Zeussical’s Occasional Game Design Thing – Drafting

Welcome back to this weird thing I decided to do! The thing where I pick a thing about Tabletop Gaming and then dissect it until every game is just this horrible array of splayed-out parts and you can’t enjoy anything anymore. This time I want to cover Drafting, the first actual game mechanic that I’m talking about. Also, it’s the one that I feel most comfortable with it due to my long history of being Magic: the Gathering trash. Notice how I’m being self-deprecating to avoid being disappointed if people don’t like this. Pointing it out ironically also counts as being self-deprecating.

Overview

Drafting as a concept originates from Table-less Gaming, otherwise known as Respectable Games and Sports. If you ever were on the playground watching as everybody else gets picked to be on a Capture the Flag team, you’ve experienced Drafting! Good for you! Sometimes major corporations spend obscene amounts of money to draft people for their teams even though I have never once seen any of them capture a flag.

While it’s almost certainly been a game concept for a long, long time, the first time that the actual term “Drafting” in the context of tabletop gaming that I was able to find in an extremely limited amount of resources was in Magic: the Gathering. As the story goes, in an early playtest group before the game was published, some of the playtesters were big baseball fans, and decided to use the draft concept from that to distribute cards from the shared playtest pool. This would eventually evolve into Booster Drafting, which I spent an awful lot of time talking about in the CCG Thread, because – Magic Trash, see above.

The main idea behind drafting is that you are distributing a resource of some kind among a number of players by taking turns choosing from one or more pools of that resource. The simplest way that this works is that there is one big pool of “stuff” that people take “stuff” from one at a time. A simple example of this is Sushi Go!: Each player is dealt a hand of cards, picks one card from the hand, then passes the rest to a neighboring player. In this example, there are a fixed number of hidden “pools” of cards (the hands), but there could also be one large combined pool or open pools in which everyone knows what cards or other resources are available

Fig. A. Drafting table

It’s all a bit broadly defined and it can get significantly more complex from there, but generally this comes down to: A draft involves one or more pools of actual physical objects being passed or taken by players, who are allowed to freely pick any item(s) from the pool(s) iteratively until an end condition is met.

Even thus constrained, there are still many different drafting games and ways of drafting, from 7 Wonders to Citadels to Reef. It is a very robust mechanic – In many of these games it sits as the primary mechanic. It is also a very intuitive one, since there are clear choices and straightforward results of those choices: You have a set of things, you pick a thing, and then you have that thing. This is not to say that it is a simple mechanic, rather it is a very complex strategic mechanic that carries a lot of gameplay for very little rules teaching.

Fig. B. Assorted Citadel contractors

Function

Drafting is often a core mechanic of a game that uses it, or sometimes even the only mechanic. It is, as mentioned above, very robust. But why is that and what does it bring to the table?1

As I mentioned before, drafting is very mechanically simple. If you’re not concerned with or don’t have a handle on the underlying strategy, the choices that you have are physical(in that you’re usually holding them in your hand) and it’s easy to arbitrarily pick a thing if you have to. Part of what makes this easy is that Drafting is a mechanic that creates “indirect interaction.” When you draft a card2, you are preventing other players from having it, but you’re not taking it from them directly, you’re affecting their potential future options. Because of this, players who don’t have a deep understanding of the game can essentially ignore the other players and simply pick the best thing that they have in front of them.

This idea of “best” also leads me to subjectivity and context. If a draft game simply had cards that were worth random arbitrary amounts of points, it would essentially be a solved game: just take the highest number. What tends to make drafting interesting is the subjective value and shifting context of the card. A certain card might be worth more to one player than another, either for strategic reasons (like that they have a Player Role that gives some mechanical advantage for certain cards) or aesthetic reasons (this one has a cat in the art so it’s better) or both to varying degrees. These factors affect what card a player might want to choose, and the contextual value can change even from pick to pick contingent on every preceding pick.

This contextual and subjective value leads to emergent strategy and complexity. An experienced player might be able to predict what their opponents might value and either prevent them from getting it or cooperate and pick different cards for which they have less competition. All of this does not necessarily need to be built explicitly into the game – it is emergent, coming from the players and their relationships to each other and to the game. A drafting game with one group of players might go very differently from another group simply because the small differences in evaluation explode into larger and larger divergence as more choices are made or eliminated.

Variations

There are innumerable variations on the broad idea of Drafting, but most of these fall into some clear categories. Generally speaking, the “knobs” for a draft variant are: information, type of pool (size, number, and whether it is static or dynamic), picking order, and end conditions. With even these few simple categories, a wide variety of different drafts can be made.

Pool-based vs. Pass-based

The most straightforward distinguishing feature of a draft is where and how the players will interact with the pool of resources.3. If all or a single part of the resources is drafted at once by everybody, then there is only one pool being drafted at a time – the draft is pool-based. If there are multiple simultaneous pools being drafted and players pass around the pools themselves or the ability to pick from them, then the draft is pass-based. Usually, pool-based drafts are drafted “open” (everyone can see the pool and every pick) and pass-based games hide some or all of the information, but this is not always the case. (e.g. in Citadels, there is a single pool that players pick from in turn, making it pool-based, but the pool is hidden from all players, so they must guess or deduce which roles other players might have already drafted.)

Fig. C. Non-finite pool

Finite vs. Continuous pools

This has to do with the size of the pool or pools, and whether pools’ size or composition changes over the course of a single draft round. In a draft with a finite pool, all or part of the resources are made available at the same time, and those resources are drafted until some end condition is met, usually once all cards have been drafted. A game could consist of a single finite draft or several sequential drafts in sequence. In a continuous draft, more resources are added to the draft while it is still happening – usually this will happen in pool-based drafts, for example, one where once a card has been drafted, another one is dealt from a deck to replace it, as in Reef or Jaipur. In these types of drafts, each pick is more unpredictable, as a very valuable resource might replace a player’s pick and then be taken by someone else before the first player has the opportunity. Games can account for this variance in several ways, such as adding incentives to unpicked resources or giving players more control over what replaces their picks. 

Order/Simultaneity

The order that a draft happens in can be very strategically important. Whoever gets to pick first generally has a large advantage over other players. Games can account for this in several ways: if everybody gets a pool in a pass-based draft, each of them will have the opportunity to be first for their particular pool while the draft happens simultaneously for each player. In a pool-based draft, players have to pick in order, so one player will have to pick first. In these kinds of drafts, a common way to account for this is “snake drafting.” In such a draft, each player picks in turn order, but when the last player has picked, they get to pick again and the draft continues in the opposite order. With snake drafting the player with the first pick will have the last pick, ending up with a high value and a low value pick, whereas the person at the other end of the order will get two middle value picks, theoretically evening out the “first pick” advantage.

Information

What all of the preceding have in common is that they deal with what information players have or don’t have at various times. Drafts, at their core, revolve around information. When information is withheld, or known only to certain players, that creates a strategic opportunity to whoever can deduce or predict the most information. In very basic pool-based drafts, all of the information is known to everyone, just as with sports drafting. In this draft, the main information that a player gets is what picks have been made before, so players at the end of the order have the most information but the fewest options. However, you can add uncertainty in a number of ways – by making the pool hidden information and only revealing it to players when their turn comes up, or by making the draft continuous, with cards being replaced by other cards from a hidden deck, for example. In a pass-based draft, it is convenient to have each player’s individual pool hidden to only them. In either case of a hidden pool, a game might have players make their picks open or hidden. If the pick has to be revealed, players will be able to use that information in future picks, but if the pick is hidden, that information needs to be deduced from what is known about the pool and the player.

Fig. D. Hidden information

End condition

There are two common end conditions for a draft – a number of rounds or a number of picks. The most meaningful result of this is how many items are left over at the end of the draft. Again, this has an effect on the information that players might have as to what the people next to them have. If the draft ends while players have more options, the amount of information that can be deduced is lessened. Additionally, some games use these leftovers later, such as Sagrada, where the last remaining die after the draft is placed on the round tracker, where certain tools can take them and use them in their window..

Evolutions & Advanced Topics

First Player/First Pick

As mentioned above, being able to have the first pick from a draft pool can be a huge strategic advantage. One of the interesting ways to balance out this advantage is to incorporate being the first player into the draft, which often will give it an opportunity cost. For example, in Citadels, whoever chooses the King to represent them for the round receives the crown, which marks who the first player is in future rounds. Doing so, however, means passing up other, better opportunities and potentially making yourself a more predictable target for the Thief or Assassin. Another draft game that uses this mechanic is Azul, where the first player tile is placed in the middle of the table at the beginning of the draft phase. Whoever takes from the middle first gets to be first player in the next round, but there are two disincentives – firstly that taking the tile means that you have to place it in your penalty row, losing you points, and secondly that the center starts out as a very low-value place to draft from and tends to get mid-to-low demand items as the draft proceeds. More on Azul later, since it’s a really cool/good/interesting drafting game.

Fig. E. Starburst(tm) candies

Two-Player Drafting

When drafting with two players, drafting by normal methods can often lead to less deep gameplay than it would at higher player counts. Players are able to better predict what the draft will look like when it comes back to them since fewer changes will occur, and hidden information is more easily deduced with less noise from more players. Often, a two-player draft will have to either give players more choices to complicate prediction or add hidden information in a less conventional way than passing a hidden hand(s) back and forth. A simple method for doing this is based on a solution to the Cake Cutting problem in mathematics: One player can split the pool into any division that they choose, and then the other player gets to pick which half to take. In this way, both players will get at least 50% of their perceived value of the pool. 

A more complicated method is what I know as “Winston Draft,” developed by Richard Garfield for use in Magic: the Gathering. In this sort of draft, players draft a pile of face-down cards each pick instead of individual cards. On their turn, players look at the piles in order and decide to take it or look at the next pile. When they pass on a pile, a new face-down card is added to that pile, which they won’t know. In this draft, you have a general idea of a pile’s value before you look (based on the number of cards), a decreasing amount of information about each pile’s actual value (based its known contents) and noise is added to your information about the other player’s picks, since there will always be at least one unknown card. Canopy, a game that was funded on Kickstarter earlier this year, uses this type of draft, and I am interested to see how that turns out once it is published.

Pick Actions vs. Round Actions

In drafts, it not only matters what is picked, but also when that pick matters. In 7 Wonders for example, your pick is immediately played and all of its effects immediately happen. These effects are Pick Actions. But in drafts like Magic: the Gathering or The Isle of Cats, all the picks happen first, players only take actions or make choices about their cards at the end of the draft or draft round. These are Round Actions. Each of these are interesting in different ways – Pick Actions generally demand more flexibility and Round Actions generally demand more planning and deduction. Which one to use depends on what a particular game wants to focus on and what the purpose of the draft is.

Metadrafting and Draft Actions

Some games will add extra complexity to the draft by giving the players more actions and options during the draft. Sushi Go! has the Chopsticks, which let you save them for later in the round and then take two cards at once, and Sagrada has the Tool cards, many of which let you change how you draft – you can draft both of your picks at the same time, or reroll the entire draft pool, among other interesting mechanics that make each game different. Taking the idea even further is the Conspiracy set of Magic: the Gathering. Specially designed for drafting, it includes a number of Cogwork cards, each of which deal with the draft in some way. While some of them add draft actions like Sagrada, others are marked at the time of drafting for later: Lurking Automaton notes how late in the draft you picked it, getting stronger the later it gets picked, creating a push-your-luck effect.

Fig. F. Some kind of happy street cleaner I think

Dynamic Pool

In most drafts, the draft pool remains the same or at least mostly the same, with the most dynamic changes being replacement of picked cards in the games that have a replacement deck or pool. However, it’s possible to change the way that the draft functions in order to reveal and/or hide future information that can be strategized around. This happens often in 2 player drafts as mentioned above, such as in 7 Wonders Duel, where the pool is arranged in a pyramid with some cards face-up, meaning that you can plan ahead to make sure that you are the one to get a key face-up card. Games can also change the actual composition or options available in the draft, even without any kind of replacement. In Azul, for example, the draft starts with a number of “Markets” that hold four tiles each. Players can draft one color from one market on their turn, and then the remaining tiles are placed in a communal pool that grows as more tiles are picked from the market. Since this can sometimes let you combine tiles from different markets, it can be effective to wait to pick a color until there are 4 or 5 of the same color in the middle.

Incentives

Generally speaking, some of the drafted items will be better or worse than others, sometimes by wide margins. 4 This can mean that some cards will go undrafted for quite a while. Some games can use this to change the value of a card over time. Canopy and Winston Draft, as mentioned above are a type of this, but it’s also possible to get more granular. Suburbia has a drafting track, where tiles that are newer come with extra costs, and as other tiles are drafted, tiles will trickle down to cheaper slots. In Reef, players who want to take the top card of the deck before the other player has an opportunity need to pay point tokens onto one of the cards in the pool, where another player might be able to draft that card and in doing so, take that point.

Commentary Corner

I. Love. Drafting. It’s really rewarding to try to anticipate how other players will value items in the draft and to guess what the pool will look like when it comes back to you. Like I mention, the idea of drafting is pretty broad. Some would consider a game like Wingspan to include drafting, since it has a 3-card market that gets refilled over the course of the game, and you need to be aware of what your opponents might take before you can. Deckbuilding games also resemble a draft, where you pick cards by buying them with the energy or gold or whatever that you build up over a turn. In an abstract sense, worker placement games, or even movement-based games like Tokaido can fit in the category with a little creativity. Personally, I don’t count these – mostly it goes by feel, as with anything this loosely defined, but since I’m a fiend for categorization, I’ve come up with three aspects that are necessary but not sufficient for a draft to be a draft:

  • Variance: To be a proper draft, it should be different each time you play it. One of the benefits of using cards for drafting is that there are so many permutations for the cards to be in, creating effectively endless possible different drafts. Variance creates novel situations, which makes it much harder to “solve” a particular state, and it reduces predictability. In a worker placement game, for example, there are usually 10 or fewer locations to pick from, and you can often figure out which 3 might be the best choice for any particular player, and you can develop canonical “Openings” for the first few rounds that are stronger than others.
  • Consistency: The core actions of the draft should remain the same from pick-to-pick and round-to-round, and they should happen at a regular cadence. In a game with a market  – even one that doesn’t involve currency such as Wingspan – that players can pick from instead of doing another action, one person might draw from the market several turns in a row while another player doesn’t come near it. A draft pick needs to happen every or nearly every turn – there can’t be an unrestricted null-action in a draft or else the draft doesn’t necessarily end on its own.
  • Physicality: I’ll admit that this is mostly a feely idiosyncratic personal thing, but a draft needs to involve physical stuff. And you need to take that stuff so no one else can have it. And then you laugh maniacally as you hoard the spoils of… um… moving on… A game like Tokaido, where moving along the path greatly resembles a draft, it just doesn’t feel “draft-y” enough for me. Similarly, mancala games like Five Tribes and Deja Vu don’t count for me because you’re not specifically taking the tokens, you’re doing droppy mancala stuff and the pieces come to you because reasons or something.

Use these metrics as you will. I don’t make the rules except for the one rule that says my way is correct and everyone else is bad and wrong.

end of topic comment or don’t i don’t care