Is a Catch-Up Mechanism Required?

On Sunday, I was playing a game of Terraforming Mars (which I won!) and the scores were a bit spread out.

I won with 73 points, and the last place player had 53 points. That player had been lagging behind most of the game, and I was wondering if that was any fun for them.

Especially in a 3.5 hours game like this was.

Terraforming Mars
This was during end-game scoring but not at the end of it

The player in question was black, and you can see above that they had 26 points while I had 55, prior to all of the final scoring (the pic was taken after Milestones and Awards, I believe).

The response to my question was that yes it was, that you have to play to get better and the process of playing is fun in and of itself.

But it made me think about this because I’ve seen it in other games, too (namely a review of Porta Nigra) where somebody mentions that you can be out of a game early.

Is a catch-up mechanism required in a game for it to be fun?

Some games do have some kind of built-in mechanism for keeping things relatively close.

Gil Hova’s The Networks has the player who is in last place go first each Season, for example. Others give point bonuses or increased resources/abilities for those who are in last place.

And some just leave you out in the cold.

With Terraforming Mars, it is possible to catch up, earlier in the game. The third place player (tied for 2nd, though lost the tie-breaker) finished 8 points behind me, but they were hanging back with the last-place player for the first few generations before really kicking it into gear.

However, since your megacredit income each turn is your income plus your Terraforming Rating, the person who is ahead has a decided advantage (unless they have no other income, while you are low in TR but have managed to really improve your actual income).

For me, a catch-up mechanism can be a good idea, but it’s not really mandatory. It also depends on how much I enjoy the game, which of course is relative.

For Terraforming Mars, for example, I enjoy the game well enough that even when I know I can’t win, there’s a joy in just playing it. I actually agree with that player. It’s interesting to try out card combinations and just see if I can get the best score possible.

Something like Terra Mystica, though, I may not feel quite the same way about.

Merchant of Venus
Merchant of Venus, in all its 1st Edition glory

I remember my second game of Merchant of Venus. That’s basically a pick-up and deliver game where you’re trying to make money by buying and selling goods as you roam the spaceways.

I made a couple of mistakes, and given the way the civilizations came out on the board, I was basically shuttling back and forth between the top right corner of the board and the top left, making a pittance each time. Not enough to actually go out further and try to get more expensive goods.

I was like that for the last 90-120 minutes of the game.

While I enjoy Merchant of Venus, that was not a fun time. It didn’t help that by the time I got into that situation, it was 1:00 am.

Thankfully, it didn’t harm my enjoyment of the game. It’s still a convention mainstay and I’d love to play with Eric Summerer one day.

But it kind of highlights what I’m talking about.

I remember Edward from Heavy Cardboard saying many times (I think it most recently was just last week in the Transatlantic review episode) saying a common reaction to people getting into this situation: Plan better (which can be amended to “play better”, which he may also have said at some time).

As gamers, isn’t that what we’re all about? Learning a game and trying to improve ourselves? If we get stuck in that kind of situation, we can analyze why that happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

In the meantime, we can try to do the best we can with what we have. Try to get the best score possible.

Do we really need some mechanic to make sure things stay kind of close?

Sometimes that’s a good thing too, depending on how light the game is.

But it’s certainly not a necessity.

What do you think about catch-up mechanisms?

Let me know in the comments.




8 Comments on “Is a Catch-Up Mechanism Required?

  1. Interesting topic and something I’ve noticed is that a lot of games get around this by obfuscating the score so you are never really sure how you’re doing.

    I think these things really depends on the game and the way it’s intended to be played. If it’s semi or fully competitive then I would expect it to: have no catch up mechanism, and show the score at all times. In saying this there is always going to be exceptions, and varying degrees.

    On the opposite end, knowing that you’ve lost or won in the first 20mins of an hour+ long game. Suuuuuuuuucks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it does have a bit of a disheartening feeling when you know you can’t catch up 20 minutes into a game, but I enjoy the game-playing experience by itself, so it’s not a soul-crushing as it may be for some. I think I would draw the line at 20 minutes into a 3-hour game, though. ๐Ÿ˜›

      I do like games where you’re not quite sure how you’re doing overall. Sometimes it’s because scoring isn’t really done until the end. And other times, there is in-game scoring but the amount of points you can get in the end-game can be staggering if you do it right.

      Thanks for stopping by, David! I’ll get to your Takenoko review soon. ๐Ÿ™‚


  2. I have a question about the way you played Terraforming Mars: did you use the draft variant? How experienced were the players? I have 30+ TM games under my belt – which by the way never went pas 2h even with 5 players – and have never felt or being told about that falling behind; you would almost have to do badly on purpose. That said, the drafting does A LOT to balance the game and help it steer in the way of your corporative perks. With a game as asymmetric as TM the only reason to remove this variant is to have beginners at the table.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for stopping by!

      We did play with drafting. I would never do so without it. It’s just so integral to the game, in my opinion.

      Sometimes, you just have trouble seeing the combos and how they work and thus you find yourself falling behind. And the only way you can get better is to play through it. Which this player does (they even request the game!).

      I think this game went 3+ hours because of the new stuff and some players are slower than others. We were actually moving along pretty quickly, but then things kind of stalled in the middle. My previous 4-player game was just over 2 hours, so I know it’s possible.


  3. I think it strongly depends on the kind of players you aim for. If they are highly competitive, tooth-and-nails fighters, they might not want a catch-up mechanism. See, for example, Food Chain Magnate: The game is infamous for being brutally punishing for those who did not “plan better”. You left a little hole in your plan, your opponent exploits it – and bam, your income is $5, theirs is $100. Still, FCM is beloved by many of the more hardened gamers because they feel that their achievements get appropriately rewarded.
    I think there are three alternatives to catch-up mechanisms to keep the game fun for everybody involved:
    1. Player interaction – the possibility of ganging up on a leader. See, for example, Here I Stand.
    2. The power of hope in randomness – the cards/dice/whatever will likely not favor you that much, but if everything goes right, you can eke out a victory. See, for example, The War of the Ring (especially for those last hunt chit pulls in Mordor).
    3. Designing the end of the game that it coincides with the first player feeling out of the competition. A very delicate art for the game designer. There’s a post on the Hollandspiele blog about it:
    1. and 2. bring other design challenges and go a bit against the common spirit of eurogames, 3. is extremely hard to do. So the catch-up mechanism often remains the most reliable instrument of choice to give everyone a good time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, thanks for the long and thoughtful reply! I love it.

      And the article you shared is really interesting. I didn’t know it existed, so thank you for that as well.

      Time of Crisis also has a bit of “Ganging up on the leader.” If somebody becomes Emperor, the target is on the back from the get-go!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for the article about such an important issue in good game design!
        Yes, “ganging up on the leader” can really paint a target on a player – which might then be not so great an experience for them! Of course, some confident and competitive players might enjoy the thrill of being up against a coalition even more – for me, it is one of the most exciting things to play Prussia in Friedrich against three skilled opponents.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, some games it’s intended to be “gang up on the leader.” In Time of Crisis, you expect to be ganged up on if you become Emperor, because being Emperor the longest gets you 10 points at the end of the game.

    So you know it going in. If you don’t like that, then you don’t play that game. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Aside: Interestingly, your latest comment, the email I received about your comment was mostly in German, except for the comment itself. I know you’re in Germany, but this is the first time you’ve commented where that’s happened. Startled me for a moment!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: