Set Collection

This workhorse of a mechanic has historically filled many roles in games. This has been everything from the core mechanic of a game all the way down to a small sub-mechanic that you might not have realized was even set collection. Games like Gin Rummy, and Go Fish, are examples of games where the core mechanic is set collection. Monopoly, Ticket to Ride, and 7 Wonders are all games that have a heavy use of set collection, but they also have other mechanics that play a large role in shaping the gameplay. Then there are games like Forbidden Desert that have many other mechanics all working toward the singular goal of making a set. Did I lose anyone?

Understand, Forbidden Desert is not a set collection game (in the traditional sense), but it does have one set to collect. The players need to find all of the parts to fix their ship… collecting this one set of components is the goal of the game. As a workhorse mechanic, no matter what role set collection has in building gameplay, it is capable of filling that role. This means deciding how much of a role set collection will have in your game is the first step.

What is Set Collection?

Set: “A group or collection of things that belong together, resemble one another, or are usually found together.”

Collection: “The action or process of collecting someone or something.”

Set collection can also be used to fill up or flesh out a game. It can do this with or without becoming the overall goal of the game. When building sets in games, players might need to do one action or many different actions to earn the parts of the set. Players might be trying to build the same sets, this can make a game more dynamic. This brings us to a place where we can start asking questions about what makes set collection something you might want to add to a game you are designing. What parts make up the set collection mechanic?

  • Component & Set Definitions (what factors define each item within each set of items)
  • Actions (what needs to be done to collect the components and how to use the sets)
  • Results (what the player gains from a completed set)

The individual set components can be almost anything. This goes beyond just the physical characteristics of the components. Things like cards, tokens, chits, dice can have shape, color, patterns, text and other distinguishing characteristics that can determine their place in a set. The components of a set can be grouped by physical or logical characteristics. Deciding the level of ambiguity to have within the component’s properties will allow for a wider definition of what makes a set. Instead of 4 red items, you might need 4 first aid items. How you choose to represent each component physically and logically will help determine that parts place in your set definitions.

Example: Having a “cloth item” that can be part of either “the first aid kit” as a bandage or “the sewing kit” as a patch.

What actions the player must take to obtain or acquire the individual components of the sets and then what actions are needed in order to make use of those sets will determine the flow of set collection within gameplay. Players might draw cards from a deck, grab tokens out of a bag, auction/buy, or visit a location on the game board to earn or get one of the components. In many games, once a player has collected all of the components of a set, the game automatically turns that set into something like victory points. But the player might still need to wait for their turn or visit a location on the board where they can “turn in” the set before they gain the benefit of completing that set.

So, what is the result of a player building a set in your game? In many games set collection has been directly tied to points that help them win the game. However, in some games set collection is more subtle for how each set helps the players reach victory while not directly giving them victory points. In role-playing games, a set of gear (matching armor and weapons) can provide bonuses in combat. In other games, a set of resources might form the cost of a building or upgrade to help form an engine that will lead to victory. Such a building or upgrade is the result of having collected a set of resources equal to the cost.

Player Motivation

Much of player motivation in games comes directly from the victory conditions of the game. Because of this, the relationship between set collection and winning the game needs to be carefully considered. Collecting a set might directly give the player victory points or it might merely give them an advantage to aid them along the path to getting victory points, or it can be the outright goal of the game. If set collection is directly tied to victory, players will be very motivated to collect the sets. But if each set provides only a bonus or benefit rather than direct victory points, their motivation will be based on how they perceive the worth of that bonus or benefit within the framework of the strategy they are using to try and win the game. How difficult each set is to complete, compared with the value of the benefit of having that set, these factors will shape how players view the choices between each set.

Design Concept: As designers, we should be thinking about harvest/gather/buy and collect as different names for the same thing. The requirements of a set can be the same a the cost of an item or upgrade. If a player needs to collect 2 iron, 2 leather, and 2 string to craft an item, gathering this SET of component resources is just one form of set collection. Now, this is not to say that getting money and set collection are the same thing. But you do need to start seeing the connective tissues between the mechanics. After all, getting a set of 4 copper coins to buy something is not exactly a form of set collection.

Note: As I pointed out in another article, area control is a core concept in game design and it can influence many aspects of games other than just having the most pieces in a board space. Set Collection is also a concept that is larger than just collecting cards that match in order to earn points.

Example: Let’s look at two forms of set collection in the game of Risk. The first is cards that are collected after successfully making a least one attack on your turn. Sets of these cards are then used on a later turn for bonus number of armies. The second is a bonus number of armies gained from owning a set of territories.

The actions needed for the players to fulfill the requirements of these two forms of set collections are each very different. One involves the collection of cards in a very standard form of set collection and the other involves sometimes many rounds of gameplay, moving armies and conquering territories to own a set of spaces on the game board.

Player interaction

This is a good time to bring up the idea that the sets (or parts of a set) might change hands from one player to another during the game. If more than one player is trying to make the same set and there are not enough components to make two full sets, conflict over the parts to that set will be the result.

There are also many other ways for set collection to create opportunities for player interactions. Trading of set components might be something players do even if the game does not provide rules to govern such actions. Combat (if allowed by the rules) can be the result of one player having part of the set that another player needs. A player might even try to get one part of a set that they know their opponent needs. They would do this, not from a desire to complete that set themselves, but only in order to stop the other player from being able to do so.

Player interaction within the set collection needs to be on the designer’s mind. If you don’t want direct conflict between players, you might need to make sure that each player has unique goals or that there are enough components for each player to be able to build each of the sets. The reverse is therefore also true, should you want conflict, you might need to make sure there are not enough parts to go around or put in place a way for parts to be taken from one player against their will.

Regardless of what a designer might intend, there are many games with set collection where the players choose to interact outside of the established rules (normally in the absence of rules). Everything from forming alliances to exploiting other mechanics to manipulate the set collection to favor themselves or an ally. As a designer, if you want to have a say in how players can or should interact, you need to make sure those interactions are covered in the rules.

Hidden Information

Having hidden information about set components or about the sets themselves can add intrigue to this mechanic. It can create many new variations of how the mechanic is used in games. The game of Clue is based on finding the correct combination of components that form a hidden set. But hidden information does not need to be the focus of the game. The trick with adding hidden information is to provide something interesting for the players to explore and discover without frustrating them by making things too unpredictable.


Much as with hidden information randomness in set collection can add variety to the game, one way to look at this is adding re-play-ability. One of the reasons people still play games like Yahtzee is that the set collection comes from an ever changing dice pool. We humans may not like change but we do tend to like variation, each game of Yahtzee feels a little bit different from the last. If you were to add some randomness or variation to what sets are needed each game, or changed the amounts of each resource available to make sets with, you could create some dynamic combinations that might appeal to some players.

Final Thoughts

As a designer, you can make set collection a large or small part of any game. Keep in mind that this mechanic if done the right way can be the fuel for a lot of interesting player interactions. The more connected set collection is to winning, the large the role it will play in the game. So if you don’t want the set collection to be the focus of player motivations, keep it restricted to only providing help to the players so they can reach victory. Players like variations and a wide variety of options. The more ambiguous you can make the components that create sets, the more of this variety you can fit in with fewer components.

This is intended only as “Food for Thought”. Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.

“Remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!”


“I want to help you embrace the bright hope for your future.”


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s