Making VPs!

Early in the design process for Cartographia, we were brainstorming action ideas for the multi-use cards. Our first idea for Knowledge didn’t really work. We were looking for something else -Ships allowed you to explore, Diplomacy to gain extra actions, and Gold to gain extra resources-, and decided to make it a way to gain points! A different path to victory, isn’t that what everyone wants in Victory Point games?

However, just giving you points for playing a card was… boring. Not only did players feel rewarded for no reason, but there was no way to feel clever for playing it. There was no “right” time to play it, and since everything else did have a timing element, the Knowledge action became the option for when there was no smarter move, which always fell flat. In the end, after trying a few things, we ended up adding a Tech tree, with Knowledge being the main way to gain those techs.

This is only an anecdote, but it’s something I’ve often run into, whether with co-designers, or when testing another designer’s prototype: giving someone straight up points is boring. You can never feel clever for doing it, you never feel like you’ve achieved anything. It is, to me, the difference between a Point Salad and a Euro game, and a question of preference more than one of quality.

Some people will call all or some of these Set Collection: yup. Many of these are ways to score set collection. A reviewer would describe all of those as “Set collection stuff”. I have my own opinion on what is and isn’t set collection, but I find discussions of terminology tedious and of little interest.

Regardless, this was already a long enough intro: here are ways to give players VPs which are more interesting than a simple “here’s 5 VPs!” I’ll use the word “asset” as a catch-all terms to include Tokens, Cards, Resources, or any other piece you obtain in the game that is worth points.

Increasing payoff

Description: Every board gamer has seen the triangular sequence: 1/3/6/10. The more of a thing you have, the better.

Examples: Masks in Teotihuacan (1/3/6/10/15/21 for different types); Science in 7 Wonders (for each type, score X2); Holding cards in Greed (each type you build a holding, it is worth 10k for every other icon of that type you have)

Pros: It makes the assets worth different amounts to each player. It gives you a sense of growth through the game: what is worth 1 or 2 points early on might be worth 20 at the end of the game. You can decide to rewards specialization (which is easy for players to recognize) or diversity (which ensures that players do a bit of everything).

Cons: It’s the most common because there really aren’t many. Rewarding specialization can mean players each choose their own thing and never compete with one another, and diversity can be harder to visualize (“which one am I missing again?”). It often requires a chart to count points.

Decreasing Payoff

Description: The opposite of Increasing Payoff. You get a lot for doing a little of something, but every extra step you do is a smaller bump; Games with negative points for not having done something.

Examples: Income in Power Grid (10-22-33-44-54-65-73-…); Income in Brass (which increases every step early, then every other step, then every third step…).

Pros: Pushes players in doing a bit of everything (because specializing gets less interesting); acts as a catchup mechanism.

Cons: Often lacks excitement, especially late in the game (unless you haven’t done it yet!) Some players will criticize it for being a catchup mechanism. It often requires a chart to count points.


Description: There are multiple ways to present thresholds to players, but the idea is always the same: if you get points for having X, there are some numbers which pay off a lot more than others.

Examples: Sashimi cards in Sushi Go (10 points for every group of 3); the Military track in 7 Wonders Duel (which scores for the differential: 2 points for 1-2, 5 for 3-5, 10 for 6-9, and an instant victory for 10); the Scoring tile in Isle of Skye which gives you 3 points for every column with at least 3 contiguous tiles; any game with contracts to fill.

Pros: It adds tension right before you reach that threshold. If you have two Sashimi cards and need that third, people will try to keep it from you, and you’ll try to figure out a way to get it. It’s quite similar to Increasing Payoff, except that that increase comes at specific points, making those REALLY important.

Cons: You can be screwed out of that final asset (whether by luck or other players), which is not always fun. If that threshold is important enough, the last turn can become ALL ABOUT IT, with nothing else mattering.


Description: If you have the most of asset X, score points. I’ve written 3 posts about various twists on Majorities in games, so I won’t fill up this section, but I have a lot to say about them…

Examples: So many… Contracts in Clans of Caledonia; Empire scoring in Terra Mystica; Engineer scoring in Russian Railroads; Round scoring in Wingspan

Pros: Easy to understand, interactive, dynamic. Can be played on multiple levels of involvement (a casual “Let’s have the most!”, or a more strategic “is it worth having the most, or should I settle for second place?”)

Cons: Can lead to large investments that are worth very little. Hard to evaluate the value of stuff, because it’s unclear which position you’ll reach.


Description: First to have asset X gets a reward, or first to have asset X gains a lot of points, then second gains a few points, and third gets even less (or nothing!), or first to have asset X gets points.

Examples: Nobles in Splendor; Museum spaces in Mykerinos; Speed bonuses in Meeple Circus; Family bonuses in Elysium.

Pros: Interactive. Gives you a direction early in the game, and most likely puts players in competition early, which means TENSION! At some point, it’s in the bag, so you avoid that constant one-upping that majorities sometimes lead to.

Cons: If it’s settled early, it becomes a non-factor later on. That’s fine if it’s meant as an early objective just meant to give players directions, but if not, it can lead to the game outlasting its welcome once players know who will win.


Description: Score 3 points for every asset of type Y you have, or for every asset of type Y around the table (in addition to what those would score normally).

Examples: The scoring board in Nippon (assigning multipliers to each category on income turns); Scrolls in Isle of Skye (which are doubled if the zone they’re in is closed off); Round objectives in Clans of Caledonia (which are evaluated at specific times and not at the end of the game).

Pros: Give each player a different specialty. Is useful to get early (to give you direction) as well as late (when you know exactly which multiplier is best). If it varies from game to game, increases replayability.

Cons: If scored after the end of the game, can lead to lots of anti-climactic accounting. If each player scores for different things, it can mean players don’t interact.

Timing dependent

Description: The value of those scoring changes over time. When to score it is what matters.

Examples: Shares in 18xx games (the value of which changes as they are sold and bought, or as they pay dividends); Production in Navegador (when you produce, you will push the value of those goods on tracks, making them vary in value); Palm trees in Silver & Gold  (which score 1pt per Palm Tree on cards in the drawing display at that time); Building the Pyramid in Teotihuacan (which is worth 1pt per level of the piece, +1 pt per icon you cover with an identical one).  

Pros:Rewards flexibility. Since it’s a question of optimal timing, you can’t make perfect plans, as stuff will happen which you need to react to. Not being able to plan perfectly can help limit Analysis Paralysis.

Cons: Hard to plan ahead, which can push AP -yeah, this is often a mixed bag on that front. Also, makes it hard to compare options, since their values are so fluid.

Whenever I think of scoring elements, I try to limit straight-up points and use one of these options when necessary. You can even combine two of them for a single asset: the tracks in Railroad Revolution increase your scoring multiplier when you reach certain thresholds; the Science cards in 7 Wonders score by Thresholds for variety, and by increasing payoff for specialization; the Museum spaces in Mykerinos are multipliers you’re racing to get.

I usually would advise new designers to keep it simple, and only add a rule if the game is much worse without it. In this case, I would advise the opposite: unless you have a specific reason to, I think you should avoid straight-up points.

Did I miss any category, or particularly good examples in one? What is your favorite scoring mechanism?

Avoiding non-decisions

Tuesday’s post was presenting two types of non-decisions, which look like decisions from the designer’s POV, but not for players when they experience the game. Those were Arbitrary and Automatic decisions. Today we talk about avoiding them.

So what causes Automatic or Arbitrary decisions? They are two extreme of the same spectrum: Automatic is what happens when you have perfect knowledge of the impact of your decision -making it just a matter of comparing the numbers and choosing the one with the most benefits; Arbitrary is what happens when you have no knowledge of the impact of your decision -meaning all options look the same.

Therefore, stand in the middle. Done, blog post over. Nailed it!

You want a bit more? Oh. Okay.

So I think there are four important things to keep in mind in avoiding non-decisions, and in each, an example of a game I love which does it well:

Opacity is how I describe a game that, through layers of complexity, makes it hard to evaluate impact because of the limits of the human brain. Opacity is often achieved through multiple layers of math, mostly in economic games, but can come from important mechanisms which are not apparent from the get-go. Some will argue it’s a feature because of how clever you feel when you understand it, but I think it is quite problematic: either it leads to arbitrary decisions, because you can’t figure out what each move is worth, or it becomes an automatic decision once you can. I am a fervent advocate of games requiring as little brain juice to understand the rules, to have more left to understand the strategy: to me, opacity is a necessary evil that should be limited as much as possible.

Picture by BGG user Gastgast

A game that achieves depth without being too opaque is Russian Railroads: the impact of an action are as straightforward as can be, whether it’s gaining a new piece, or moving a piece forward. The impacts of a move are also straightforward: this will give you an extra point per turn, but gets you closer to you !-bonus. Instead of having very complex, interconnected systems, it presents them to the players in a really simple way.

Comparability is the ability to compare results. Back when I played Dungeons & Dragons, I had this buddy who just loved big numbers: he had an attack that dealt 20 damage, an attack that dealt 15, and one that dealt 10. Every combat, he’d do his 20, then his 15, then his 10. On the other hand, I had an ability to push enemies, one to stun them, one to teleport to another enemy I could see. Which one was best depended on the situation. Comparing them was more about gut feeling, making the decision interesting.

Picture by Jamey Stegmaier

Wingspan is a great example of a game that makes choices hard to compare: even leaving out round objectives and egg maximums, are you going for the 2-food, 4pt, forest bird which gives you a bonus card; the expensive, 7pt plains bird which can give you an extra point every time you activate it, or for the quick to play, 3pt forest bird which has the same special ability, but a lower chance of success? How are you even supposed to compare those? Because they vary on multiple axes (without becoming opaque), and because of the special abilities which feel very different, it makes those decisions based on the situation rather than a clear cut better option.

Uncertainty is not having an exact value for an action, because its value depends on other things: a random factor (draw the top card from the Building deck and build it right away -but how good is that card?); other players’ actions (the player with the most Honor gains 10 points -how safe is my lead?); or your own future actions (gain an extra wood every time you go to the forest -how often will I get it?).

One thing to keep in mind is that uncertainty can lead to arbitrary decisions if taken too far, and if it isn’t combined with another mitigating factor. “Gain a point every time a blue card is played” is an interesting effect of uncertain result, but if I had to choose between that and “gain a point every time a red card is played”, unless I know what people are likely to play, then it’s arbitrary. If you mitigate it with comparability (gain a point per blue card vs gain a wood per red card), then it’s less arbitrary.

Picture by BGG user Punkin312

One game which uses uncertainty to make decisions interesting is Libertalia. Because of the simultaneous selection, and despite having perfect information of what others have in hand (barring some specific special effects), you can never be certain what the exact impact of your move will be, because the effects of the cards are interrelated.

Interchangeability is a really long word. I really like Euro games, but too many of them end up increasing the number of resources without making them feel different, and in so many games, the choice of a wood vs a brick is the color of the cube. Many games even allow you to pay resources of any type for a lot of things, making what little difference there was even thinner. Most of the time you care because you’re building towards something specific, but by giving each resource a specific niche, you’re making sure those choices stand on their own, not only when an objective requires a specific one.

Picture from BGG user srokaplotkara

Le Havre is an example of a game with a load of different resources, which each feel different, mainly through its two-level, multi-use system. Resources are upgadeable, each type leading to a specific “second level”; some are used for building, some for food, some for energy, and most change use on the second level; some reproduce on their own, while most don’t. All in all, it means that the decision between a Fish and a Coal is never arbitrary, and never automatic.

I think by keeping these four things in mind, the ends of the spectrum become easier to avoid.