Board game design, Los Buenos

Incentivizing players in board games

Somehow these are meant to change how I play this game?!?
I’ve been able to get in a reasonable number of play tests for Los Buenos recently. The core of the game is pretty solid, but there are quite a few things “at the edges” that can be better. Changes thus have been relatively small, making comparisons between different versions easier to make.

What I’ve found interesting to see is that relatively small changes can result in significant differences in player behavior. On the one hand this is great, because it means I can incentivize different actions with minor adjustments. On the other, it also means that a small change could remove quite a bit of what is actually working. As always, it’s a balancing act…

In this post I want to go into a few things I’ve run into and hopefully gain some general ideas about incentives and player behavior.

Incentives – or: How much do I get?

One of the fundamental mechanics of Los Buenos is that a major way of gaining Karma Points (victory points) is by “helping” other players. Each player can start building projects and other players can place workers (technically they are work tokens but for this post the difference doesn’t matter) to help finish a building. Every player who places at least one worker gets 1 karma point. The player who places the most workers get additional karma points. In case of a tie these additional points don’t get given out. Thus, there is an incentive to “help the most”.

For most of the play tests the “bonus” for helping the most was 2 karma points, for a total of 3 (1 for helping at all, 2 for helping the most). The buildings available in the beginning of the game give the “owner” 3 or 4 karma points and require them to use some workers as well (mostly to gather the resources (wood and gold) required to be able to start building.) Thus, initiating a building and “helping the most” give about the same benefits.

The observed behavior was that players would work towards being “most helpful” and would be ok with others “helping the most” if it came up as well.

Then I changed the amount players got for “helping the most” to 3 karma points (for a total of 4). Behavior suddenly changed significantly: Players would think hard and actively collude to prevent others from getting these points.

In previous games I had regularly seen players take an action to “block” someone from gaining the points, but it was far from a sure thing. Now suddenly it was the one thing driving the game.

What behavior do I want?

It would be cool if my board game got people to do this!
So the question then becomes: What kind of behavior do I want? Well, maybe I should’ve asked this question before doing my tests, but hey, you use what you’ve got, right? 🙂

Having players actively work against each other makes for interesting player interaction. I like the fact that they were discussing on how they could block someone. It also creates more tension, as it means that players that have a chance to get the 4 points are eager for that to happen.

On the other side, it takes away player agency: During your turn you’re almost “obliged” to prevent another player from getting their points. And this reduces the amount of interesting choices players have to make. It’s not that they’re gone, but there are less of them!

It also makes it frustrating for players that it’s very hard for them to actually get the 4 points as this entirely depends on other players’ actions. Having said that, there are possibilities to “set up” the board in such a way that other players have to make a choice on who they prevent getting the 4 points.

Finally, the game with the higher points felt “harsher”: Players are much more working against each other. I want this to happen somewhat, but perhaps not all the time.

Based on the above I’m edging towards going back to giving 2 points for helping the most. I’m however not entirely sure, so I’ll run at least one other play test with the 3-point rule.

Incentive: The right place at the right time

The game includes “experts” and “expert spaces”. These expert spaces can only be occupied by expert workers, while expert workers can occupy both expert spaces and normal spaces. The twist is that when you place an expert on an expert space you get 1 karma (the rationale being that experts like doing difficult work).

The result of this is that as soon as an expert space becomes available, players are eager to place their expert, as it gives them a “free” karma. And players almost always do.

The upsides and downsides

We can all use a little nudge to start investing
The upside of this mechanic is that it gets players “invested” in building projects: You’ve already placed a worker, so why not go for the full bonus of “helping the most” as well?

This was something that was very useful in previous versions of the game, where there were buildings that required a lot of workers and players otherwise were inclined not to start on them – too much risk of someone else grabbing the “most helpful” bonus.

In the current version however the number of workers required is mostly 2 or 3, with a few “big” buildings needing 4 workers. Thus the incentive to “start” isn’t needed as much anymore.

Also, it’s an additional rule to game. Part of my vision is to make the game as “light” as possible – I’d like for people to feel it’s at about the same level as Catan. And thus I have to think about whether this (and every other) rule is “pulling its weight”.

Finally, there is some thematic explanation for getting a karma when placing an expert on an expert space, but it’s somewhat “thin”.

Thus, I’m going to make a version that doesn’t use experts at all to see if behavior changes significantly.

One thing I’m curious to see if it makes the game longer. I can imagine that having an obviously “good” action available makes it easier to make a choice. On the other hand, does that also mean that there are fewer interesting choices?

Lessons learned

Above I explained two sets of incentives within the game and the kind of behavior that they result in. For both I’m not sure whether I actively want to change anything, but thinking about it does make it much clearer what the pros and cons are.

It also made me realize that it’s a very good idea to start thinking about what kind of behavior I want and then to design towards that (instead of throwing things in and seeing what happens – what I’ve mostly been doing so far).

It also allows me to pro-actively create “experiments”: I’m going to experiment with removing the experts. The experiment will be a success if behavior does not change significantly (and people are not complaining that they are missing the expert).

I’ll also experiment further with the increased karma points for “helping the most”. There the “success” is less clear though: Both options have advantage and disadvantages. It would however be very useful to see whether the observed behavior works for other groups besides the one I tested with most recently. And if that’s the case I’ll see if I can somehow get the best of both worlds, with the increased tension of the higher points, while keeping the set of interesting choices from the lower points.

Finally, it’s good to get insight in behavior of people around the game. I might change something in the future which means it would be very beneficial to increase competition. I now know that one way of doing that is increasing the amount of point players get from helping the most.

Closing thoughts

Let’s paint us some incentives!
When you start designing a game you’re painting with a very broad brush. There is a big idea, some clues about which mechanics might work. And during early play tests those can change wholesale. Elements get cut, mechanics change irrecognizably, the theme goes from one end to the other. If you don’t like something a player is doing, just remove the entire thing!

Then when you get further into the design the game solidifies. Changes get smaller and more subtle. You might still swap something out if it’s not working but it gets more rare. Influencing what players do is more by setting up how elements interact than by wholesale addition and removal.

And then finally when you have a “working game” you want to perfect it. The tiniest brush the allows you to push your players to do a little bit more of something. To get them to take an action 10% less often.

I believe that it’s at this last part where you need to think deeply about your incentives. Why do players do what they do? Is that what you want them to do? How do you change it? How do you change it the right amount?

What are the incentives you’ve employed in your game?
Did you ever had “troublesome” player behavior? What did you do about it?
Do you actively think about how to get players to do what you want them to?

Further reading

A while back I also wrote a (more general) post on incentives in board games.

And In the above I talk about the expert spaces. This was the subject of another post as well, where I looked at how the scarcity of these spaces impacted the game.

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.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *