One of the things I love about Euro-style games is the often-used system of scoring. Scoring keeps everyone in the game, even if they are miles behind when the final component is played. It’s helped me when I’ve been playing with new people and tended to the role of teacher between rounds. Not optimising my own turns, but in general, it keeps things exciting. We’re starting to see a theme of some games bringing in a Catch the Leader mechanic. Usually, this mechanic appears in games that are heavily luck-based. Games where players may find themselves down points due to no fault of their own. I’m a big fan of this mechanic, especially as I find myself enjoying just playing the game more than winning. So if this style of game is for you keep on reading, friends. Let’s catch that leader.
Race Ahead – Matt Thomasson
In Cubitos, you are participating in the annual Cube Cup to determine the Cubitos Champion. You will be rolling dice, racing around the board, and purchasing new dice to upgrade your dice pool. Think of it as a deck builder, but with dice. Each turn you keep rolling your pool of dice and keep the “hits” to be activated later. If you roll your dice and get no hits then you bust. After you have achieved at least three hits, you can decide to stop pushing and keep the active dice. These dice may have special abilities, movement points, and money.
Cubitos features two pretty nifty catch-up mechanisms. The first is to do with the number of dice you roll and your position on the board. The board has red lines at various intervals, and every red line between you and the person in the lead increases the total number of dice you can roll that turn. More dice = more opportunities for special abilities, money, and movement.
The second catch up mechanism is related to when you go bust. Every time you bust you move up one space on the fan board. At various stages, you will gain additional money or permanent increases to your dice pool. So the more you bust the more good things you get, but the further in front your opponents may be. Both of these catch-up mechanics work together and there are some interesting strategies to be had with pushing the boundaries of the catch-up mechanics that I really enjoy. Typically in push your luck games you don’t want to bust, but in Cubitos you can play into trying to force the bust early on for some powerful turns. Cubitos is a fantastic game. It is accessible, fun, and easy to play. And the catch-up mechanisms are very well done.
Hubble Bubble Toil And Trouble – Luke Pickles
My birthday falls at the end of August, so I arranged to go out to our local board game café (Ready Steady Roll in Sharnbrook, if you’re interested). We sat down at the table and I already knew what I wanted to play. I’d heard good things about this game and I wanted to see if it lived up to the hype. (Spoiler alert, oh yes it did.)
Quacks of Quedlinburg (hereafter known as Quacks) is a bag building, press your luck game. Its theme is based around potion makers, creating strange and curious concoctions that are definitely not a scam. However, you have to be careful. Too many of the white ingredients and your potion explodes! Leaving you with fewer options to score, or gain future resources.
I loved the little potion track that each player has and the increase in options as the rounds progress. What I really love though is the rat tails mechanic. This is what introduced me to catch-up mechanics. What it allows you to do is advance their start point by the number of rat tails they are behind the first placed player. I shamelessly used this to my advantage and came back from behind, which is always quite satisfying. But even when I was losing, it didn’t feel like I was because I knew I had the little buff from the rat tails. I had a blast playing Quacks and I know I will play it again soon. I’ve already marked out a spot in the new house for it.
Chieftain To King – FavouriteFoe
Isle of Skye is a pretty new addition to our table. Normally, I have to take anything Scotland related with a pinch of salt. With my husband’s side of the family hailing from Fife originally, the land of heather and haggis can usually do no wrong. But with this game, I was willing to proceed on his word
And indeed, he was right. Isle of Skye is a super tile-laying game where you are trying to build a kingdom for your clan. Each round consists of scoring objectives that can only be met with picky placement. And how many tiles you put down each round is determined by how good you are at money management, bluffing, and risk. Auction games are usually the domain of higher player counts – the tension needs competition to thrive. But Isle of Skye is an exception – it works brilliantly at 2 players. Deciding the cost and availability of your tiles becomes a delicate balance. Give up too much too cheaply and you’ll lose. Hold back too many for too high a price, and you’ll have nothing to spend on anybody else’s tiles.
If you are good at reading other players and planning ahead, Isle of Skye is going to be your game. And, whilst that could mean a pretty dull Munro back to loser-ville for the least financially and spatially savvy around the table, this game has a powerful catch-up mechanism. From round 3 until the end, players also free money which increases the further behind they are. And, although this does not sound like much, we have found this added purchasing power can turn the tables quite dramatically at times. When behind (because others are repeatedly cashing in on the same scoring objectives), I think it’s great. When in the lead, it can feel a little like punishment for doing well. On balance, however, it can definitely help temper a runaway lead and keep all players engaged until the bitter end!
Power Through – Rob Wright
The battle between Eurogames and Ameritrash will rage for as long as the definitions exist, but you have to give it to Ameritrash games for offering a level playing field through the medium of random elements – even the best player can be brought low by a terrible roll or unlucky draw. With Euros, it’s often the case that if you know how to play the game, you KNOW how to PLAY the game… which is why they can often put off the neophyte gamer.
It is ironic then that the most Eurogame ever Euro gamed also has the most egalitarian catch-up mechanics. Power Grid is a game where you buy power stations to power as many houses as possible over the course of the game – the player with the most powered houses at the end wins.
Of course, power stations are costly and resource-hungry things, so if they are to work, you need to afford to fuel them. This is where the catch-up mechanics comes in.
If you have the most houses built, you get the first ‘bid’ on the power stations, but if you have the least houses, you not only get the first choice on buying the resources but also the first dibs on building houses.
Why so important, you ask? Well, resources such as coal, oil, rubbish, and uranium (yep) fill up a resource track between rounds. The fuller the track, the cheaper the resource. So, after the runners up have taken their pick of the cheap resources, the leaders will have to buy them in at a premium, leaving them with less readies to buy houses. And guess what? Real estate is at a premium too, with rising connection costs as prime spots get filled. This makes for a nicely-balanced Euro experience.
I still lost though.
Best served with Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity. You can thank me later.
Honourable Mentions – Ian Peek
If you take a loose interpretation of catch-up mechanics, more games than you think might have them. Push your luck games have a natural potential for this. One example is Can’t Stop, where your progress is based on dice rolls. You can continue to roll indefinitely each turn – providing you’re happy to risk losing all the progress you’ve made on it. Stopping cements that progress.
As the only limits to how far you can travel are luck, nerve, and the tyranny of mathematical probability, it’s not uncommon to see bolder players turn games around with the sheer force of will. With nothing to lose, recklessness can become the sensible option…
Any player can catch up and overtake their opponents at any stage of the game. This threat forms part of the pressure which spurs players on their own turn. This loop might even make the possibility of catch-up the driving force for the whole game…
Food for thought.
Slithering in with a slippery claim to being the first catch-up mechanic many gamers encounter is Snakes and Ladders. Not the most compelling implementation of a mechanic, true, but not something you’re likely to complain about when you’re skipping several rows ahead either.
The ladder of catch-up also exposes the nefarious serpent of penalty. Catch-up’s evil twin also occurs in some games – possible pullbacks and penalties offering a board game equivalent of competitive shirt-pulling.
If you can’t win, you can always make them lose…
Further honourable mentions in the wider field of catch-up mechanics go to Patchwork and Nova Luna. Both of these Uwe Rosenberg games offer players who slip behind opportunities to take several turns before their opponents. It’s another spin on tactical rubber-banding which flips negatives into positives, counterweighting every player decision.
Great ideas, no catch.