Board game design

Scarcity in board games – An example

Some time back I wrote an article about scarcity in board games. The premise was that board games revolve around resources (in many different variants) and that scarcity of (some of) those resources creates interesting choices.

What is scarce becomes valuable
In this post I want to go into an example of this, based on Voluntarios (volunteers in Spanish), the game I’m working on. Specifically I want to go into a somewhat novel form of scarcity: The scarcity of space.

A first scarcity of space

In Voluntarios you’re at the head of a group of volunteers (workers) and you have those volunteers do work (in a slight twist on worker-placement, the details of which I won’t bother you with) on reconstructing a village after an earthquake.

There are two types of workers: Experts and Normal workers. Most of the work that needs to be done is “normal” work, but there is also some work that can only be done by Experts. Experts can do the work of Normal workers, but it costs the player a Karma (= victory) point when doing so (because when you’re an expert, you don’t want to do simple menial work, now do you?!). And of course Normal workers can’t do Expert work.

The number of spaces where Expert work needs to be done will ebb and flow through the game, but on average there are slightly fewer spaces than the number of Expert workers available. This means that there is an incentive to “get rid” of Expert workers as soon as an Expert space becomes available. This then creates an interesting decision, where a player needs to decide between placing an Expert or doing something else that might be more useful to do, but with the risk (or even certainty) of losing a point when the Expert is forced to do Normal work.

Expert spaces are created through buildings that can be worked on by all players, but where the player controlling the building will get the benefits when it’s finished. However, making such spaces available generally does not mean that a player can take advantage of them (by placing an Expert) immediately. Thus, there is a choice between making Expert spaces available (which will go toward finishing a building a player controls) and waiting for someone else to do it so that an Expert worker can be placed.

A second scarcity of space

A prototype construction project – with space for 1 Expert (green) and 2 Normal workers (blue)
One of the advantages that finished buildings can have is that they give the controlling player an additional worker. This means that the number of workers increases throughout the game. The total number of spaces for workers however goes down as much as it goes up, meaning that there can be moments where there are more workers than spaces to place them.

Of course, letting things go to waste is well, a waste. Therefore there is a mechanic that players lose points when they have unused workers left at the end of a round.

The result is that players need to think very carefully on whether they want to control buildings that give additional workers; they may be beneficial, but when space runs out they are very much a burden. This then creates interesting strategical choices on whether to invest in more workers or to go for other types of buildings.

And it’s not a stand-alone choice, it very much depends on what the other players are doing as well; if everybody else is investing in other buildings, then having a few more workers of your own means you’ll still be able to place them without too much trouble.

The good, the bad and the unexpected

One of the two types of space scarcity works like a charm. The other has some… Side effects.

Can you guess which one is which?

Well no worry, I’m going to tell you!

(No) space: The final frontier!

When there is not enough space for all workers the result is that all possible worker spaces get filled and thus that all associated actions are taken. A number of those actions benefit not just the player taking them, but other players as well (think of role selection, but through placing a worker instead of taking a card). For any given action there are only two options: I take the action or someone else takes the action.

This is actually quite a bit less interesting than what happens for most games: I take the action, someone else takes the action or the action doesn’t happen.

When all actions are taken there is still jostling for getting the actions that you really want, but there is no tension about which actions exactly will have happened when the round has ended.

Worse, when there are limited spaces at some point players are “forced” to place workers in spaces they aren’t really interested in or even worse, would actively prefer not to take. Technically they have the choice of not placing a worker, but if the downside is high (which it was in my game) then it’s not really a choice at all. And thus this mechanic took away player agency and resulted in a lot of frustration

Bad choice of space scarcity! And thus “too little space for all workers” will be taken care of in the next iteration.

Without space everybody can hear you scream!

What do you mean that space can be scarce?!
The other option for making space scarce, jostling for positions for Expert workers, however works well. It indeed creates a sense of urgency about “having to get rid of” your Expert workers.

So why does this work but scarcity of space for all workers doesn’t?

The fundamental difference I feel is that Expert-space-scarcity doesn’t take away options. An Expert worker can be used for any space, though at a penalty. You’d like to avoid that penalty, and so you’ll work towards that, but you don’t have to. This gives the player control.

For the full-space-scarcity on the other hand at some point it becomes clear how many spaces there and thus for how many workers you’re going to have to take a penalty. There are some actions you can take to increase spaces during a turn, but they help everybody (almost) equally and thus do not really give a sense of control.

Salvage space?

So full-space-scarcity is a bad idea.

But…

I like the idea, as it is novel and actually goes against the idea of so many games that “more workers is better”. So might there be a way to salvage the mechanic?

What if this scarcity generally doesn’t happen, but only shows up every once and awhile? Like in 1/5th of all the rounds?

Would that be enough to force players to take it into account when choosing how many workers to go for? Or will it happen “at random” and frustrate players just as much as when it happens regularly? Perhaps if players are veterans they would learn to plan for this, but for rookies it could still be a big downer? Would it be bad enough that the rookies never turn into veterans?

I haven’t fully given up on the idea, so who knows how and where this might show up?

Closing thoughts

Scarcity is one of the fundamental building blocks of board games – something has to be scarce for there to be any competition.

In this post I gave two very concrete examples of scarcity, one that worked and another that didn’t. The fact that I used the somewhat unusual scarcity-of-space hopefully doesn’t detract from the lessons that can be taken from this.

The most important of these I feel is that when working with scarcity, allow your players to work with it, instead of simply having it forced upon them. In this sense there is a similarity to randomness: Forcing players to live with (the outcomes of) randomness is tedious, but once you give them some control after the randomness has happened, the game becomes a whole lot more interesting.

I hope that after reading this you’ll take a look at where the scarcities are in your own game and how your players get to handle these.

Further reading

For more on Voluntarios, read this post which uses Voluntarios as an example for strategy in board games, or this post in which I realized Voluntarios had too few interesting decisions.

And here is the original post on scarcity.

About the author

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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