Runaway Leader Syndrome

Runaway leader syndrome is a situation in which one player gains a seemingly insurmountable lead such that the outcome of the game is forgone conclusion. The more time remaining, the more “dissapointing”, “not fun”, or “trivial” the enjoyment of the game is often considered. This is a subjective judgement of course. Not all games have to go down to the wire to determine a winner. An underdog winner who played poorly and then vaults to the winner’s circle at the last moment can be as fustrating as the Olympian God who outplayed the mortals from the first roll of the die. Normalizing for skill though, good strategy game design should not allow an early leadership position to consistently achieve a lock on winning the game.

How does this relate to positive feedback? The basic assessment is that success breeds more success. It’s a pretty simple observation. The runaway leader is often seen in games with economic systems that underpin the play. The Law of Compound Interest is a frightening thing. The more resources you have the more you can do. The more you do the more resources you can generate. You get the point. With this in mind let’s examine some ways to design a little “breaking” on the feedack.

Structural Limitations: Some game designs have breaking mechanism built into them to retard the potentially exponential growth in a leader’s position. All of these following items basically break down to “add some negative feedback.”

1) Guns or Butter Dilemma: This is the classic tradeoff choice that theoretically should dampen explosive economic growth. If you just make butter and butter makes more people who can make more butter then you will achieve explosive butter output. Guns are needed to protect your butter makers. The more butter makers you have the more guns you need to protect them. Of course some systems let you put those guns to other uses. In a strategy game like Third Reich you can use your guns to capture butter makers. The return might not be as great as if you had created the butter makers yourself but at least you have found an “active” use for the guns in increasing you butter maker inventory.

2) Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns: For each additional unit of input into some system the output is less than the previous. Many systems are simply structured this way. The classic example is agriculture. Pioneers of the dismal science like Robert Malthus examined the trend towards farming less and less productive land as population increased and predicted unhappy consequences for what at the time seemed like explosive population growth. I recently implemented something like this in Armageddon Empires. For each additional initiative die purchased the cost increases. Thus the return on each additional die is less. It wasn’t my idea but I recognized its cleverness when I saw it posted as a suggestion on the Wargamer boards for the game. Runaway resources especially in the late game were a problem I was trying to address and this fit the bill perfectly.

3) Explicit Constraits: These types of mechanics/rules usually set some limit on an attribute or process that regulates growth. In Master of Orion II you had a command points rating based upon technology level and the number of a certain type of facility that you controlled (if I remember correctly). You could only build a number of ships up to this arbitrary level. By regulating the fleet size you ensured that no matter what the strength of a player’s economic base, the military base was constrained. In a game where conquest can fuel a runaway juggernaut this helped restrain a runaway leader….not always successfully however. Action point systems can do this as well. If each player is given a certain fixed amount of action points to spend each turn then a leader sitting on a pile of gold will still be limited in the scope of actions that they can perform.

4) Helping Hand: Some game systems extend a helping hand to the pitiful losers. Power Grid is almost excessive in the benefits it gives to trailing players and the penalties it imposes on leaders. I think it still works and quite well. But the result is a new metagame for jockeying the fine line between losing and winning at any given point which is interesting. Nexus Ops throws the loser of a battle a bone by giving them bonus cards. It’s a subtle way to throw in some negative feedback.

These are just a few observations from off of the top of my head. In a future entry on strategy game design, I am going to address bandwagoning, balance of power and king making in some fashion. They relate directly to runaway leaders. Plus I always liked reading about them when I was doing my graduate work in national security affairs.

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