In the comments to my last post, Ben Draper asked me if I knew of any board games with (by my definition) bad reward mechanics to match the RPG example of the old World of Darkness games. I knew there was one floating around the back of my mind, but it took me a couple of hours to remember what it was. I’d even committed to writing about it once already, as a negative example of craft in game design.
Trias is a game about dinosaurs and continental drift. Played on a modular hexagonal board with three types of terrain: mountains, forest and plains (the board’s origin is probably a couple of cannibalized Settlers of Catan sets) which the players seed with herds of their respective dino species. During the game, the players breed and move their herds around the board and break the board up into sub-continents by drifting hexes outward into new positions.
It’s a straightforward area majority game in the mold of El Grande or San Marco with the continents the players create acting as scoring areas. Whenever a continent is broken in two by drift, one of the new landmasses is scored. The player that has the most herds on the new landmass receives two points and the second-place player scores one. At the end of the game (after the asteroid strikes, destroying all dinosaur life) there is a final scoring of all the continents where the winning species receives one point for each hex making up the continent and the second-place species earning half that many points.
All of this is straightforward, and no problems jumps out during a cursory inspection. You battle for position on newly-formed continents, breeding and manoeuvring your way to majorities, preferably on the largest continents, positioning yourself for the final scoring. In my experience, sadly, the reality is less interesting and much less fun. (by the way, if you want more details, you can find a PDF of the rules on the publisher’s website)
When a new continent is scored, the reward for having the majority is fixed; large continents score the same as small ones. Large continents leave more room for other players to tag along, though, and you want to squeeze them out to deny them points. The result, in my experience, is players setting up a small – roughly four hexes – continent devoid of dinos other than your own. They repeatedly split the continent, scoring two points, and then reunite it so the landmass doesn’t get too small to split. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It seems like the bonus for continent size at end of the game should work against this. If a player can work the isolation plan for about 80% of the game, though, he’ll score enough points to overcome almost any large but competitive continent. The key seems to be that the isolation player doesn’t have waste actions breeding or otherwise fighting for position (a small continent is faster to split than a larger one, as well), making him very efficient at churning the two point bonuses.
This pattern sucks all of the interaction and conflict – and all of the resulting fun – from the game. There are some simple ways to try fixing this – biodiversity and continent-size bonuses during the body of the game, for example – but I haven’t had a chance to playtest any of them. Getting past the efficiency of isolation play won’t be easy, either. Allowing competition in may have to promise a reward of 8 or more points per continent to overcome the problem. This threatens to increase scores enough to make the math unwieldy for what is supposed to be a family-friendly boardgame. To make the game work we may need to remove the basic scoring entirely, scoring new continents strictly on size (with a minimum threshold that is higher than I’d like) or on opposing players sharing the continent with you. All of these considerations show why designers and developers go wrong so often.
Trias isn’t the only game that suffers from a dominant strategy, but it’s one of the few where the problem resides almost entirely in the scoring mechanics. As such, it makes an excellent case study in the craft of reward mechanic design.