Mechanic Analysis: Drafting

I’ve been thinking a lot about drafting lately. So today I thought I’d try something new: a close analysis of drafting as a mechanic. To start, I’ll define drafting and explain the different forms it takes. After that I’ll discuss what it adds to games. To wrap things up, I’ll cover the requirements of including drafting in a game.

It turns out worker placement, in games like Stone Age, is one type of drafting. Who knew? Image from the Board Game Geek.

It turns out worker placement, in games like Stone Age, is one type of drafting. Who knew? Image from the Board Game Geek.

By drafting, I mean a mechanic in which players take turns choosing from a collection of options, where one player’s choice eliminates that choice from players downstream. I call the collection of options a draft pool. Note that this definition is quite broad and includes many games that people don’t often associate with drafting, such as worker placement games.

Drafting can take many forms. There are several axes by which drafting can differ.

The first axis is the number of draft pools the game includes. The two most common variants are a single draft pool that all players share (like Citadels, Puerto Rico, and most worker placement games) and having draft pools for each player that get rotated (like 7 Wonders and Magic). One advantage of the one draft pool per player variant is that it allows for simultaneous play.

Another axis is whether the draft pools and player choices are hidden or open information. Most worker placement games are open, though games like Dungeon Lords include hidden information elements.

Drafting also varies based on the number of choices each player makes. Some games offer only one choice per player per draft (like Citadels), while some offer many (like 7 Wonders).

Finally, some drafting games allow any players to choose any option (like Magic or Citadels), while others restrict certain choices to certain players (like 7 Wonders or Kingsburg).

First Pick Mechanic

At risk of sounding like a total fan-boy, drafting is an awesome mechanic. It is very versatile and offers a lot of depth while remaining accessible to new players. Below I’ll explain some of drafting’s virtues.

A new player may not know the optimal choice, but at least he or she just has to choose one of eight options... Image from the Board Game Geek.

A new player may not know the optimal choice, but at least he or she just has to choose one of eight options… Image from the Board Game Geek.

Easy to learn. While drafting offers near limitless depth and strategy, it is largely hidden from new players. Inexperienced players may not make great choices, but all they have to do is answer a multiple choice question: simply choose the best option from among those available. This means it’s not terribly difficult for inexperienced players to play with more experienced players. It also makes it easy for players to grow as they get more familiar with the game.

Dynamic values. Drafting ensures that the values of options are always changing. Options are scarce and there are real opportunity costs with each choice. Furthermore, the stage of the game, strategies other players are using, and even personal preferences can all affect how aggressively certain options must be taken.

“Less” random. It is a quirk of human psychology that other people’s actions make uncertainty feel less random than the roll of a die. While many drafting games do include pure randomness (cracking packs in Magic, random roles disappearing in Citadels), many of the uncertain elements of drafting are determined by choices made by other players. For example, the options available to you are determined by the options upstream players chose. A game can feel unfair when it is too random, but player caused uncertainty helps mitigate the feeling in drafting games.

Rewards anticipation. Almost all drafting games reward players who can anticipate what their opponents will do because drafting makes it so easy. In Puerto Rico, you get to piggie-back on another player’s action so you can spend your own choice on something less essential. In Citadels, knowing who will choose which role means you can kill or rob from the player of your choice. And in Magic, anticipating what other players will take from a draft pool might let you get a card you want when the draft pool comes back around.

Asymmetric information. When draft pools are hidden, players who see the pool early are rewarded with extra information. In Magic, that means you get an idea of the sorts of cards you’ll face. In Citadels, that means you know which roles are available. Either way, those who know how to use the information are rewarded.

Unequal but balanced rewards. In games like Lifeboat and BANG!, drafting is used to reward a player without totally leaving everyone else in the dust. The first drafter gets his or her pick of the litter, while each subsequent player gets the scraps left by the upstream players. But that’s better than nothing!

Speaking my language. Advanced players can actually read draft pools like notes, making inferences about what other players are thinking and planning based on the choices they leave behind. Similarly, players can think about the inferences downstream players might make based on the draft pools they pass. In this sense, drafting games can become about communicating, with advanced players passing messages that novice players might be oblivious to.

Last Pick Concessions

So drafting is sweet. Why isn’t it used in more games?

Once you realize that worker placement games are actually drafting games, you start seeing drafting all over the place. But still, drafting does have its downsides and constraints which make it inappropriate for certain types of games.

May I have your attention please? Probably the biggest constraint with drafting is that it requires a lot of time and attention. Look at any game with drafting and you’ll see that players can do nothing else while drafting. Any other actions or game systems take place separately. And that means that drafting will frequently be the focus of a game. If it isn’t, it can steal the spotlight from the intended focus and the different stages of the game can easily feel disconnected from each other.

Different but balanced. Another challenge with designing drafting games is that you want your different options to be meaningfully different without being of wildly different power levels. You can accomplish this by making different options relevant at different times, or relevant to different strategies, or make it advantageous to sometimes take weaker options (like hiding in the Magician role when you think the Assassin is after you in Citadels). The most common strategy is to include synergy and combos, so a mediocre option for one player is a top choice for another. However you do it, you need to differentiate options by more than just power.

Many options. Especially in games with multiple draft pools, the designer needs to make sure the game has a plethora of options so repeat game states are infrequent. This requires an overall game system that can support subtly different options. Often times, the subtle differences will make using symbols instead of words very difficult. To top things off, it means that newer players might have trouble understanding the differences between options, making the game more confusing early on.

Pass It

Drafting doesn’t come without its constraints, but in my mind they are more than worth it for the many benefits drafting provides. With drafting, depth is near limitless and strategies are always shifting, but they are largely hidden from new players, so feeling overwhelmed is kept to a minimum.

Once you realize worker placement is a type of drafting, you can see the wide variety of forms the mechanic can take. Many of these regions of design space remain unexplored, however, and I can’t wait to see some of the games that test the waters in the near future. I’m experimenting with a couple myself, and my hope is that Fungus will pave some new and awesome territory.

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  1. I think that the attention hogging drawback of drafting doesn’t necassarily mean that drafting needs to be the entire focus of a game, it just needs to be the focus of the game at the point that it’s happening.

    For instance in the game I’m working on at the moment, play starts by drafting objectives. After the setup phase I don’t use a drafting mechanic again, but the mechanic still fits into the overall game really well. Having an idea of what some of the other players are trying to accomplish changes how you play and drafting tends to produce a fairer distribution of easy and hard objectives than simply drawing some from the top of the deck.

  2. Seems to me if you make a poor draft, that will haunt you the rest of the game.
    Almost as if the game is won as soon as the drafting is done, but you still have to play out the rest of the game.

    • Hi Dave,

      You’re absolutely right for a drafting game like Magic. But there are many other types of games that I touch on in the post where drafting occurs over the course of the whole game. I suppose you could still say the game is won or lost when the drafting is done in those games, but at least you don’t have to suffer through too much knowing you will lose.

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