Action Points Allowance Systems
For many years games would only let players take the same action over and over each turn, in chess that action is to move one piece. Then games started letting players pick from a short list of actions but they still could only do one of those actions each turn. While things keep changing, many games still use the pick one from a list of actions mechanic, and for those games, it can (and often does) work well. Over the years designers have begun to introduce the idea that players could take several actions in the same turn, this has given players the ability to do more combinations and feel that they have more control over what was going on in the game.
Deciding how many actions the players get each turn and how other players should be able to react to this string of actions has also evolved over time. Some games let players do one action for each of their game pieces on the board, while others limit the player’s total actions per turn to a set amount. Many worker placement games have players taking turns up to the limit of workers (actions) they have left each round. All of these are the foundation pieces for what has now become known as the Action Point Allowance System or just the Action Point (AP) mechanic for short.
In a simple form, any time a player can take a limited number of actions from a larger list of possible actions each turn, you are dealing with some form of an AP mechanic. However, there are other things to consider when building this mechanic into a game, and there are times when it may not be the best option depending on the game.
Many times, the way designers have added this mechanic is non-intuitive, or maybe I should say, added in an arbitrary manner or as an afterthought or just because it is cool. Starting with just a list of things the designer wants the players to be able to do, but also wanting to tactically limit the players so they can only do a few of the things from that list each turn. But this is only the start.
To build this mechanic into a game effectively and have it make sense to the players in an intuitive way, you as the designer need to understand what the APs will represent within the framework of the game’s mechanics and the game’s theme. This will help to form what the list of actions should look like and also where the actions belong in the flow of the gameplay.
What to do Action Points (APs) represent in the game?
There are several ways to think about how the mechanic should be used within the framework and theme of a game. The way you think about this mechanic from the start will help shape many things about how you implement it into the game. The first way is to think about the action points as units of time, this makes each turn represent only one manageable slice of time that is then subdivided into a number of action points players can spend to take actions. Another way to think of APs is as units of stamina or effort or energy, this would make each turn encompass how much a person or ship or empire can get done before they get tired and need to rest, or run out of resources and need to resupply. APs can represent anything that you as a designer want it to.
Before we dig too much into the design challenges this mechanic faces, let me talk a little more about how this mechanic is formed and tell you about an interesting variant. This mechanic is formed when players have more action choices than they have action points to spend each turn. Each possible player action can have one or more APs assigned to it as a cost. APs become a type of currency within a game. It is, in fact, a currency type resource that can be handled just like any other currency by both the designer and the player. This makes words like spend/save/share/lose/gain/steal/invest/pay/give/take/earn/borrow more important when building this mechanic into a game. Thinking about it this way, when dealing with player motivation and player interaction can help to craft the mechanic to fit the experience you want to give the players.
In player motivation, a higher risk action with a low action point cost might appeal to risk taking type player, while a more conservative player might be willing to spend more action points on something less risky. I do understand that this can be difficult to balance, but the sooner you as a designer become familiar with how risk and reward and cost and benefit balance the sooner you will be able to build more dynamic and interesting game mechanics. This type of familiarity only truly comes from research, testing and practice that is why it is called gaining experience…
In a similar way, the player interaction can be more easily built around concepts like share, borrow, and steal. But how many times have those words been use to talk about action points? Because they are a type of currency, why not let players save unused action points from turn-to-turn, or invest an action point this turn hoping to get 3 in return on some future turn. These mechanical ideas are only limited by a designer’s creativity and the limits of the game’s type and theme. It would not make a lot of sense in a two player combat game for players to be able to share action points, but there might be a way for them to steal them from each other. So, each part of this mechanic needs to fall into the range of what makes sense given the type of game you are making.
Having many choices but limited options give players a measure of freedom but at the same time boxes them in. It can give players the power to chain actions together into action sets, and can also allow the players to decide what order the actions are completed in. It is a mechanic that can be quickly adapted to increase or limit player power and player choices because most things in the game are all organized into one simple list from the start. In some ways, the more freedom you give the players the less you have as a designer and vice versa.
Command Points (variant)
While it may seem like the same thing as a player action point allowance system, this variant of giving a pool of action points that can only be used on in-game units changes both a player’s motivations and the way they perceive the choice between possible actions. Under this variant, the player can activate or take actions only with a limited number of the units they control in the game. Also, this is a sub-action within the game as the player during their turn might have other actions other than “spend command points” or “activate units”. In a way, it is like embedding an action point allowance system within another game.
Regardless of any other factors, one of the main reasons to use an action point system is to add tactical angst to the player’s turn. Having the players always wanting or needing just one or two more points each turn in order to really get it all done. This can be one design goal of a well-crafted version of this mechanic. But just having more options is not always better for the players.
Action Point Issues
I do not feel that this mechanic has arrived at its final destination in game design. There are still some things designers need to work out in order to make the best use of the mechanic in their games. Some of the issues with the mechanic are:
- Turn length & Analysis Paralysis
- Balanced Actions & Costs
- Action Grouping Mismatches
- Unnecessary Complexity
Turn length & Analysis Paralysis
These two are not always as related as people think, while paralysis does lead to longer turns, longer turns can just be because players have more to do each turn. Here are two exaggerated examples to point this out.
Example #1: Players have a list of 10 actions they can do and 8 action points per turn (no repeat actions).
Example #2: Players have a list of 30 actions they can do and 3 action points per turn (no repeat actions).
In #1 regardless of how much time a player thinks about what actions to do, they still need to do 8 actions each turn. This just makes for longer turns even when players know what actions they will take. The #2 is a recipe for Analysis Paralysis, there are just too many options to pick from and too few that can be taken each turn, obviously, this will lead to longer turns because players will just not be able to make up their minds quickly. But as you can see, if you design the game to have more actions taken each turn, it will just take longer to play (and you can’t always blame analysis paralysis). Longer turns are not always a problem that needs to be solved, just an issue that may not be what you as the designer intended from the start. As with many other issues in design, once you know about it, you will have an easier time working to mitigate it. In this case, making sure that the ratio of actions to action points each turn is in line with the flow and pace you want in the game.
Balanced Actions & Costs
Balance in larger mechanics is almost always an issue that designers face. There are two types of balance issues here; one for the cost to benefit ratio of the actions and another for how the actions balance together as ideas so they make sense to the players. The first we will call a normal type of balance and the second we will call action group mismatches.
The first balance issue is between action cost and action impact. This is a normal balance issue that comes into play when some actions have a higher AP cost than other similar actions or when all actions have the same cost but some have very different levels of impact on gameplay. The good news is APs are not harder to balance than other mechanics, the bad news is, it is the same amount of work as all the rest.
Design Tip: Try your best to have each action only cost what that action is worth, while at the same time keeping all other actions of that same level of benefit at a similar or equal cost.
Because action points are just like a currency as I pointed out above, the method of balancing them is almost the same, cost to benefit ratios all need to fall in line along the game’s overall power curve. Another way to say this is that a one-point action gives one-point benefit while a two-point action gives a two-point benefit, and so on. One mistake designers make is trying to balance items from different levels of the same power curve. More on the subject of balance.
Action Group Mismatches
Action group mismatches are when the list of actions players may do each turn is arbitrary thrown together. This makes some of the actions in the list will seem off or out of place to the players. Designers need to decide from the start how they will treat the APs in the game so they will feel consistent to the players.
To understand this issue better think about the phrase “one of these things is not like the others”. If one or two of the action choices are very dissimilar to all the rest they will feel odd in the flow of the game. There may be a good design reason that a player needs to have those extra action choices but if those actions are treated the same as the rest it will just not feel natural to the players. One way to solve this issue is to group actions into phases within game rounds. Actions in each phase would be grouped by purpose and how the affect things in the game. This helps to organize the flow of the game and adds logical separation between actions that fit together.
Combat Phase: Move/Run/Attack/Defend
Town Phase: Buy/Sell/Trade/Upgrade/Rest
Keep the all mechanics organized, keep them simple and explain it all in as few words as you can!
Unnecessary complexity is an issue with this mechanic mostly because it can have so many moving parts, but it is also because the designers who use this type of mechanic bring this issue with them wherever they go (and you know who you are). I am this way too! All too often the games we design have more things in them than they need. One of the hardest things to do in game design is cut off the babies foot, to save its hand! If you have a list of 10-15 actions you want the players to be able to do… it is very likely that 4-6 of them are not needed and are just adding complexity for the sake of complexity itself.
Games and puzzles are not the same things and while some games have puzzles in them and you can make doing a puzzle into a game, they are not to be confused with the same thing. But don’t lose heart, for every designer who loves complexity, there are thousands of player who love it too… finding them to play the game is the real problem.
Giving a player action points is like giving a bag of money to a child, they may not know what to do with it at first, but once they do they want to buy it all. Take some extra time to make sure the actions are organized into groups that make sense with your mechanics, theme, and what the action points represent in the game. Cover each action in the rules, don’t just reference the list and expect the players to understand. This is another large topic, and I have only just scratched the surface of what it is all about.
Note: Someday a designer might have an action point system run the main phase of a game and a worker placement action selection system run another phase… and then use command points for the combat phase… it might be me… unless you do it first! Do keep in mind that too many “awesome” complex systems can lead to Analysis Paralysis.
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.”