Since the 1940s, the humble guardrail has protected drivers all over the world from themselves and each other. This critical piece of highway infrastructure helps prevent deadly head-on crashes, and comes in a variety of styles depending on the needs of your transport system. For the rest of this article, I will go into detail on the history and uses of guardrails.
Just kidding. But did you know that games have guardrails too, and they’re just as important? Only instead of preventing you from dying in a fiery car crash, they prevent you from being frustrated for 90 minutes.
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The game that inspired me to write this article, ironically, is one that has a significant lack of guardrails: The Princes of Florence.
Princes of Florence is an auction game with some tile-laying elements. Players bid on various buildings, landscape features, and clowns to get better work from the artists in their colony, which they can then sell for more money. What’s significant about the game, however, is that when you sell a work, you can choose any ratio of victory points and cash that you want, and that this is by far the most common way to get VP.
So although this means there are a lot of ways to play the game, it’s also very easy to shoot yourself in the foot. If you don’t grant yourself enough money after selling a work, you won’t be able to catch up with the other players or the slowly increasing point minimum for works. If you aren’t VP-greedy enough, you will never be able to catch up to your opponent. The fact that this game was made in 2000, when games were significantly less user-friendly, is apparent in the lack of mechanics that constrain players’ choices in favor of dangerous liberty.
The Goal of Guardrails
A game’s “guardrails” are its mechanics that allow players to remain in the game with the ability to take meaningful actions until the end. What this actually means depends on the type of game.
An example of a game with good guardrails: In Concordia, a slow start can price you out from building trading houses. Fortunately, the Prefect card (which allows you to get any good available on the board) and Mercator card (which lets you exchange money for goods and vice versa) mean you’re never in a position where it’s impossible for you to participate in the game’s economy. Concordia especially demonstrates the nuance of a good guardrail mechanic, because the Prefect card rewards players who built all over the board while allowing someone who needs two cloth to get back into the game their out.
Strategy games construct their guardrails in many different ways. Here’s just a few of them:
- Tzolk’in: You need corn (currency) to place workers. If you don’t have enough corn on your turn, you can lose VP to beg for enough corn to continue. This normally accrues a penalty, but if you’ve gotten into such a bad situation that you can literally take no moves without begging for corn, the gods (and designer) take pity on you and you can get the corn for free.
- Galaxy Trucker: The “Ship Insurance” mechanic caps the amount of credits you lose at the end of a round for your ship’s components getting blown up.
- Ra: You always have four opportunities to win auctions each round. Having no high-numbered Sun tiles means you’re less likely to win large pots, not that you can’t belly up to the table.
Some very common guardrails are making actions more valuable in later rounds (Modern Art) and keeping rounds entirely separate so that an early mistake isn’t a disaster (Libertalia and the aforementioned Galaxy Trucker).
Guardrails have a lot in common with catchup mechanics, but the big difference is that a guardrail doesn’t care if you can’t win the game anymore: In the games mentioned above, you can easily put yourself in a situation where victory is wildly unlikely. A guardrail mostly cares that you can’t play the game anymore. In a sense, it’s more about preventing pseudo-player elimination.
If your game has any kind of economy, try to notice in playtests when players get locked into non-action. Is there a situation where a player has no equity that can be turned into resources somehow? In that case, consider adding an emergency action (like discarding cards for money in Terraforming Mars) that can allow someone to claw their way back into empire-building.
If you’re building a combat game, can someone never fight back against a vastly superior opponent, but at the same time be able to keep playing the game in a futile struggle? You may consider making the game more gentle, so this player still has a chance, or more brutal, so the game’s over more quickly. As a case study, Nexus Ops’ guardrail is that the method of gaining victory points is through individual achievements instead of board dominance, so whether you’ve conquered the board is only sometimes relevant to whether you’re able to win.
Essentially, assume your players will make the worst decisions available to them and see what situation that gets them in. Can they still laugh and have fun, or is it a frustrating grind? Try to skew your game more towards the former.
This article was mostly written as a historical examination, as guardrails are so common in modern board games it’s the exceptions (Food Chain Magnate, for example) that are notable. However, situations involving guardrails or lack thereof appear frequently in early builds, and recognizing when you need to create a floor for how badly a player can do is an important step in the development process. If this article helps make those situations more visible, it’s a success.