Diminishing Returns Mechanisms in Dice-Based Auctions

I had the pleasure of playing Eric Zimmerman's Quantum last night. It has some very clever abstract mechanics that make it easy to learn and adds plenty of thematic add-ons that greatly expand the tactical options in later turns. Highly recommended.

At the core of Quantum's system is an elegant balance between speed and strength. The die face represents how many spaces a ship may move, so a 6 ("Scout) speeds across the board very quickly. However, combat is resolved by adding the number on your ship to a 1d6 roll. The lower total wins, with attacker winning on ties. So a 1 ("Battlestation") is very strong, but cannot move very fast. All other mechanics are built around this skeleton.

It got me thinking about other dice-placement games in recent years that incorporated some clever mechanics, notably Kingsburg and Alien Frontiers. Auctions have been on my mind, too, particularly auctions that work well with two players. (Folks on Twitter had several recommendations for two-player auction games including Biblios and Blue Moon.) But honestly the auction game that I've enjoyed the most lately has been Keyflower.

What I had in mind was mashing up some of the resource acquisition of Kingsburg, auctions of Keyflower, and upgrades from Quantum. Add to this a theme where you don't want to bid too high, mirroring the speed/strength tradeoff in Quantum's ships.

Naturally, you already have that inverse relationship in any auction. Efficient bidding is key. You don't want to spend more money than you need to, just enough to beat everybody else and enough to turn a profit. But what if your actual payout from an auction was affected by the size of the winning bid?

Let's say we have a game about elections. We're competing by spending advertising money on different districts, each of which have different constituents in a variety of interest-sectors, like Business, Philanthropy, Military, and so on. We want to spend enough ad money to win a district, but if too much money is spent in the district, it creates a disaffected electorate who offer less support to the winning candidate.

At the start of each round, each player rolls four dice. This represents the funding for the week. Then players take turns using those dice results to bid on several District cards out on the table.

For example, Bob bids a total of 5 for this district. If he wins, he'll get 3 blue, 3 red, and 4 black. (For now, these colors are just abstract, but they would be replaced with thematic icons in a final production, each representing a different interest group.

But Sarah decides to outbid Bob. Her bid is 7, which means that if she wins, she'll only get 1 blue, 2 red, and 2 black.

Sarah wins the district. She must tuck the District card beneath her player board so that it only shows what she earned.

Later, these resources may be redeemed for upgrades that give each die face a special ability when it is used as a bid. You'd have six slots available, representing each die face. Upgrades are built and assigned from 1 to 6, because the 6 is such a powerful bidder anyway. For example:

  • Intimidation: Replace an opposing die from this district with this die.
  • Friendly Media: Double the value of another one of your dice in this district.
  • Guerrilla Tactics: Halve the value of another one of your dice in this district, rounded up.
  • Sour Grapes: Add this die to an opposing bid.
  • Piggyback: Add this die to an opposing bid, the sum is now your bid.
  • Nimble Campaign: If a player tries to outbid you, you may reroll this die.
  • Anonymous Donor: This die adds to your bid, but doesn't count against the resulting payout.
And so on. Lots of possible upgrades with this theme.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.