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Friday, May 11, 2012

distilling the nfl draft

A recent tweet reminded me that I have a "fantasy sports as a board game" design that I was once working on.

Let's break this down.

The purpose of the NFL draft is to give each team the opportunity to add pieces to their team in order to improve it.

The draft adds pieces to a whole with the intent to improve it.

The order of the NFL draft is determined by the performance (win-loss record and playoff performance) of the teams in the previous year. The teams with the worst performance select first. This is necessary as the draft is inherently unfair. The first selection is more valuable than the last player.

A draft is inherently unfair, so the drafters must start in unequal positions.

The players drafted are evaluated on a variety of aspects. They have shown their football abilities at the college level. They have shown their athletic prowess at the combine. They have a perceived potential. The position that they play can add to their value. Each player has a better fit in some systems than they do in other systems. The player's character is evaluated as well. All of these are factored into where a team will rank the player on their "big board".

The pieces have a known value, a potential value, and a value that is dependent on the whole they are being added to.

There is no winner after the draft is completed. Instead, the results of the draft are determined in a 16-game season, followed by a 4-round playoff. While favorites can be identified based on the make-up of the teams, there is enough unpredictability that the champion cannot be determined until the entire season is played.

The results of the draft do not determine the winner. Instead, each whole is has the potential to be the winner, but some are more likely than others.

But what about the "subterfuge and meta-gaming"?

Each team has its needs and has its own valuation of the players available in the draft. If there is a player that a particular team wants, but they are afraid that the player won't be available when it's their turn to pick, they will make a trade -- players or future draft picks -- to move up to secure the player that they desire. So when another team feigns interest in a player, they can convince a team to make a trade, perhaps unnecessarily, to acquire the player they want.

Can this be built into a game? Or does a game rely on players to create the meta-game?

A lot of this relies on the players. The design can encourage bluffing and posturing, but it can never force a player to act in such a way. Werewolf, Mafia, and games of that variety are built entirely around meta-gaming. If a player refuses to lie or otherwise trick and deceive the other players, the game will be much less interesting.

Auction games afford some amount of meta-gaming because players have the ability to affect the price for items that other players want. A player can force another player to pay more for an item that is only valuable to one of them. In the same right, a player could be caught bidding another player up too high, and be forced to pay more for something that isn't as valuable for that player. Games like Homesteaders and Power Grid excel in creating that tension of one player seeing how far they can push up the price for another player. Ra not only forces you to judge how much a player will bid on a set of items, but it also allows you to choose when to offer some items up for auction. In the right group, extensive meta-gaming can emerge from these simple mechanics.

Coming back to the draft, I believe that while meta-gaming could emerge from the uncertainty of how each player values a particular draft pick, the addition of hidden information would encourage meta-gaming even more. Imagine a draft where each item in the draft (e.g., a player in a football draft) has a set of know attributes that all players can use to judge the value of that item. However, each item also has some hidden attributes that not every player has seen. Players that have this information can use it to get a more accurate valuation of the item, and they can deceive other players in what they saw. If more than one player has seen the same hidden information, the two players can create confusion if one is trying to tell the truth about what they saw while the other is deceiving the other players. While this still requires the players to create the meta-game, it adds another layer to the design to encourage it.

Since this post is already too long, I'll save my game ideas for drafting games for another post -- hopefully soon!


  1. Very cool breakdown, Nolan ... you jumped right into the flow of what I was thinking when I tweeted that, and gave a page-worth around what couldn't be said in 140 characters.

  2. Interesting analyses. It's so true what you say about hidden information, especially in a drafting mechanic. The attributes we see in the commodity being drafted are fixed (its value, strength, speed or what-have-you) but then that commodity is put into play by the person who drafts it, a whole other picture of its actual worth can emerge.

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