Rough Drafts

There’s basically two kinds of game mechanics: Ones that are hefty enough to require the game to be about them (hidden movement, worker placement) and ones that are usually added in a small amount to a more complicated game (bluffing, dice-rolling). Falling half-and-half into both camps is my pet mechanic, card drafting. When used properly, drafting can be a tense and challenging mechanic that adds a lot of strategy; when misused, it obscures information about the other players’ plans and leads to a lot of blind fumbling in the dark. This week, I want to go into what drafting adds to a game and how it can achieve that goal.

The following is a description of the most common kind of draft, for those unfamiliar: Each player has an identically sized hand of cards. Acting at the same time, each player selects one card out of that hand and passes it to a player next to them. The process repeats until there are no more cards to draft. In some cases, the process ends once each player has two cards, and the remaining card is discarded. Notable drafting games include 7 Wonders, Sushi Go, and Shadow Throne.

Arts and Drafts

Good draft elements in a game should do the following:

  1. Signposting. When you draft, you should have enough guidance as to what to pick (especially early in the process) to make the process manageable without being easy. There’s multiple ways to accomplish this: You can make some cards more valuable to pick early, like the resource cards in 7 Wonders, give players larger hands than player count so many of the cards “wheel” around back to you, or simply make some of the cards more powerful than others.
  2. Information on your neighbors (and ways to make use of it). One of the best elements of drafting is it allows for games with high player counts without making players have to keep track of what everyone’s doing; because almost every hand is going to be filtered through your immediate neighbors, they’re the only ones you really have to pay attention to. Therefore, good drafts make it so you know what your opponents are doing and you can capitalize on it, either by pursuing a different strategy or cutting them off from what they need.

Side note: Magic: The Gathering drafts give you very little information on what your neighbors are drafting, but this is mitigated a little because the starting hand size for each of three drafts is a massive 15 cards, giving you many more data points than other drafting games. Still, this frequently results in newer players creating unusable decks because they misread the signals, and creates a steep learning curve.

  1. Wheeling. This is the most optional rule of the three, but not making use of it means forgoing one of the most interesting parts of having a draft system in your game in the first place. When the starting hand size for a draft is larger than the number of players, some of the cards from the hand you started with will end up back at you eventually, having “wheeled” through the entire table.

Wheeling combines elements of both luck and strategy, rewarding people who successfully predict what’s going to be passed back of them and giving players some idea as to what to expect in the later parts of the draft. It’s certainly possible to create good drafts without wheeling, but it makes the game a lot deeper and more interesting.

My Favorite 1970s Electronic Band Is Draftwerk, Creators of the Hit Song “Pro Tour de France”

I wanted to call especial attention in this article to games that use drafting as a small-to-medium part of their total system, because part of making a good drafting game is making the draft a meaningful part of the game and creating a game solely about drafting accomplishes that by definition. Here’s some games that missed the mark on drafts and some that folded it in beautifully.

One of the biggest offenders of misusing draft systems is Council of Verona, an otherwise lovely betting game about throwing characters you don’t like from Romeo and Juliet into exile. The game starts with each player getting dealt a character card, then having the remaining 12 or so characters get drafted facedown by the players one by one. Because you don’t know what hand anyone else is assembling, your only strategy is creating weak combos between the cards you picked, which are frequently invalidated because of what your opponents play in between turns.

The game Seasons suffers from many of the same issues. At the start of the game, each player drafts magical artifacts using 9-card starting hands. The major problem is that every artifact is a) unique and b) possesses intricate powers, meaning that it’s difficult to choose what artifact you want even through which ones are synergistic together. It’s also difficult to change your artifacts once you’ve started, meaning some players can lose the game before it starts

So what games include drafting in a good way? My standout example is one of my favorite games period, Bruno Faidutti’s Citadels. At the start of each round, whoever has the start player marker gets a hand of 5-6 out of the game’s eight roles, and the players draft one role each. This sounds fairly ordinary, but what makes this special is how the game handles information. You will desperately want specific roles – perhaps the merchant to get lots of money, or the architect to build lots of buildings – but it’s very easy for other people to tell what you want, and being predictable will result in you getting punished hard.

A single round of Citadels will make you think endlessly about what to do. Is it worth getting targeted to pick a role that’s more valuable to you, or do you get smaller gains by picking something less predictable? How much do you want a specific card that you’ll pick the King and grab the first player token, at the cost of a more impactful role? And what roles did your opponents pick? Faidutti is the master of games about reading your opponents (Mascarade and Mission: Red Planet also use these in great amounts), and Citadels is his drafting masterpiece.

Also of note are the mini-drafts that Bang! and Stone Age use as a reward system. In both of them, a group of resources/cards are determined, and everyone drafts one face-up. I’m a big fan of these because they make everyone feel good (and that’s really hard in a game like Bang!) while giving a significant bonus to someone: The right to pick first. It’s helpful in mini-drafts for some of the cards/resources to be better or rarer than others, both to provide guidance to the first player and to make them feel better about starting it in the first place.

Conclusion, or, I’m Glad This Is Over Because I Had To Type “Draft” Into A Rhyming Dictionary

Drafting is one of the most volatile elements of conventional tabletop games. When used right, it can provide an incredibly interesting challenge and make everyone feel good; when misused, it leads to an uninteractive mass of guesses. Your design doesn’t necessarily have to make use of my guidelines above, but I hope this article will inspire you to take a look at your system and think about whether drafting is really the best option for what you’re creating.

The last person to finish reading this article…MAY be eliminated

I have a bit of a taste for competition-themed reality shows. Many of them are very hit-or-miss in terms of season quality (Top Chef Las Vegas compared to Top Chef D.C. for instance), but the good seasons are fun to watch, with larger-than-life personalities demonstrating skill in an entertaining way. Today, I wanted to talk about The Amazing Race, which is both one of the best reality shows and filled with a surprising amount of lessons for game designers.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, allow me to briefly summarize it: A dozen or so teams, beginning the US, race around the world. The race is divided into usually 12 legs, between which teams get a chance to rest. Teams that finish last on each leg are eliminated, though two or three are secretly “non-elimination legs” in which nobody has to leave. Each team has to complete two kinds of tasks on every leg: A “Detour,” which gives the team a choice between two different tasks, and a “Roadblock,” a task that only one member of the team can perform.

The Catchup Mechanic

When I wrote about TCG design several months ago, I mentioned that one of the benefits of learning about it is watching the designers make mistakes, learn lessons, and implement changes in public instead of having to read about the process second-hand. The same logic applies to The Amazing Race’s course and challenge design, particularly in the way it stops a team from rocketing so far ahead that nobody else could ever catch up to them.

This was a major problem in the finale of the first season, which saw the three remaining teams so far away from each other that it was a foregone conclusion as to who would win. Since then, the show has included several measures to stop this from happening.

The most obvious way The Amazing Race allows other teams to catch up is through mandatory transportation. For example, early legs frequently require the teams to travel using three specific flights, each of which depart an hour or two from each other. In this way, faster teams get a slight advantage that isn’t crushing and the weakest teams don’t immediately fall off and become completely unable to catch up.

However, putting the entire race on rails isn’t something the audience – or the producers – want to see, so a lot of ways The Amazing Race handles its catchup mechanics feel more natural. The most common way is, once again, transportation: Even without the show mandating which flights to take, there aren’t too many last-minute flights from Prague to Harare on any given day, so teams will naturally settle into two or three flights.

Making some tasks take place in museums or other locations with opening and closing hours also creates a bottleneck of leading teams that arrive there before hours. Sometimes, this completely equalizes teams; in other cases, it shortens the last team’s eight-hour gap to one hour. It also provides the fun visual of all these cutthroat teams sleeping on the street in front of the task location and getting stared at by locals.

The U-Turn

The other thing I wanted to discuss with regards to The Amazing Race’s game design is how it handled the U-Turn, a recurring feature meant to add more politics into the course of the race. From Season 5 to Season 12, the show used something called a Yield instead; in both features, one team may nominate another team to be delayed, but have to “sign” it so the other team knows who backbit them.

When a team got Yielded, they had to turn over an hourglass and wait for about half an hour to continue. When a team is U-turned, they have to go back and do the second task of a Detour. Realistically, these both take about the same amount of time and don’t change the basic strategy and composition of the race to the racers. So why was the change put in?

This is where The Amazing Race’s peculiar situation comes in. The vast majority of games are made to be fun for the people playing them, but because it’s TV, the main group the race is meant to entertain is the audience. Therefore, the Yield was changed to the U-Turn not because it was causing problems to the contestants but because it made for more compelling television. After all, watching a team struggle to complete the Detour task they didn’t want is a lot better than watching two people impatiently tap their feet in front of an hourglass.

One might expect that this has nothing to do with games, but there are several genres where attention isn’t paid to if one or more players is having fun. Most notably, role-playing games sometimes put too much of a burden on the GM, expecting them to not only entertain the other players but keep track of a huge amount of fiddly rules. Knowing who’s supposed to be having fun at all stages of your game is important, and U-Turns serve as an interesting lesson about it.


I heartily recommend The Amazing Race if you’re filing receipts, working out at the gym, or performing some other task where you’d like to be entertained. But if you’re a game designer, there’s a surprising amount you can learn from Phil Keoghan’s international gauntlet of pain. Don’t brush it off just because it’s a reality show – the producers have ridiculously high stakes that they have to meet, and they pay attention to the details of the race as much as any designer you could care to name cares about their game. Take what you can, and enjoy the race!