The Agony and Ecstasy of the Scoring Track


I have an ambivalent relationship with scoring tracks. There are few elements of board game design I simultaneously both like and dislike as much. Because I can’t afford a therapist for this kind of thing, I’ve decided to work out my issues here on this screen you’re reading here. Nitty-gritty game design soliloquy coming at you.

Among hobbyist table games, scoring tracks are everywhere. I think there are two reasons for this, one good, one bad, and they account entirely for my mixed feelings.

First the good. The wonderful great supreme thing about scoring tracks is that they make concrete and visually clear the players’ relative standing – and so make the race to win feel more “real”. They boost clarity and tension. The value of scoring tracks are illustrated most clearly, I think, in racing games, like Formula De, which are often comprised of little but fancy scoring tracks.

Empirical testing corroborates this view: in my playtesting, players give higher marks to a game when it includes a scoring track than when scores are tracked by other means (recording numbers on paper, accumulating items worth points, etc).

So it’s no surprise scoring tracks are in wide use. But this isn’t the only reason. There’s another, seedy-underbelly-type reason: scoring tracks are the great enablers of Point Salads (games where you can earn points in a bunch of different conceptually unrelated ways), and Point Salads are often a crutch for ad-hoc, visionless game design. The result is a lot of bland games.

Before you retort, allow me to elaborate on this point:

The personalities of games are strongly defined by the Thing-You-Need-To-Do-In-Order-To-Win. In Chess, it’s all about attacking the King. In Basketball, it’s all about getting the ball in the hoop. The goal is the unifying theme around which the universe of a game orbits – it dictates all the other rules of the game and thereby creates the game’s personality. There may be many ways to pursue the goals in Chess and Basketball, but nonetheless there is only one goal in each, and it’s distinct from that of other games.

Let’s imagine a world in which basketball was designed differently. Let’s say you get points not just for putting the ball in the hoop, but also for making at least 7 passes on a single possession, and also for dribbling at least 14 times, and maybe for high-fiving all your other teammates while in possession of the ball, or making one of your opponents’ players fall down. This is the Point Salad version of basketball. Let’s call it Bunchofdifferentstuffsketball.

How would Bunchofdifferentstuffsketball feel compared to Basketball? Some might like that you have to weigh the value of all these different sources of points against one another, in light of your skill in pursuing each goal. But I don’t think I’d like this as much as I like basketball, because it would feel like a hodgepodge. It would also have more complicated rules, not only to describe the many goals but also to rule on a whole set of edge cases/loopholes/possible infractions which would result.

If there were many other sports which all took a similar approach, each sport would lose some of the special character that make it its own unique thing.

On the other hand, maybe you could make a silly movie about it.
On the other hand, maybe you could make a silly movie about it.

That, I argue, is how many games with scoring tracks are being designed. When you play, you can do a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but why? What do all the bits have to do with anything? I have no idea. And it feels like 50 other games that take the same approach.

It bears mentioning: many games with scoring tracks don’t fall victim to Bunchofdifferentstuffitis – scoring tracks aren’t inherently bad, they just seem to encourage bad tendencies in certain game designers. A number games with unified central concepts deploy scoring tracks because those concepts happen to be multifaceted and incremental.

My favorite example of this is Ingenious, which has several different scoring tracks, each representing your progress in pursuing the same goal in each of several different piece-colors. The player who has advanced farthest along the scoring track on which she’s made the least progress at the end is the winner.

The game Ingenious
The game Ingenious

Ingenious, by the way, is far deeper than most players realize, and it’s magical: it’s a deep game casual players can play for fun, blissfully unaware of the hairy strategy which serious study would reveal (the hairiness of which starts with rack management and gets more hirsute from there). In that sense it approaches an important and rarely-achieved ideal for abstract games – I wish I’d invented it.

In an example closer to home, my most popular game, Catchup, has a scoring track, but the game nonetheless has a single goal.

I wish abstract game designers would make more games with scoring tracks. Thanks to their obsession with conceptual unity, such designers are predisposed to using scoring tracks in the right way, and I’ve no doubt there are a bunch of great, undiscovered game concepts requiring scoring tracks. It’s a little-explored area of abstract game design space (even if it’s way over-explored in other game genres), so there might be some stupendous ideas which aren’t hard to find there.

To chat in real time about this or anything else, catch me on Google+

5 thoughts on “The Agony and Ecstasy of the Scoring Track

  1. Interesting points.

    How would you say a scoring track compares to victory points? I’m thinking in particular of Puerto Rico here. You can get victory points for doing several different kinds of things, so I feel like they’re essentially like a non-public scoring track (though the fact of a finite number of victory-point chits does change that slightly). But Puerto Rico doesn’t feel unfocused to me; on the contrary, I love that it’s so well-balanced that games tend (in my experience) to be close even though players are pursuing very different strategies. Does it feel unfocused to you? Or it might be focused along a different axis than the way I’m thinking of it.

  2. Of course there’s no mathematical difference between collecting points on chits vs on a track, even if there’s a psychological difference in many cases, as I mentioned in my essay. In games where gameplay depends on hiding points, then you have to go with chits as in PR, regardless of whatever other advantages a scoring track may offer.

    PR does feel unfocused to me, even if, as point salads go, it’s not particularly diffuse (i.e. there aren’t that many different ways to collect points compared to some other games, like Feld games). It does have fantastic balance, as you mention, which also helps the game considerably. As point salads go, it’s about as good as it gets, but there are many games with unified victory conditions that I greatly prefer.

  3. Brilliant example of the point salad approach to game design (although it can happen with or without a scoring track). Bunchofdifferentstuffsketball — I love it!
    To be balanced, I think there are certainly good games that lean toward the point salad approach. I’ve even designed one of them, after all:-)
    But I did find myself heading down that path with a recent design and, fortunately, my playtesters and initial feedback from publishers I knew challenged me to go about it in a different way (clearer goals=more competition/interaction for those goals=more tension=better game!)

    And the criticism of this approach comes at a good time when so many new publishers and designers are jumping on the bandwagon. Time to take the road less travelled again!

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