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Action Drafting Mechanic

For millennia, rulers all around the world have gained, displayed, and employed their power by drafting citizens for armies, road construction, and colossal building projects. Without the ability to draft people and resources for various purposes, these leaders would really have very little power.

Finally, in more recent years, we have gotten tired of being left on the draftee end of the exchange and have decided to become the draftors—wresting our very own sense of power and control by inventing drafting for board and card games.

Action drafting is a useful mechanic that involves the conscious selection of actions from a similar, shared, or partially shared pool.

Together let’s look at some of the ways that action drafting has been used in board games in the past in order to create an experience-based guide for how we can identify it in other games and use it well in tabletop games we create.

Overview of Action Drafting

Action drafting, as we use it here, refers to actions that are selected from a shared or individual supply that reduces the availability of that action in the future. Actions selected by removing a component and actions selected by placing a worker or marker piece are subsets of action drafting, and will be described in subsequent articles. For our purposes, action drafting as a mechanic describes making an action without taking components or placing workers. Frequently, action drafting includes a mechanism to reset actions to create a new available supply.

One of my favorite games that includes action drafting as a primary mechanism is Chicago Express. This game includes shared actions that may only be taken a set number of times per round, including Auction, Develop, and Expand. As these actions are selected or drafted, a ticker marks the remaining times that action may be taken that round. Once two out of three actions have reached their limit, that round ends with a dividend phase and the next round begins as all three tickers are reset to their starting positions.

That is a good example of action drafting from a limited pool, but some games employ action drafting in a less limited fashion, such as Chess. In Chess, each player has a set of pieces that represent different actions that may be taken to affect the board in a special way. In this case, players begin with the same action options, but the actions that each player drafts affect the other player in various ways.

Board and card games can employ action drafting in many different ways, and action drafting can be a great resource for board and card game designers alike.

Important Considerations with Action Drafting

Action drafting in games should usually be balanced for all players. This may be accomplished by making action options available to all players in a shared pool, by giving all players duplicate action options that they may use as desired, or by giving players access to different action options in a balanced way.

Forbidden Island, for example, employs a very limited type of action drafting that is individual to each player by assigning each player a special ability that may be drafted, or employed, once per turn. These abilities vary from player to player, but are generally balanced as to their usefulness and strength.

Action drafting in board games might take on familiar forms such as the shared available action pool in Chicago Express or the varying player abilities in Forbidden Island, or it could have different decks, boards, or options that become available as players take various actions or activate their abilities. Many options exist for using boards, cards, and other components that enable actions to be drafted as needed. Another example might be in Dominion, where selecting and purchasing cards employs a card drafting mechanic, but playing those cards each turn employs an action drafting mechanic.

Action drafting in card games is a little more tough to find, but can still be used. One example is Ahead in the Clouds, where specific double-sided cards represent buildings, and when each building is used that card is flipped to reveal a different option on the other side. This keeps the option set continually rotating, and is a very simple way to visually track what actions are taken on each turn. I haven’t yet played this particular game, but the mechanic it uses for its buildings is quite intriguing and sparks a lot of potential ideas that can be used in future card games.

Cautions and Tips for Using Action Drafting

Action drafting should usually have various limits in order to be meaningful. While games like Trekking the National Parks and others successfully use action drafting to provide a selection of actions that may be taken each turn by any player, using action drafting in this way can easily start to feel mundane or pointless.

Potential solutions to avoid this problem might be to provide a sufficient variety in possible actions, to limit actions’ availability by number of uses or by specific players, or to design conditions that make potential action sets change over the course of the game. One game that does this well is Villainous, in which players take on the roles of different villains with different objectives. Each turn, each player must move his or her villain token to a new region that provides a different set of potential actions for that turn. This keeps players engaged in planning their turns carefully, and thinking ahead about what actions they need to keep available for future turns.

Action drafting can be a great base mechanic for a board or card game, as long as it is regulated in meaningful ways that provide interesting decisions throughout the game. As a general rule, the more limitations that go into potential action drafting in a game, the more thinking and decision making will play a part in that game.

What are some interesting ways you have seen action drafting be used as a part of a game? How else can action drafting be used in innovative ways? Please comment below with your thoughts!

Examples of Games with Action Drafting

  • Ahead in the Clouds
  • Chess
  • Chicago Express
  • Forbidden Island
  • Trekking the National Parks
  • Villainous

Are there other game mechanics or topics you would like to see explored further? Please comment below with any requests.