The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Budgeted Action Points

Steve Kurzban

July, 2000

Tired of the old "roll, move, pick a Chance card" school of contemporary American game design? Obviously, "Hasborg" (Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, and every other game company they've swallowed up) doesn't think its time has passed. So while the Toys R Us audience is dished up more versions of Monopoly, Risk and Clue, the leading European game authors have been refining the art of modern game design. Late 1980s to mid 1990s German game design evolved to this central mechanism: the player is several attractive options at each turn but is forced to choose just one of them. This concept of strategic tension, while not allowing you to do everything you want, gives you more control over your destiny and more interaction with your opponents than fickle dice rolls.

A perfect example of this mechanism is Alan R. Moon's Union Pacific (Amigo/Rio Grande Games). You can either build (extend existing track and be rewarded byUnion Pacific drafting a share of stock) or invest (display shares of one or two companies) - but not both. The deck of share cards is seeded with dividend cards that at unpredictable intervals trigger scoring rounds. You want to strengthen your hand of share cards but can't score unless they are displayed. Judging how long to push your luck before a scoring round occurs is exquisite tension at its finest.

A Tikal-ish Question

Over the past year a new game mechanic, "budgeted action points," was pioneered by the collaboration of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling in their game Tikal (Ravensburger/Rio Grande), which has been duly rewarded with both the German Game of the Year and German Game Prize awards in 1999. In this challenging game of exploration and discovery, players choose from among a menu of actions that cost varying action points from 1 to 5: enter new workers, move workers, excavate temples, dig up treasures, trade treasures, establish new base camps, or place a temple guard (one of the Tikal action reference cards is shown below). The dilemma you face is that although you're allotted 10 action points to spend as you see fit, you'd really like to spend 15-20 to achieve all your objectives. Your inability to do that forces you to choose the actions that are most important to the strategy you have elected to follow.

Spending action points is not what is new about this clever mechanism. American election games like Mr. & Mrs. Oswald B. Lord's Game of Politics (Parker Brothers 1936) and John Reed Koza's Consensus (Scientific Games Development Corp.1966) allowed candidates to spend campaign points in whatever states or regions their budget or die roll allowed. But they could choose only where to spend the points, and could not choose among various actions as well.

Analysis Paralysis

In similar fashion, German game critic turned designer Thorsten Gimmler has adapted this mechanism in his recent clipper ship racing game Cape Horn (Kosmos/Rio Grande). Wooden ships move using directional wind tiles from New York to San Francisco. You start the race with 3 "sail points" and receive only one additional sail point for each subsequent turn. You can spend your sail points (up to 8) on drawing new wind tiles (1 SP per tile), taking an immediate second turn (5 SP), or ignoring the instructions on your wind tile and taking a move of one space in any direction (3 SP). Saving those 5 sail points for a double turn can be crucial to victory. You can also earn 1 sail point for not moving your ship on a given turn. As with Tikal, you want to accomplish more each turn than the sail points allow and must choose what strategic path to follow.

Kramer & Kiesling's most recent collaboration, Torres (FX Schmid/Rio Grande), was recently named Games magazine's Game of the Year. Torres is an abstract game of building castles using tower pieces and earning victory points for the placement of knights. The knights score points for the surface area of the castle it rests on (which may include several towers) multiplied by the height of its tower. Torres makes very effective use of 3D without requiring the spatial perception usually required in such games. Your inability to achieve all your objectives forces you to choose the actions that are most important to your strategy.

The core mechanism in Torres is that you are given 5 action points for each of your 10 turns and have to choose among adding a knight (2 AP), moving a knight (1 AP per space), adding a tower block to an existing castle (1 AP), purchasing an action card. (1 AP), or moving one space along the game's scoring-track (1 AP). The action cards allow for some rules-bending, including gaining a 6th or 7th action point for one turn. As in Tikal, you would like to spend several more action points then those allotted.

The action point summary from Tikal (left) and Torres.

Are we going to see budgeted action points from every designer looking to win an award? I doubt it, since it is not appropriate for most games. For this central mechanism to work well, the designer must painstakingly make sure that the actions are given the optimal number of points and that the actions themselves are properly balanced. This requires extensive play-testing, which is usually what separates the professional game designer from the amateur. Players must be provided with a clear, concise playing aid that summarizes their choices and their costs.

Budgeted action points, while adding to the strategic tension of a game, can also bog it down, leading to paralysis through over-analysis, especially if there are one or more deliberate (slow) players at the table. For this reason I strongly suggest prodding deliberate players and showing, through quick play, that the choices, while agonizing, don't have to take forever. I doubt that we will see budgeted action points in games with more than four or five, as it would create too much down-time between turns.

- Steve Kurzban

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