Mid-Game Structures – Player Ecology

Written by Alex Harkey

We’re re-lighting our lantern to go deeper into our game structures series where we are headed toward mid-game structures to look at how games change their environments to keep the experience engaging.

What are Mid-Game Structures?

Mid-game structures comprise the median phase of a game’s timeline or game play. The underlying motive of mid-game structures would be to build elements of player engagementBy this point in a game, players have likely figured out their purposeorganization of play and their own approach to decision-making.

Now is our opportunity to shake up the formula. We’re still building the replay value we initiated in Early Game Structures, but it’s now a secondary goal. By engaging players with changing objectives and key transition periods of strategy, we can ensure the novelty of innovative mechanics also has substance and longevity behind it. Basically, we don’t want the game to get stale once players have gotten into the meat of the game.

This week we are going to jump into the influential elements that motivate decision-making in games. These are the types of things that drive player behavior during the game, as opposed to the motivations that drive us to play games rather than other activities. If you’re more interested in the alternative, we’ve previously looked at intrinsic rewards; satisfying elements in games and the joys of inherently interesting decisions.

Player Ecology

Power GridNot unlike its scientific study, ecology in game design is all about how players interact with the environment of a game. Mid-game structures is all about engagement, so understanding how players deal with scarcity in resources (like watching all the coal deplete before your turn in Power Grid) or how players adapt to their habitat (like when you watch Europe’s political leanings drift toward your opponent in Twilight Struggle).

Player ecology is also invested in how players interact with each other (as Matt will cover in Player Interaction) and what the environment asks of its players (which I’ll cover in Player Strategies, and I promise, it’ll make so more sense then).

Motivations – Incentives & Penalties

carrotandstickUnderstanding motivations in game design comprises one part human psychology, one part economics and one part obligatory expressions.

The Carrot and Stick techniques are used in combination under the intended meaning of the expression, but in a game design context they can certainly be used in isolation or alongside other motivational ideas. The carrot is our incentive to drive players towards one action or direction, while we can use the stick to discourage a completely different action or behavior.

Let’s look at a few approaches of the idea in action…

Bounties – Giving points as a bonus for achieving things

The simplest low-hanging vegetable is also one of the most common approaches to incentivize players to do things.

Terra MysticaTerra Mystica gives out bonuses for performing all sorts of things. In fact, at times Terra Mystica seems like it’s giving out trophies for everything:

  • Did you build a temple or sanctuary? Take a favor tile.
  • Did you finish a town? I’ve got a menu of town tiles ready for ya.
  • Did you just advance our cult? Let us indoctrinate you with this cult bonus right here.

All these things are what makes Terra Mystica so endearing; I wouldn’t really have any idea why I’d be doing some of these things if it didn’t directly lead to the bonuses.

While Terra Mystica’s bounties frequently integrate points into their value, games like Elysium, Castles of Burgundy and Jaipur take the most straightforward method of handing out points like candy when you complete a set or finish a color.

Taxes – Taking points as a penalty for not accomplishing things

AgricolaIf bounties play the good cop, the bad cop version of the same idea takes place in games like Agricola and Caverna, where players get penalized in final scoring for each animal type they don’t have in their possession. Uwe Rosenburg modified his approach in Fields of Arle by instead awarding points for the animal types, the type you have the least of scores 2pts/each while the type you have the most of scores nothing at all. It’s a faint set collection idea that motivates a player to get roughly even amounts of all the animal types or not worry about it at all.

trajanStefan Feld has also used the idea of punishing player scores in many of his games. Trajan is probably the most glaring example as a player who doesn’t meet the demands of the people at all can lose fifteen points in a round. Taxing players points for failing at something really isn’t materially different than giving points when they perform at something. It’s simply a matter of framing the outcome. Nevertheless, that fifteen points is significant to your final score. That fifteen points might also be Feld letting players off easy…

Confiscation – Taking other objects as a penalty for failing to accomplish things

notredameIf we look at older Feld titles, Notre Dame and In the Year of the Dragon use seemingly more harmful approaches to punishing players. It’s one thing to take my points when it would seem I can simply generate more, but in Notre Dame, you lose points and you lose progress toward scoring more points. If you succumb to the plague in Notre Dame by reaching nine or more rats, you lose two influence and you also a cube from one of your areas where you have the most cubes. What this means is that the game is typically hurting you where it stings the most and in a way that Trajan does not by just taking your points.

intheyearofthedragonIn the Year of the Dragon is like participating in a masochistic version of the 300 meter hurdles. Practically every event in the game punishes you by taxing you, attacking you, starving you or infecting you. If you’re doing well at one thing, you’re probably failing at two others:

  • Don’t have enough money, warriors, rice or healers? You’re losing some people.
  • Don’t have enough palace space so you can add people? You’re evicting some people.
  • Were you trying to save some people (and got blocked)? You’re definitely losing some people.

Penalties that confiscate items other than points carry a deeper psychological impact. It’s one thing to rob me, it’s another to damage the storefront that I need to make my living. I expect points to come and go, I don’t expect to lose my farmer that I need to grow rice in preparation for the next drought. If you couple the punishments together, it’s a double-whammy; a VP tax for not being effective and a capital loss toward my future ability to be effective.

Lewis & ClarkAs terrible as I make it sound, penalizing progress in game design isn’t a bad thing. It’s a terrifically motivating tool that can get the message across even in a game with plenty of things going on. Lewis & Clark shapes player behavior with a well-integrated threat of a progress penalty.

Many of the objects in Lewis & Clark use an icon to indicate a penalty in days for any leftover resources when you try to make progress on your journey. This reality leads to careful play, encouraging players to either run a lean expedition (packing light and moving quickly) or having a long drawn out churn and burn resource strategy (make large strides and then drop weight just at the right moment).

When is punishment appropriate?

Games that use penalties successfully do three things exceptionally well. First, players don’t get deeply punished over random events, poor die rolls or an unlucky draw. Confiscating resources, taking their dice, or forcing players to discard because of something they had little control over is only piling onto a player down on their luck.

Second, the penalty is framed by a thematic purpose or in a logical manner. Although relatively minor, Agricola‘s point loss for missing animal types or unused fields isn’t particularly effective. If your focus is on other areas during Agricola, these penalties are easy to forget about and it can be an unpleasant surprise that are absent of strong justification. Trajan‘s demands of the people is more effective; the needs come out at regular intervals and as a person with great influence over Rome, it makes sense that the people would speak up. Similarly, Lewis & Clark‘s progress penalties do signal the friction caused by moving more resources, organizing more people and managing a complex expedition.

Third, it’s a choice under control of the players. I think it’s a great idea to give players a sense of direction in games, simple goals like feeding your workers in Worker Placement. But if a punishment is so strong that it becomes a prerequisite to victory it’s likely lost its intended purpose. Trajan‘s needs of the people can be reasonably ignored if you can generate more than 5pts per action during a round. Because of the scoring methodology, meeting one or two needs of the people isn’t great for scoring efficiency, so the most effective approach on some turns might be to pursue all three or ignore it completely. To summarize the thought here: give players control over what they want to pursue, and let them decide if they are comfortable with the consequences.

FirenzeMy favorite penalty example of an appropriate punishment occurs in Firenze, a game of building towers in Florence. Players collect bricks in six different colors and can work on multiple towers at once. It’s worth noting that the more bricks you want to add to your towers, the more it will cost each turn. Firenze also has several bounties on the board; point bonuses for being the first player to complete a tower of 6 red bricks (as an example).

The critical rule: Players must add a brick to any unfinished towers each turn or tear those towers down. Tearing down a tower involves losing both the progress and half of the bricks that make up the tower.


Image use courtesy of BGG User Alex Singh

The rule leads to some critical project planning as the bricks you procure each turn usually won’t fulfill your long-term future and you need to have an exit point in mind as to when you declare your tower complete. It is a bit of risk/reward without a clear end in sight.

The rule also punishes you for changing strategies. If I’m working on white and red towers but then I gain a stockpile of purple bricks with enough scoring potential that I need to be the first one to finish a 6 brick purple tower, it makes sense to prioritize a new purple tower. It also makes sense that I can’t just let half-finished construction projects hang around indefinitely (they were part of a contract).

Firenze uses an appropriate penalty that, when coupled with the point bonuses, encourages players to commit to completion or suffer the consequences. It’s very effective and an excellent way to incorporate switching costs into a game without simultaneously destroying the flexibility of players to adapt to changes on the board.

KingsburgKingsburg uses another excellent coupling of incentives and disincentives. Each round of Kingsburg has a phase called “The Kings Reward” which awards 1 VP to the player(s) who currently have the most buildings. The rule tends to motivate players to build every single opportunity, as 1 VP can be significant and if a player never passes on a build opportunity, that 5 VP can be 10-15% of your final score just for doing something you were already planning to do. The bonus also adds value to the low-cost, zero-VP or low-VP buildings in the game which could otherwise go underappreciated.

In a later phase each round, Kingsburg punishes players who ignore threats to the kingdom. Each round culminates in a battle phase where a card is drawn from the enemies deck and compared to each player’s military strength. It’s overwhelmingly a punishment because while a victory over goblins or orcs might net you a single resource or victory point, a loss can set you back resources, points and your most prized building. The end result of the phase is that it keeps players honest, encouraging them to invest in soldiers rather than simply building whatever they want during the game.

Overall, incentives and penalties tend to be the most straightforward method to drive player behavior. The logical motivation tends to be very clear as bonuses and punitive rules rarely need additional explanation. Incentives and penalties can also visualize the motivations of players by placing a token or threat marker on a pedestal for players to fight over or worry about.

Motivations – Scarcity

A slightly less conspicuous motivator in games is the fear of running out something you need. Scarcity is an economic problem that drives competition in both nature and commerce.

Power Grid‘s resource market, Le Havre‘s resource offering spaces, the pick-up and deliver goods in Steam, the stocks in Acquire and even territory in Small World can function as great examples of scarcity in games. We’ll might cover some of these in a later article, but the most common sources of scarcity are over limited space or finite pools of resources.

What I think is most meaningful in this topic is to observe how players can and will utilize scarcity in very extreme strategies and techniques. As an example, let’s look at Monopoly‘s system of adding houses to properties. After placing four houses onto a property, a player may upgrade to a hotel to extract greater rent from his or her opponents.

Interestingly, hotels often go completely unused in competitive Monopoly play.

Standard Monopoly sets include 32 houses, a number that is finite in the rules. An optimal technique in Monopoly is to build houses, but never upgrade the four houses to a hotel, despite the choice providing additional rent. By using up as many houses as you can, you can effectively starve opponents from additional houses (and therefore hotels) as soon as the supply runs out.

The End of the TriumvirateWe can see the same principle involved in games that have limited currency or resources. The End of the Triumvirate and Orléans each possess different shades of a “gold hoarding strategy”. In The End of the Triumvirate, gold is generated in territories and spent to take actions. Your first action each turn costs 1 gold, your second costs 2 gold and so on, which allows for a very extreme strategy of starving your opponents by only taking one or two actions each round after accumulating enough to empty the supply.

The real hurdle in this strategy is that…well.. there is quite a bit of gold in the game. In fact, the counter to this strategy is legitimately to just pay attention. The strategy practically requires a player to “subtly” stop spending gold despite having appearances of tremendous wealth (and a rare ability to spend their entire fortune in order to back one or possibly two Kickstarter miniature games). If you don’t pull off the gold hoarding successfully, you’re almost certainly going to lose the game very quickly, because extreme strategies in this game frequently leave the door open for someone else to win the game.

orleansCoins in Orléans are probably the more classic example of scarcity in games, albeit one where the resource has endgame value and are not typically spent to purchase other resources. There is a finite number of coins in Orléans that is effectively first-come, first-serve so once it runs out, the bank is closed.

Coins are periodically gained or lost via a few events in the game but an interesting rule is that if the coin supply can’t pay out everyone due to an event tile, no one receives any benefit. It’s intriguing in that a four or five player game are the likely player counts to experience a coin shortage, and one or two players accumulating the limited supply of coins early can really disrupt the final scores of players who wait too long to use coin-generating actions.

Motivations – A Changing Strategic Scope

One last area I can’t leave out is the opportunity to “change the formula” in the middle of a game. If the game has a chance of becoming stale, the mid-game structure should address this concern by inserting something new; a pivot point, a change in thinking or new intermediate objectives.

CoupSometimes these changes develop naturally with the revelation of new information. The initial targets of your aggression in Bang! or Coup are often quite arbitrary in the earliest stages of each game. As the game develops, a prominent threat will inevitably emerge in Coup and hidden identities and loyalties are revealed in Bang!

The mid-game structure of this new information really helps refine the scope of choices in Bang! and Coup. The field of players narrows, the most imminent threat bounces around and the possibility of aggression toward a player coming back to bite you grows with every action taken. Even in shorter games we can see evolution between the types of things a player is doing at the beginning versus the end of the game.

7 WondersThe mid-game is a chance for trends, focus areas and player needs to become more clear. During Age I of 7 Wonders you can have your hands in lots of cookie jars, but by Age II, you really need to “crystallize” what your objectives are and where you stand so that you can build guilds during Age III.

Small WorldThe first time you send your race into decline in Small World shifts the perspective from thinking about what you’re doing with your single race to thinking about how you’re going to interact with the entirety of the territory. You go into preservation mode from expansion mode. The game recreates the thrill of the initial turn by allowing players to revisit the primary catalyst that drives strategic thinking during the game: the combinations of races and special powers.

Now, does changing your faction in Small World dramatically change your thought process? Probably not, but changing factions does refresh and broaden your mindset and going into decline isn’t something you will usually experience until several turns into a game of Small World – exactly when such a change is warranted.

throughthedesertIf I can tie a changing scope of strategy back to our earlier carrot metaphor, there is a tremendous opportunity to move the carrot and inspire renewed player interest. This is the best quality Reiner Knizia instilled in Through the Desert, a game that changes the most urgent motivation by providing tiers of objectives to players.

At the beginning of Through the Desert players will race to touch permanent oasis spaces to get the quick 5pt scoring tiles. Players will simultaneously be moving toward nearby 3pt water hole tokens, followed by the 2pt and 1pt water hole tokens, all of which are finite and removed from the board when scored.

Priorities shift throughout the game and as water hole tokens are claimed less convenient or lucrative scoring opportunities take center stage. At some point your objectives will either be to block opponents while enclosing territory for yourself or to prioritize the 10pt bonus for building the longest camel chain in each color. In a game often criticized for a lack of thematic value, the reality is that players will consistently migrate from one parched objective to the next wellspring of points.


We’ll continue exploring Mid-game structures next time as Matt covers player interaction. We hope you’ll follow along with your game, your comments and your experiences. Thanks for reading.


8 comments on “Mid-Game Structures – Player Ecology

  1. Joe Pilkus


    It is with great enthusiasm and anticipation that I receive the articles written by you and your colleagues. They serve as intellectually-stimulating centerpieces which serve me exceptionally well as I think about future (and even past) design and development challenges and opportunities.

    As it pertains to this article, I know that we definitely used benefits vs. confiscation or taxes, as well as scarcity, with regard to the commodities tiles available to the players during the game. despite the fact that the game is touted as the only 4X cooperative Space-themed game, we included scarcity to force potential conflict even among races which lived in harmony for over a millennium.

    Again, thanks for a great, great article!


  2. Joel

    Twilight struggle is another example of changing strategic scope, with the way that new scoring cards become available in mid war. This shifts the players scope from just Europe/middle East/Asia to, suddenly, all the world.

    1. Alex Harkey

      That’s a ridiculously great example, Joel, for many reasons. It was an excellent way to encourage players to prioritize or concentrate activity in one area of the globe. It wouldn’t be quite the engaging experience if in the early war we could divvy up regions of the world and rarely cross paths. Twilight Struggle is all about the competition, and as you mentioned, it zooms out and broadens the scope of global competition. Thank you for joining us.

  3. Shao-Ying Chen

    Great article! I’m a boardgame gamer and designer in Taiwan, and I’d like to translate this article into Chinese to facilitate the understanding of boardgame designing principles for boardgame designers in Taiwan. Of course, the original author and the location of this article will be subscribed in the beginning of the translation article. May I have the pleasure to translate this article and publish on the Facebook fan page about boardgame designing and testing? Thanks!

    1. Alex Harkey

      Of course, Shao-Ying. Thank you for helping the global game design community and thank you for asking!

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