I’ve been thinking a lot lately about one of my favorite game mechanics–so much that I thought to write a blog post about it. Some of you may know about Drafting. Some of you may not. Today, if you follow along, you will see why this powerful and underused mechanic is one of my personal favorites.

 

For those of you unfamiliar, drafting is a process by which teams are picked for a sport or game. The possible options are thrown together in a draft pool, from which teams take turns drawing one player, unit, or option at a time. After a draft, all parties involved will have a team which they can use to participate in the game. Drafting is a meta-game–a game whose outcome determines factors in the actual game to be played afterwards. In some games, such as the card game Citadels, drafting is the heart of the game itself. In others, like Magic the Gathering, it is just a means by which the game can be balanced.

When team captains choose players for a soccer game from a shared pool, this is a draft. In larger drafts, like an NBA draft, the weakest teams (or highest bidding, depending on the league and sport) are usually able to choose first. Only after every team has made their selection does the first team get an additional pick. This continues until all teams are filled, or until there are no more players to draft.

Drafting is the middle ground between two more extreme mechanics that can also be used to build a team or army: Randomization and Construction. Randomization would divide the players between two soccer teams evenly (like counting off teams at recess 1-2, 1-2 until everyone is assigned), while Construction lets you build your own team and bring it to the game (like in the World Cup, each country brings their own team, built from a private pool of options no other team has access to).

In terms of balanced game design, Drafting is a superior mechanic to both of these for two reasons:

  1. It is self-balancing.
  2. It requires a value judgment.

 

Self Balancing. Drafting is self balancing by its very nature. If two parties are each trying to make an optimal team, and each has an equal understanding of the relative strength and ability of the players, then each will make optimal picks. The best picks will divide first, then the middle, and finally the weakest. Between captains with equal understanding of the game and players, a draft guarantees the fairest distribution of power between the teams. Even if the draft pool contains vastly better and worse players, game pieces, or options, the players will each build a relatively evenly matched team. More than the other two team building mechanics discussed above, the outcome of a drafted competition is based on the player’s understanding of the game and his overall strategy. The player’s own choices–not the quality of the options available or the whims of fate–are responsible for his team’s strength.

Value Judgment. When randomizing, the makeup of a team is beyond control. When constructing, there is no reason not to choose all of the best options for yourself, and build the optimal team. Both of these paradigms are pretty boring (Construction is better if the pool is varied enough that multiple strategies are on even footing, but for most pools, the optimal strategy is obvious–especially in high-level competition). Drafting is a meta-competition–a battle that precedes the battle. Imagine we have a set of chess pieces with the queens and pawns removed, and are going to draft pieces to build our armies. We get one king each for free. The rook is the strongest piece after the queen–but what if I have a strategy involving extra bishops? Can I afford to give my opponent an extra rook and take a bishop instead? What if my opponent wants all the knights? I might draft a few just to interfere with his strategy before the game even begins–unless he passes up rooks for them. Drafting forces the player to think when building an army–making the most obvious move is not always optimal. This aspect of situationally optimal choices is called value judgment, and makes the actual team building process very interesting, as well as more influential on the game’s outcome.

If you’re interested in some games that involve drafting, here are a few of my favorites:

  • Magic the Gathering – It’s hard to ignore this one. Magic: The Gathering drafts feature limited rotating draft pools. At each point, a player has a set of 2-15 cards to choose from. The limited pool makes it easier for large groups to do drafts together, but yields a less balanced outcome than a pure draft.
  • Citadels – This standalone card game won several awards for its drafting mechanic and simple, pick-up-and-play rules. Citadels uses a once-around draft (or twice-around with 3 or 2 players). With a once-around, there is only one pick to make, and the pickings get worse and worse the further down in the draft order you are. Fortunately, one card lets you alter the draft order, allowing you to get first pick later on. Additionally, players who can predict your pick can sabotage you, making the obvious choice not always the best.
  • Kingsburg – Kingsburg is a resource allocation game where players are trying to influence advisors to give them goods to build a city. The advisors each have different offerings, and the players have variable ability to influence. This kind of draft features limited overlapping draft pools. Your pick will prevent some options for some players, but not all. This type is very interesting with larger groups.

Thanks for taking a look at this little ramble on draft mechanics. In the next game you play (or design, if you’re of the persuasion), see if you can spot draft-like mechanics. Can you see anywhere in your games where randomization or construction mechanics might be better replaced by drafting?

If you’re daring, try these house rule options to spice up the games you already own…

  • Monopoly: At the start of the game, auction off draft order, highest bidding goes first. The bids are divided evenly among the other players who are lower in the draft order. So for example, the highest bid gets divided among all other players. Second highest’s bid gets divided between all players excluding himself and the highest, and so on. The player who is last in the draft order will have a good deal of extra money to compensate. After draft order is decided, draft off all the properties in the game. Then the game begins.
  • Dominion: Set aside one copy each of a random selection of ten unused kingdom cards, as well as one each of Gold, Silver, Copper, Duchy, and Estate at the game’s start. Starting with the player who had the lowest score in the last game of Dominion and moving clockwise, each player takes one card and places it in his discard pile. Continue the process until all players sequentially pass on picking, or until all the cards are gone. Then begin the game as usual.