Board game design

Guiding your players: Incentives in board-game design


The oldest incentive in the world?
The oldest incentive in the world?
When designing a board-game, you want players to have a certain experience: The thrill of besting a dragon as a group of adventurers is very different from going head to head to see who can build the largest civilization.

The way we create that experience is through the interaction of the rules and the game components; with the former telling you what you can do with the latter.

To experience the vision of the creator there are certain things that a player should do. Let’s say you want them to build a thriving civilization, then you can put in the rules that every turn they have to build a building and attack another player. But putting it in so explicitly feels forced and doesn’t add to making interesting choices (see this post for more on interesting choices in board-games) or being in control.

A better way is to create incentives for your players to do what you want them to do.

What is an incentive?

In its simplest form an incentive is a punishment or reward for doing (or not doing) something.

In real life we are incentivized to work: You earn a money with which you can do interesting stuff (reward) and you get bad reviews or even fired if you don’t do your job well (punishment).

Likewise, a kid can be rewarded for cleaning up their room with an ice-cream, or be punished by being grounded for leaving the mess untouched.

Incentives in board-games

But what will it buy me?
But what will it buy me?
In board-games players also get rewards and punishments for doing (or not doing) certain actions. This usually comes in the form getting or losing resources (see more on resources in board-games in this post).

For example in Catan you are rewarded for building a village as it gives you a victory point (as well as future resources). Likewise in Agricola not feeding your family is punished by costing you three victory points. This guides the players to take the actions that the designer had in mind, without forcing them: Probably villages will get built and the family will get fed, but maybe they won’t.

Taking our example from above, instead of saying that you have to build a building, we create incentives to construct: Buildings earn victory points, or generate resources. And instead of forcing a player to attack, there can be a penalty for not attacking. This way players continue to have choices, but they are guided towards what the developer wants them to do.

Levels of incentives

At what level are you guiding your players?
At what level are you guiding your players?
Incentives can happen at different “levels”.

At a highest level there is winning / losing the game: If there is anything that would immediately win the game then you would have a very strong reason to go for this. Alternatively, anything that would result in an instant loss is to be avoided at all cost. These are however very extreme and thus are generally not used. Instead incentives are structured in such a way that they get you closer to winning, instead of winning outright.

At the second level there is anything that is a “prerequisite” for winning. For many games you want to collect as many victory points as possible and thus anything that gives victory points will draw the attention of players. Likewise, anything that costs victory points is generally avoided.

There are of course games that don’t work with victory points but there will be something that you require to win. For example in racing games anything that gets you closer to the finish will have a strong incentive

Finally there is anything that gets you closer to the things that get you closer to winning. These are general resources (e.g. wood and sheep in Catan, a profession in Agricola). This is the stuff which “in itself” is not useful, except that it enables you to get the things that do matter. Compare this to money in the real world: There is very little it’s good for on its own; only because it can be traded for other stuff do we start to covet it.

In one way or another, incentives in board-games work by getting you closer to winning the game (reward) or bringing you further from it (punishment).

Costs and returns vs. punishments and rewards

Many games allow you to build / buy things.

There is generally a cost associated with this: In Catan a village costs you four resources.

The higher the cost of buying / building, the less incentive there is to hire builders; in this way a high cost works as a “punishment”, making it less likely that a player will go for it.

Of course you buy / build to get something. That village gives you a victory point, as well as future resources. These are the rewards for adding a game piece. If the reward is low, then there is little incentive to go for it, while if it’s high, players will be fighting for it.

There are thus two ways to adjust incentives: Change the cost or change the reward.

Incentives and interesting choices

You can only spend your resources once. Choose wisely!
You can only spend your resources once. Choose wisely!
In this post I wrote about creating interesting choices in board-games, which I believe have to be hard choices. One way of doing this is by finding a right balance between cost and returns of anything you can buy / build.

Looking at this from the punishment / reward perspective: If punishment (cost) and reward (returns) are balanced, then there are incentives both to build / buy and to not do that, making it hard (interesting!) to decide whether to build or not.

Guiding your players

Incentives are used to guide your players. This has two uses:

  • Play the game the designer envisioned
  • Know what is useful to do
Playing the designer’s game

As a designer you (should) have a vision for your game: “In this game you’ll be in charge of a mighty civilization trying to build yourself up whilst bringing others down”.

This means that the game should allow for building up (constructing buildings) and bringing low (attacking other civilizations). You create your first prototype and play. Only to find out that everybody is only ever attacking and never building up…

In this case you can use incentives to “guide” your players to do what you would like them to do: Attack, but also to build. To do this you can give bonuses for building, make buildings cheaper or make attacking less lucrative.

An essential part of guiding your players to play the game you envision is that you have to have have that vision of what it should all be about.

Do what’s useful

Guide your players away from the rocks and towards the harbour
Guide your players away from the rocks and towards the harbour
Incentives can be used to guide players to do what’s useful in the game.

Especially in a complex game with many options that you’ve never played, it can be very difficult to see what a good (or even reasonable) option is to take.

Here you can create incentives to guide the way: “For every village that I build I get 2 victory points at the end of this round, so how about I try to build as many villages as possible?“

This works best if the bonus / incentive is temporary (say until the end of the turn) as that makes it clear that that specific option is even better “right now”.

A good example of this is Terra Mystica, where ever turn there are bonus points to be earned for taking certain actions. None of these actions are bad by themselves, but with the added bonus, they become good enough that it is usually a good idea to go for them.

This makes it such that inexperienced players have something to guide them: Go for the easy points that are right in front of my nose, without ever thinking about a game-encompassing strategy (for some general board-game strategies, see this post)! Experienced players on the other hand can choose to forego the “easy” points and instead focus on executing their thought-out strategy.

The point-salad conundrum

How many points was a prawn again?
How many points was a prawn again?
Some board-games have many different ways of getting a few points – so called “point salads”.

On the one hand this is a great use of incentives: Everything gives some points, so there are very obvious incentives to do multiple things. Once you chose one of them, it can be a the start of an interesting strategy for the rest of the game.

On the other hand, it can also mean that players are incentivized to do everything. Meaning that there is actually no incentive for any one particular choice.

I also personally dislike point-salads, as I feel they take away some of the “immersion” in a game: I like my games to have a feeling of “achievement” outside of “winning because you have the most points”; points are a decent way to measure “progress”, but if you get points for everything then it’s unclear what your “progress” was towards. See this post on tips on immersion through story-telling for board-games.

Closing thoughts

As a designer you should have a vision of what experience you want the players of your game to have. For that vision to come true, they will need to play in certain ways. Incentives can be used to create guidance towards what you want them to do.

You want your players to do something? Give them stuff – resources or victory points. Don’t want them to do something? Withhold or take away what they need.

Incentives are much less heavy-handed than directly embedding something in the rules. This means that players have more control over what they do and it also results in more options to choose from. Of course some of those choices might be sub-optimal, but it might be interesting to explore what happens if you take it anyway; it’s an option not to feed your family in Agricola but it’s probably not a good one!

Next steps

In this post I mentioned the experience that players have when playing. Incentives are a way of getting to that experience, but you still need to think about what that experience should be. This is probably a good subject for another post.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, so I hope you’re incentivized to let me know in the comments or on Twitter whether you agree or if you think I completely missed the point?!

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

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  1. Greetings,
    I connect with your point where you wrote “But putting it in so explicitly feels forced and doesn’t add to making interesting choices …” because I feel some things are better off being experiences rather than being explicitly stated in the game. If we talk about intrigue, for example, I dislike the fact that in the Game of Thrones LCG, there is a specific stat named ‘Intrigue’ as opposed to it being an experience that evolves from other stats.

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      I fully agree. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to have players “intrigue” without an explicit mechanic for it.

      In computer games (and real life) the rules can be hidden, in board games they need to be explicit.

      Incentives are a sort of middle ground, where the possibility is explicit, but whether the players do is still up to them.


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