We’re amateur board game designers through and through. While working on the few games we’ve designed, we’ve learned some valuable lessons, both through play testing and through playing other games. We hope that by talking about these lessons, we can help fellow board game design newbies avoid the mistakes we’ve made.
I recently saw an episode of the excellent web series Design Club (an offshoot of the popular Extra Credits) regarding Mario Kart 8’s Blue Shell. For those not versed in the world of Mario Kart, the Blue Shell (technically known as the Spiny Shell) is an item introduced in Mario Kart 64. The nuances of its mechanics vary from game to game, but it ultimately functions to utterly nuke the player in first place. In more recent iterations, the shell also explodes around the first place player, affecting nearby top scorers as well.
While the Blue Shell is often the target of much criticism from Mario Kart players, it’s an excellent mechanic that helps balance the playing field and keeps the game close. In this article, I’d like to give some examples of Blue Shells in other games, and discuss why I believe such mechanics are good for the games they're a part of.
Example 1 - Mario Party
Not pictured: Koopa Kid, the receiver of the sorry ass-beating that led to this screen in the first place.
Image: TheBitBlock on YouTube
Many of the Mario Party games use a similar mechanic. When there are only five turns left in the game, the game stops, and one of the NPC characters is trotted out. That NPC character announces the standings, and then presents some rule changes to make the end of the game more exciting (like increasing the frequency of Duel Minigames). Then, most importantly, the player in last place is usually given a catch-up bonus. Sometimes it's some coins or a star. Sometimes it's a number of character spaces that benefit the player in last place. Granted, sometimes it's a bonus that helps and/or hurts all the players, but this mechanic helps the last player (who may not be the most skilled at minigames) catch up and keeps them in the game.
Example 2 - Power Grid
How do you keep an economic cube pusher interesting? By keeping it close!
Image: Flickr User Jason Dean
Power Grid, an excellent economic game by Friedemann Friese, has a great mechanic to help the player in last place catch up. The player with the least robust network of cities is allowed to purchase resources and connect cities at the lowest prices. The next weakest player gets the second-best prices, and so on.
The interesting thing about this mechanic is that it's inherently abusable. It's a perfectly valid strategy to stay in last place for a while, banking resources until you can slingshot yourself to a strong lead. Power Grid becomes a game of not trying to be in what is ostensibly first place... until you have a strong enough advantage in resources over the other players. This is a powerful tool to keep games close.
Example 3 - Munchkin
The Charity mechanic actually adds an element of desirability to being last place in Munchkin.
Image: Flickr User Loimere
These days Munchkin is hardly a bellwether for what's considered 'good' game design. Having said that, it features another great mechanic that helps the player(s) play catch-up. When someone has too many cards - presumably by being the stronger player - that player has to give their excess cards to the player with the lowest level. The mechanic is endearingly called Giving to Charity.
Why Include Catch-Up?
The purpose of catch-up is to keep the game close. No one's having fun when first place is out in front by a mile and no one else has even a remote chance of winning. Close games are emotional rollercoasters and tend to be more fun. They also reduce the risk of people zoning out and checking their phones, etc. (a growing concern that, as game designers, we should design to minimize).
Have you guys seen any games with catch-up mechanics that I haven't mentioned here? Do you think these mechanics work, and if not, why not? I'd love to hear your opinions on the topic. Thanks for reading!