Game Designer’s Notes #6: Catch-up systems

Courtesy of Amos Kwok

Catch-up systems. The mechanic that favours the weaker players. This mechanic is a defining feature of European-style games, as it grants every player a winning chance despite early setbacks.

In some games, once you fall behind, it’s curtains for you, as you basically become a zombie player—a player who can’t win and can’t be eliminated. And that’s annoying. However, catch-up systems mitigate that effect by tipping the scales to favour players who are lagging.

How would that improve a game?

Well, it keeps games competitive by ensuring that every player is, for the most part, similar in power, which forces players to find creative solutions to beat their opponents. That usually results in increased competition, which in turn, makes the game more fun. Mostly.

While there are probably more types of catch-up systems, I will discuss two today.

The first system can be used by any player, but it’s only favourable if you are actually behind. This is the case of Small World, a world domination game where players control fantasy empires. The thing is, if your empire begins to collapse, well, no problem. Instead of being reduced to a zombie player, Small World lets you abandon your old empire and start a new one. This option is available to all players; however, it’s not attractive unless you’re actually losing, because abandoning an empire takes an entire turn, and in Small World, you have less than ten of them.

The second catch-up system is exclusive—it’s only available to the laggards. This is the case of Power Grid, where the turn order for play is based on points—in this case, the player that is the furthest behind begins. This allows them some breathing room to catch up.

Well, that’s catch-up systems, and that’s all for today.


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