The Crescendo-of-Doom Mechanic

A while back, designer Michael Iachini of Clay Crucible Games wrote an excellent post about what he called the Crescendo mechanic. According to Iachini, this occurs whenever “something a player could choose gets… more valuable the longer it goes unchosen.” Even though I had never thought about this as a mechanic before, I immediately knew exactly what he meant.

Crescendo means that a sub-par option becomes more favorable over time, due to increasing utility gains. While Iachini has plenty of examples in his post, my favorite has to be the Prospector role in Puerto Rico. Every turn, players take turns choosing one of the many roles in the game. Choosing the Prospector grants a single gold, which is almost never worthwhile when compared to what you could gain with other roles. However, each round, one extra gold piece is placed on any role not chosen, granting an incentive to grab those roles next time.

The bluffing game my friends and I played during Puerto Rico was all about seeing how long we could let money pile up on the Prospector before someone jumped on it. Two? Three? There are only so many rounds available in Puerto Rico before one player wins, and it hurts to squander a round on a sub-par choice. So this became a quick catch up mechanic, giving the player with the least efficient round the opportunity to jump in with a pile of cash.

But what about a sub-par option that gets worse over time? Cities and Knights of Catan features the Barbarian Horde. As the game progresses, players must use some of their resources to defend the land against the barbarians. If the land is defended, the player who defends the most gets a benefit. If the land is not successful in its defense, the player who defended the least gets punished. Spending resources to stay in the middle always feels like a waste, and it gets more and more tense as the barbarians get closer.

Another great example is fighting against the siege engines in Shadows Over Camelot. Getting twelve on the board at once means instantly losing the game, but beating them doesn’t grant the player anything at all. Finishing other quests can give you a reward, but fighting the siege engines means you slowly lose cards and gain nothing for your efforts. Especially if the traitor of Camelot is in a mood to place catapults, this is simply a losing proposition. Instead of helping everyone win, your job is to slow down a coming defeat.

In each of these scenarios, there is a benefit to choosing the sub-par option. It just isn’t the best thing you could do. And between Crescendos and… whatever this is called, the biggest difference is that instead of waiting for a moment of great utility, you’re waiting for the moment when you will be most hurt if you don’t choose the sub-par option. Which means these are perfect examples of the Volunteer’s Dilemma in action—choosing to take a less beneficial outcome to benefit the rest of the group.

What am I supposed to call this? If I stick with the tempo theme, I could go with “Accelerando,” for gradually speeding up. Or “Symphony of Destruction?” Maybe “Falling into the Abyss?” Send me your thoughts on Twitter!