Track Meet – The best and worst of scoring tracks

by Gil Hova

My newest game The Networks has a scoring track. It’s been a bit of a pain at times, but it’s let me do things I wouldn’t be have been easily able to do otherwise. It’s also made me think a lot about what makes a good and bad scoring track. Let’s check out some theory and practice behind this humble component.

A scoring track, at its simplest, is a track that allows players to keep some value of theirs (usually their score) visible and public to all the other players. Plenty of games use them. Here’s an example of a very good scoring track, Stone Age.

Image credit: BGG user “vekoma”

Here are a few reasons why this is an excellent scoring track:

  • It is a circuit. If you need to go from 95 points to 100, you just lap around the 0.
  • It goes from 0-99. Players who lap the scoring track simply need to add a 1 to the front of their scores.
  • There is an image of a primitive wheel behind every 10-point space. This callout makes adding up large scores easy.
  • Players use easily-stacked discs to keep track of their scores.

The only thing this particular game is missing is special markers that indicate which players have exceeded 100 points.

Now let’s look at what makes a not-so-good scoring track: the original track for Alhambra.

Image credit: BGG user “Gelatinous Goo”

What makes this scoring track less than ideal?

  • It serpentines. Sometimes it goes left, other times it goes right. Therefore, players often accidentally move scoring tokens the wrong way.
  • It loops at 120 instead of 99. It’s very common in this game to exceed 120 points, so players have to decide if looping players move their markers to the 1 spot and add 120 or move to the 21 spot and add 100. The second is easier, but not always intuitive, and it assumes everyone explicitly understands the convention.

Serpentining is not always bad if it’s done judiciously and thoughtfully. Here is the scoring track for In the Year of the Dragon.

Image credit: BGG user “toulouse”

This one is interesting on two levels. First off, the outer scoring track has a couple of small bends at the top to accommodate a discard area. This is close to a serpentine, but it’s small enough that players aren’t thrown off. I’ve found that players can tolerate small bends like that. If you’re having trouble trying to find enough space to fit a 100-point track, consider some small bends like this.

The second interesting part is that there are two tracks. The inner track is meant for turn order. It loops at 60, but players rarely lap, and turn order gets increased by small-enough increments that making the move from under 60 to over isn’t such a big deal.

Okay, so how about another not-so-good scoring track? This one is from Prosperity.

Image credit: BGG user “lacxox”

This one is pretty painful. It serpentines very tightly, and is very unclear to all players exactly which direction the scoring cubes should go at any given point. The serpentining also makes it quite difficult to know at a glance how players are doing positionally versus other players if they’re in the same row. A cube further left in its column than a cube in another column could be ahead or behind, depending on which bend it’s on.

The score numbers are also difficult to make out, and the track only laps at 50 points. I’ve found from experience that players do not like tracks that lap at any value other than 100 if lapping happens a lot. Even 50, which seems like it would be a safe number, isn’t as good as 100.

So why have a scoring track at all? Because having a scoring track opens up positional heuristics. These are strategies and rules of thumb that players will use depending on if they are first or last. A player who knows she is in second place may play conservatively if confronting the player in last place, or aggressively if confronting the leader. A scoring track makes these positions explicit.

Compare this with a game like Puerto Rico, which has no scoring track. Players keep track of points with scoring chips they keep face-down in front of them and with points they gain from constructing buildings. As a result, players don’t know definitively who is winning. They may have an idea who is doing better than whom, but the final results are often surprising.

Scoring tracks can also allow in-game mechanisms based on player position. The auction game The Scepter of Zavandor (based on Outpost) is a good example. Every round, players are handicapped based on their total score. The players in the lead must pay more at auction, while the players in the back pay less.

This sort of mechanism would be very tricky to implement without a scoring track. Making players’ scores explicit allows the game to provide handicaps that would be tricky to do otherwise.

Making the scores explicit also enables positional heuristics. If the leader seems interested in a high-VP item, players may want to bid her up just to make sure she doesn’t get it for a low price. They may be less concerned if it winds up going to the player in the back.

Another game with a nice twist on its scoring track is Primordial Soup.

Image credit: BGG user “dougadamsau”

This scoring track doesn’t lap, but it doesn’t need to; one of the endgame conditions is if a player reaches the darker spaces at the end of the track. It also employs a handicap; players in the lead move last on the board, which is a significant disadvantage.

But most interestingly: there are no ties. Players ignore occupied spaces on the track when scoring. This is a wonderful rubberbanding mechanism that allows players in the back to dramatically leapfrog other players. It would be impossible without a scoring track.

What about a game that lets you play directly on the scoring track? In fact, there are many of those out there. Here’s one.

Image credit: BGG user “rsolow”

Formula D is a racing game with no victory points, but since the first player to cross the finish line wins, the scoring track is effectively the game! This is the case with a lot of racing games.

So if you are in the back, it’s very clear that you need to catch up. If you’re in the front, you know you can race more conservatively.

This brings up a weakness I see in a lot of racing games: they generally punish the players who are trying to go too fast. This is in theme, but is also why a lot of players find racing games frustrating. The players trying to go the fastest aren’t the ones in the lead; they’re the ones in the back trying to catch up. So if you’re designing a racing game, your supposed rubberbanding mechanism may actually be a snowball mechanism; you may actually be keeping the last-place players from doing better!

I recently re-acquired the incredible horse racing game TurfMaster. It has an incredible handicapping mechanism that specifically targets the leaders: the player in first may only move 8 spaces at most, the player in second 9 spaces, and the player in third 10 spaces. But players may move as far as 12 spaces if they have the cards or dice that let them, so the players in 4th place and further have a nice advantage.

This may seem artificial at first glance, but turns out to feel much like horse racing. No player can lead the entire race; instead, they must try to stay with the pack and time their charge at the very end. What helps is that each player has “joker” cards that allow them to break the handicap. But they only get a few, so hand management and race planning become crucial.

So if you’re working on a game with a scoring track, or with any sort of explicit positional mechanism, you may want to take advantage of what a scoring track can let you do. They’re more powerful than they first appear.