get the prize of the auction! Sunk cost fallacy is a tough one to avoid…
Limiting your decision space: Part of what makes auctions take so long is how granular they can get. In Power Grid, the game doesn’t progress much between a bid of 25 and one of 30, yet that probably took going around the table two or three times.
A simple way of increasing that is to lower the numbers. If you have 100$ in hand, bidding 14 or 15 doesn’t change anything. If you have 20, then that can make a bigger difference. Since most games deal in whole numbers, lowering all numbers in your game can have an impact by making each unit matter more.
Some games pre-set the possible values you can bid: in Amun-Re or Stockpile, the potential bid values are predetermined, meaning you don’t have to choose between all the numbers that exist, only those 8. Also, in both games, those available amounts follow the triangular sequence (0-1-3-6-10-15-21), meaning that the higher you bid, the more it takes to outbid you, incentivizing you to put your best offer early.
In a similar but less restrictive vein, Cursed Court requires any outbidding to at least double the previous bid. Given that you only have 20 coins to spread around 4 bids, there’s a lot of interesting psychology that comes in.
In Ra, you can only bid one of your tiles for the value on it. Unlike the previous examples, here each player faces different limits. Bidding a 6 when your opponent only has a 5 and a 12 forces them to outbid you by a LOT. This not only a great way to accelerate auctions, it also causes a lot of tension in those moments.
What is your take on count-up auctions? What is your favorite twist on auction mechanisms?