Oort/Pizza Coven, a spatial auction game [Games that Got Away]

This is the story of how I tried to make a cool spatial auction mechanism into a complete game, but never quite found a concept that sold to a publisher. The last version was called OORT and the details are here:

Theme Pitch: The Oort cloud is the last stop for a thousand light-years, so you better stock up! Dock your ships at the right stations to claim the best supplies and send their whole fleet further into space.

Gamer Pitch: This is an auction in which where you place your bid matters. A top bid only lasts once, but a lesser bid can persist for multiple rounds.

(Rules Google Doc Here)

What Worked: Top bidder wins, but doesn't stay.

Players have "ship" discs valued at 1 to 15. Each round, a random segment of the board is being auctioned. Bids are placed in turns, face-down. Though the bids are hidden, you do know some information: Small ships are valued 0-4. Medium ships are 5-9. Large ships are 10-15.  

You must place bids at specific spots around that segment. Each spot is adjacent to other segments, but those aren't in play during the round. Only the one segment currently up for auction is what gets resolved.

The "ah ha" moment is that whoever wins the auction must remove their ships from that segment. Everyone else leaves their ships in place, allowing them to contribute to future auctions when adjacent segments come up for auction later. 

Example: Players are auctioning on the station named Ride.

  • Black already had a "1" disc in place from a previous round. They place a "14" disc this round.
  • Orange already has a "9" disc on the space labelled "rim." They place a "10" disc closer to the core.
  • Pink places a "6" disc.
  • Lastly, Blue places a "5" disc. This ends the round.

First Place: Orange's total bid of 19.

Second Place: Black's total bid of 15.

Third Place: Pink's bid of 6.

Fourth Place: Blue's bid of 5.

After earning their awards, Orange wins the auction and will remove their chips from the board at the end of the round. Black, Pink, and Blue keep their chips on the board.

Theme 1: Pizza Coven

I couldn't figure out something compelling to win in each auction. The first version of this game was called Pizza Coven. Players were competing to surround cauldrons filled with ingredients. The ingredients were shaped like semi-circles, each with up to three toppings. Your goal was to assemble complete pizza pies that had high scoring ingredients based on random recipes active each round. It looked like this:

Unfortunately this had such a disastrous pitch at an UnPub that I just had sour feelings about it for years. Regular players loved the theme, but publishers wanted more visible magic in a game ostensibly about witches making pizzas.

When I announced that I would change it, former testers lamented about the loss of that theme. Sadly, no amount of player testimonial weighed on a publisher's opinions.

Theme 2: Fall of the Kingpin

So I tried paring down the game to just the auction, where you compete for area control. Each city district had a random assortment of scoring tokens, all publicly visible at the start of the game. The top bidder would get the highest scoring token. The second-place bidder got second highest, and so on. The city center was worth a flat value of 7 points, higher than any single chip in the game.

But competing strictly for points was rather flat. This was a boom time for game complexity and modular elements. Publishers weren't interested in something that felt like it was designed in the late 90s. They wanted more content and expansion avenues that fit the stretch goal model of crowdfunding. The city prototype was a complete game in itself, without room for expansion. No powers, no secondary mechanisms, just a cutthroat spatial auction.

I couldn't think of a more compelling theme to make it sing, aside from a thin veneer of cyberpunk aesthetics. I couldn't even think of a real reason why the top bidder would lose their chips. Best I could rationalize is that the kingpin gets toppled or retires, clearing space for the next upstart gang to take over.

Nowadays, I think this theme would be accepted if the chips were generic icons. Those icons would have different meanings each game, like in Quacks of Quedlinberg and the updated Libertalia.

Theme 3: Oort

So I shifted to more familiar territory for me: Space! In OORT each bidding chip represented a spaceship docking at a space station for supplies before leaving the solar system.  I didn't go so far as to make a set collection mechanism like Pizza Coven. Instead, I used the movement mechanism from Cartagena.

Each segment of the board had a random tile showing a sequence of three icons. These icons corresponded to places along the score track. The first-place bidder moved to the nearest icon A, then B, then C, skipping any spaces without these icons and any occupied spaces. The second-place had a choice of moving from A to B or B to C. Third-place had a choice of moving to either A, B, or C.

I also divided up ships into small, medium, and large, which allowed you to displace your own smaller ships in key locations. This gave players more flexibility to raise their bids.

Lastly, I gave players extra incentive to place at the central spaces: In round 1, 2, and 3, you'd immediately advance 1, 2, or 3 spaces along the track.

I wasn't ever really convinced this was better than a basic score track. I kind of liked the idea of the score track itself being the play field, but the stakes were too hidden. What mattered more than being the top bidder was when you moved. If a space ahead of you was occupied, you'd leapfrog ahead to the next available space with that icon.

Nowadays, I think I would have kept the Oort theme, but done a mix of flat point chips and set collection icons, as described in the Fall of the Kingpin theme above.

Do you have any games you never quite cracked? How'd you get past that block? Or did you just let it rest, never to be? Tell me your story!