When is a mechanic worth the set-up time? An illustrative example from Ticket to Ride: Pennsylvania

When is a mechanic worth the set-up time? An illustrative example from Ticket to Ride: Pennsylvania
Applying a cost-benefit framework to a specific mechanic in a TTR expansion, I explore if we can create a more objective way of weighing-up design decisions; at least as far as set-up goes. Ticket to Ride: Pennsylvania is the “B side” of the United and Kingdom and Pennsylvania map pack and requires a base game to play. While the train ferries have been seen in previous outings (like the Europe base game I wrote about here), by far the most important special rule is the addition of share ownership to the game. As with most of the series’ expansions, it’s a pretty simple addition: when you place your trains as normal you can also take a company share of any one of a set of eligible railroad companies (based on historical US railroads). The companies from which you can take shares are indicated on the board itself, right next to the route; intended as they are to represent, thematically, the routes those companies ran in real life. When the game ends the player with the most shares of a company gets a load of bonus points. The player with the second most gets fewer and so on. To settle ties between owners of the same number of shares, the player who bought any share first is given priority. This is tracked by numbering every share specifically.

That set-up though...

Overall the expansion works pretty well, other than perhaps for being, debatably, too skewed by the scoring power of shares vs. the base game elements. But thanks to that relatively innocuous sounding share tie-resolving mechanic, it requires doing some set-up that is weirdly onerous for the Ticket to Ride series; a set of games which are casual play experiences. Each time you play, you must either a) sort out all the cards ordered exactly by share number as the rules require, b) go-off rulebook and have players look for the correct number each time or c) go even further off-rule book completely ignore the numbers all together and separately note who took what first. Solutions b) and c) are reasonable hacks for the absolutely set-up-time-intolerant but they come with some pretty clear downsides. With b) this will be lots of annoying searching for specific card and asking players what they have (which are supposed to be face-down). With c) it means using an an error-prone accounting process. Given people’s amazing capacity to forget to do stuff that doesn’t matter to them personally c) is doomed to break down long before the end of the first game anyone uses it in. For a fluid experience with no potential for arguments, nothing will beat solution a) ; what’s advised in the rulebook. But this is a bit of apain. After finding the set-up pretty tedious, I decided to actually time it to see how long it was. To go from a completely random set of cards, it takes me 4 minutes and 53 seconds, on average, to get to neatly organized piles of all the shares. From having a set of piles in any order to piles I am sure are in exactly the right number orders it’s 3 minutes and 1 seconds on average. All of that time excludes any other set-up required to get the game going.

How long is too long?

You could say that 5 minutes of overall card sorting and 3 minutes of setting up the particularly fiddly bit is nothing to anyone who has ever set-up Gloomhaven. But as a casual gaming product, any game of TTR is not an epic commitment designed to give you the kind of long-run pleasure that is worth that kind of investment. The reality is the vast majority of players, lengthy set-ups in any game are just a cost of playing, not a benefit (nor can this particular set-up cost be avoided by leaving the game set-up). That cost is a barrier to getting people using the product (i.e. playing it) more regularly. In my view, that is pointless product friction. It’s also why every software product in the world is always trying to make it faster and easier to do absolutely anything. And, of course, as friction is decreased or people’s experiences in general, they become less tolerant of friction elsewhere. Nothing illustrates the overall problem of set-up friction for me on a personal level than Axis and Allies. I tell people it’s a game that I enjoy. But it’s better described as a game I enjoy in theory. I last played it 10 years ago: Why? For the simple reason it has an incredibly long set-up and isn’t so absolutely amazing game that’s it’s worth it. Of course, it was different the first time I played because I was curious to see how it went and the set-up and even the learning rules can be an act of exploration in themselves on your first run out. But now I know how long it takes, it’s likelihood of repeat play comes down to this: there are so many other titles on my shelf I can get set-up far quicker that I feel equally good or better about that it loses out. We can see that we have a relatively straightforward balancing act. One the one side cost of set-up time and on the other, the benefit of game experience. The more we can reduce the cost vs. the benefit, the more attractive the proposition is to the potential players. Of course, TTR: Pennsylvania’s overall set-up doesn’t come close to what Axis & Allies requires. We could make the argument that it isn’t as problematic as it could be because doesn’t breach a threshold of acceptable set-up time which would make especially off-putting. Certainly the relationship between set-up time and how peeved we are by it, is not linear. A 3 minute overall set-up is probably experienced as negligibly different to a 2 minute one. But a 12 minute one is probably experienced as more noticeably worse than 8 minutes. But to me, relying on this pattern to excuse attempts to do better is complacent. Even if I don’t have the same disgruntlement at setting up TTR: Pennsylvania than Axis & Allies, when I think about having to sort these cards out, my heart still sinks just a little bit. Even if time experienced is not linear, more cost will always reduces the cost to benefit ratio to an extent. The designer is still creating barriers which will only be felt more keenly the more players expect to get into the action faster elsewhere. Further, almost no one will ever regret the opposite effect. A sentence which may never have been said in earnest is “I wish that game took longer to set-up!”. For me, it comes down to this: If we are really focused on the players why, as designers, accept any set-up time that gives a poor return on investment in player experience? As long as experience can be maintained, then an 8 minute set-up must be strictly better than a 12 minute set-up, and a 5 minute one strictly better than 8. Why would you ever carry more set-up time than you need?

Pricing your mechanics

If we see set-up time as a cost, then we actually have something that is really hard to come by in game design: a rough-and-ready way to price design decisions we make that influence it. This is because set-up time is actually quite measurable; we can time how long it takes players to do something. So in our balancing act of time vs. benefit to player experience, we can say any given rule costs something. In the case of TTR Pennsylvania: having to sort the shares by number rather than by company costs 3 minutes and 1 second, aside from any other costs (like needing to remember that earlier shares are better). Once we have that cost, we can see if the particular decision which results in this cost is really creating a return on investment for our players. That means, in the current design we have here, it costs 3 minutes and 1 second of set-up to resolve ties between players on their share scores in such a way that no two players score the same from a company. The questions then is, for this very particular benefit to game experience, is this additional 3 minutes justified?

So what’s the value of that share tie-break mechanism?

When I sat out to research this piece my initial assumption was that
TTR:Pennsylvania’s share tie-resolution rule was not even well used, regardless of its marginal value over acceptable alternatives. It hadn’t once come-up in any game I had played so I assumed it could be shown as unjustified from rarity alone. However, my polling research challenged my basic assumptions*. Amongst those who played it regularly, 90% had seen a tie-arise on more than 3 occasions. So far from being a very rare occurrence, it was common. Based on subsequent research and a bit of basic maths, probably a lot more common in games with 4-5 players (which I cannot recall having ever played). But while that is evidence that some kind of share tie-break mechanism is going to be used, it’s still not evidence that the particular mechanism is the only way a tie resolution could be handled. Infact, we don’t have to look very far at all for an alternative fix. If we cast our eyes back up this game’s family tree to another railway themed ancestor we find a different fix to literally the same basic problem. 1999’s Union Pacific - also designed by Moon and the clear Ur game to the whole TTR series - has a similar share drawing mechanics. Just as in TTR: Pennsylvania, when you place trains you take a share in one of railway companies. While there is an additional action required to play your shares and the shares are scored several times in the game as a “dividend payment”, they are still scored in much the same fashion as in the newer title. The person with the most shares get the most points, the second most less and so on. But unlike in TTR:Pennsylvania, a tie is just reoslved by adding the 1st and 2nd place points together and dividing equally between the two tied players. A similar process is also done for players with stakes lower than 2nd place. Such a fix could be easily applied to TTR: Pennsylvania, given the way the points work. But if the more recent title did use this method it would result in players getting exactly the same number of points from each company much more often in Union Pacific. The older game's method isn't entirely comparable because of the wider context within which this tie-resolution method is used. Since dividend payments are made four times in UP, it’s unlikely that players would be equally positioned all the way through to result in gaining identical points from the companies. The sizes of the railway companies themselves are also more dynamic ,so the points received each dividend round from each company will change. On the other hand Union Pacific, needs this to be more varied because this is the only way to score points. Were it not for that dynamism in company values the game would result in stalemate very often. Crucially though, in TTR: Pennsylvania, the shares are far from the only way to score points. You already have the two other core scoring methods of the series: claiming routes and completing destination tickets. These will almost certainly result in a different distribution of points even if everyone scored identically from all companies. And in the rare event of an overall tie-break there’s a rule for that already too: the player with the most completed destination tickets is a the winner. IMG_20180607_130359 And that’s the crux for me about the questionable value of the company tie-resolution mechanism. A better question is does there even need to be absolute difference in the points players score from each company? I would say given a) all the other ways to score points and b) the existence of an overall tie-break rule, the answer is no. This is why: using our cost-benefit framework, we have to believe that the problem of people equally scoring from companies specifically (not just resolving any kind of tie break because we already have one) is worth the 3 minutes and 1 second extra set-up time needed to get the shares in order. That’s a lot of set-up for a really specific effect. There’s only one plausible argument I can see in its favour if you take the game as it is now more broadly. Given the companies are such high scoring elements overall it seems slightly frustrating if all players can more easily end-up with similar points from them. But from what I can see, this is weak on multiple fronts. First if everyone’s scores are more even from companies, the likely effect is going to be more even scores overall. Is that even a problem? It could even be benefit because it makes all players feel like they can get closer to the win, even if they’re actually still further behind elsewhere. That’s a simple strategy to increase engagement for players lagging behind. Second, if the more important differentiator between players becomes claiming routes and completing tickets because companies tend to score more equally, then it will just make those elements relatively more important for players to focus on: i.e the elements that Ticket to Tide is all about! By making it harder to get competitive advantage via shares the game is better aligned with its core ideas. It might even make this title less hostile to players not already familiar with this particular expansion, because share dominance would matter a little less. The effects of failing to own enough early, could be negated more easily by just ensuring you had enough to equalise the scores later on; a decision which is to an extent not recoverable in the current implementation. This simpler handling of ties would make the share mechanic itself more of a tactically interesting choice. By not incentivising players simply to take the shares as early as they can for the sake of being earlier in share order in any company, they would instead need to invest more aggressively in fewer companies to be assured of getting the most points. And if you don’t agree with any of that and you still don’t like the effects of high but equally scoring companies in your game, then there’s a very clean fix for that: just make the companies worth less overall.

What’s the next stop from here?

TTR: Pennsylvania is a very streamlined and effective title with a share mechanic that is overall slicker than it’s predecessor, Union Pacific. But at the risk of attracting a certain amount of ire, I think we can say that this specific tie resolution mechanism is a bad design decision: a) It created very little return on investment in set-up on player experience, b) there is an easier known fix that comes with a better cost-benefit ratio and c) that fix itself is far and away not the only way to resolve share ownership ties. e.g. what if all ties just score for the higher score? But I think it’s a fascinating example because it’s so clear. It demonstrates what a potentially valuable tool this kind of mechanic pricing could be. It can be widely applied to all sorts of games. For my personally, that means making it easier to look at my own games and evaluate if specific design decisions have an acceptable or unacceptable cost. Perhaps there’s even some potential for expanding the concept more; if other concrete player costs could be captured. But that’ll have to wait for another time. *At time of writing, I received only 16 responses to this poll. It’s a very small sample size so should be treated with care. But given how hard it is to get data this specific about a particular expansion, I’d rather use it than nothing at all.

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