Board Games 101: Chapter 1 - Drafting
The Board Game 101 series of articles attempts to demystify the jargon that pervades the board game hobby. Each chapter covers terms that are common in describing hobby board games. In addition to a light mechanical description of common game systems, Board Game 101 will also explain how these terms fit into the hobby.
Drafting is a mechanic that appears in many board games. Drafting is a very broad idea, but in general drafting is a way to distribute game items to players. A game can have players draft a wide variety of game items such as cards, dice, and tokens. The specifics of a particular game’s draft can vary, as well. Because the concept of drafting is so broad, we’ll start with a simple example game and build from there.
Sushi Go! is a small, adorable card game that features drafting as its one and only mechanic. Sushi Go! represents one of the simplest and most common types of draft, that can be called a “pick-and-pass” draft.
Each player is dealt a hand of 7 sushi cards. All players take their turn at the same time, to pick one card out of their hand and set it on the table in front of them, face-down. Once all the players have made a choice, they all reveal which card they picked and pass the remaining 6 cards to the next player. This is the building block of most any kind of draft - picking and passing.
Players then repeat this process. This means that the hands they pass will diminish by one card each pass, and conversely, each player’s pile of picked cards will grow by one each pass. Eventually, all the cards will be picked, and that ends that particular draft.
In Sushi Go!, players then tally up the points they earned from the cards they drafted, reshuffle all the cards into the deck, and do two more drafts at the end of the game. There is very little content in Sushi Go! besides its draft. However, as mentioned before, there’s a wide variety of implementations of drafting.
7 Wonders is another well-known drafting game and plays very similarly to Sushi Go!. There’s three rounds of pick-and-pass drafting, and players reveal their choice simultaneously before choosing again. Where 7 Wonders differs from Sushi Go! is in the complexity of the cards. In Sushi Go!, cards merely represent different ways of scoring points; in 7 Wonders, the cards are building blocks of a civilization that represent natural resources, markets, civic buildings, and military forces.
Magic: The Gathering
Drafting is a very large part of trading card games as well, such as Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering. The concept of pick-and-pass drafting almost certainly originated in Magic, as a natural extension of its randomized booster pack system. In TCG drafting, players draft cards from freshly-opened booster packs. They build a “draft pool” from which they build decks, and compete in a small tournament with their new decks. To further extend the role in drafting in Magic, many players build draft cubes, which is a collection of 300 to 800 hand-picked cards to build a particular metagame (more on metagames later).
Inis, Bunny Kingdom, and Isle of Cats
As with many board game mechanics, a single mechanic can be integrated into a larger, more complex game. The focus of Inis is a territory control game like Risk or Axis & Allies, where players deploy and move Celt figures around a map to control different strongholds. However the cards that let players deploy and move Celts are distributed amongst players in a draft. Similar to Inis, Bunny Kingdom is another territory game, where players draft cards that determine which territories their bunnies can occupy, but cards can also represent unique scoring goals. Isle of Cats is a Tetris-like polyomino game at its core, supported by a drafting engine.
And, going further into the deep end of the pool, large complex games like Terraforming Mars have many mechanics and systems to score victory points. However drafting is still the core focus of Terraforming Mars, and where the majority of the game’s strategy comes from.
The Sushi Go!-style pick-and-pass draft is pretty typical for drafting games and drafting mechanics. There are still a lot of little tweaks that designers make, so that a draft fits the rest of the game’s mechanics and provides a unique, interesting experience.
In almost every draft game, there are three rounds of drafting, and the passing direction (pass to your left, or pass to your right) alternates with every round. Some games, like Bunny Kingdom, might have 4 rounds instead, and some games like Inis will alter the passing direction mid-round, like playing Reverse cards in Uno.
Some games are still considered drafting games even though they don’t use cards. Sagrada is a dice drafting game, where each round of drafting is preceded by rolling a handful of multicolored dice. Players draft dice one-by-one to add to their player board, based on the color and values they need. Sagrada also uses a “snake” draft variant, where each player makes one pick in turn, then the turn order reverses. This is an elegant way to balance a draft, as the players who get strong early picks in a round are balanced by getting weak late picks, and players who get mediocre picks get strong back-to-back picks.
Azul is an excellent tile drafting game, and instead of drafting single tiles, players draft tiles in lots. Choosing which lot to draft is critical strategy in Azul.
Drafts typically require three or more players, and often, the ideal number of players in a draft are upwards of 5 or 7, or 8 in TCG drafts. In order to “pad out” a draft and make it nicer to play with fewer players, games might employ a variant that has players discard a random card at the end of each round of picking. This loosely simulates a “phantom” player making picks and removing potentially desirable cards from a round.
One common variation of the pick-and-pass draft is throwing away the last card in a round. When a player is passed two cards to choose from, they choose one to keep, and the other card is put in a discard pile. This variation is used when scarcity of information is important to a game.
In that same vein, a lot of games don’t require players to reveal their picks before picking again. Players keep their cards secret until the drafting phase ends. Magic: The Gathering and other TCG drafts do this as players build their draft pools. Of course, this informs a strategy called signaling, where players try to anticipate who has drafted what, based on little information.
Context and Strategy
In game design terms, drafts are a way to distribute resources or components to players. This makes them like an engine, providing the means for players to achieve victory, but not providing victory itself (like victory points). Drafts are very good at this, too, for a number of reasons. Firstly, drafts use what's called “input randomness.” This is very good for a strategic game that rewards good decision-making, instead of rewarding luckiness. The cards or whatever are shuffled and randomized, then players make decisions based on that random shuffle. Secondly, in almost all drafts, players all act simultaneously. There’s little downtime during a draft, when players are waiting on other players to finish; as opposed to a typical turn order of everyone waiting on one player at every step. Thirdly, they’re subtly interactive. In competitive games, it’s difficult to develop systems of player interaction that aren’t directly aggressive. In a draft, though, players can try to anticipate what other players want, and must balance picking for one’s own benefit, or “hate-drafting” and denying their opponents good options.
The basic general strategy in a draft is to pick the card that gives you the most points. As a universal rule of thumb, unless a game is designed for hate-drafting, or you have no good picks, go with the pick that benefits you the most. This is because you give up one of your limited number of picks to hold one other player down, which gives everyone else in the draft get ahead a little bit. Usually this amounts to a net loss for the player hate-drafting.
The exception to this is if there are no useful picks in a hand. Your pick isn’t doing any work for you anyway, so might as well hate-draft. Of course, the ideal pick is a card that not only benefits you, but also denies a good card to everyone else; although this would be obvious and uninteresting, and a well-designed drafting game would avoid making such universally-desired cards.
Probably the ultimate in drafting strategy is signaling. This is a very skill-intensive strategy that considers what opponents are picking, by understanding what they’re not picking (and passing to you). For example, in 7 Wonders, if you have a hand with several military cards, and when that hand returns to you with military cards still in it, it’s a strong signal that your opponents aren’t pursuing military strategies.
This requires a familiarity with the cards in the set as a whole. Reading signals can be taxing on your memory, concentration and valuation skills as you remember what good cards have been passed and which ones aren’t coming back to you. This also interacts with the draft’s metagame. The metagame is, simply, what cards could potentially appear in a draft, and what strategies are available to opponents, and how to respond to them.
Signaling came from high-level Magic drafting, where players compete in draft tournaments for cash prizes. A lot of information on signaling in Magic drafts is easily available on the internet, if one is so inclined to learn the skill. While casual board game drafting doesn’t necessarily demand such an intense skill, it will still raise the level of competition in drafting board games from Sushi Go! to Terraforming Mars.