“How Good Is This?” – valuation in board games

There’s been discussion for years about games that aren’t presented as auction games but can be interpreted and analyzed as auctions. (Sometimes taken to fantastic tongue-in-cheek extremes.) The following thoughts sprang from that discussion.
What’s Valuation?
A lot of boardgame mechanisms – including but not limited to anything auction-like – can be thought of as the valuation of choices: You have options A, B, and C; which is best for you? This consideration weighs anything & everything that makes an option good or bad relative to other options: the game state, likely responses of other players, probabilities of uncertain events, options available in the future, etc. It can even include non-mechanical factors1.
While there are an abundance of mechanisms that don’t reduce to valuation,2 it’s undeniably an immense part of modern games.
Different Flavors of Valuation
All valuations guide decision-making, but they vary a great deal in what sort of information they provide about “what is best?”. They might:
  • Give a simple number (“Getting this grain provides me 2 VP”).
  • Give a contingent number (“Getting this Shiny will give me 5 VP if I earn the Patronage of the Raven”)
  • Give future options (“Getting this mill will let me turn 1 grain into 2 VP every turn”)
  • Give multiple numbers (“This building gives me 5 VP and an income of 2 gold/turn”)
  • Give infrastructure that is difficult to reduce to a simple value (“This choice gives me +1 card draw per turn if my hand size is below 3 and I also control the Red Keep”)
  • Give changes to the duration/tempo of the game (“This move will accelerate endgame”)
  • Give changes to the game as a whole (“Taking this train will cause all older trains to rust and be discarded”)
  • …and more.
(The above list mentions Victory Points a lot only because they’re very good for concise examples that have a direct and obvious relevance to winning – valuation can absolutely apply to things which have nothing to do with VP.)
Relevance to Design
Given the above, what are some ways in which different flavors of valuation impact a game?
Different types of valuations create different sorts of experiences, and can appeal to different types of players. “I earn 3 points” is a very tangible, straightforward reward for an action; it creates a sense of groundedness, surety, openness, and simplicity. More opaque valuations can create uncertainty, tension, obfuscation, and a sense of complexity. Valuations which depend on controllable future events yield long-term strategy and a sense of unfolding plans. Valuations which depend on unknowable or uncontrollable factors yield a more tacical game and confine the sense of control to the here-and-now.
Different types of valuations ask for different amounts of player attention. Options which are highly variable in usefulness or which change value suddenly (depending on context) require more player attention than options which are more constant or which change value smoothly a little bit at a time. More opaque, hard-to-figure-out valuations require more player attention than simpler ones.
Valuations which are ‘too simple’ tend to be less interesting. E.g., with options plainly worth 2, 3, and 4 points, and no other side effects, there is an obviously best answer and not much in the way of deciding. But what constitutes “too simple” is far from an objective yardstick; it will vary depending on the preferences and abilities of the players. And if a design derives its fun from things other than valuation, that lack of interest may not matter.
The approach of endgame collapses many more-interesting forms of valuation into less-interesting forms. The value of future options/income/infrastructure declines, the number of potential endgame-states shrinks, the likelihood of “if can I also…” contingencies coming to pass is more likely to be known. (Which is why highly calculable valuations tend to rear their head most just before endgame.)
Valuations which produce simple or lightly-variable integers promote a point-salad feel. I often see “point salad” defined in terms of “earn a few points every turn” (similar benefit for each action taken) or “everything kind of feels the same” (homogenous feel among systems). While I do think those are two good indicators, I think “actions are reducible to a point gain, perhaps with light uncertainty” is another.
Some valuations can prompt divergent behavior between different types of players. Valuations which are notionally calculable but very complex will cause some players analysis-paralysis in figuring out what they’re worth, while others will simply play heuristically and use a rough estimate. Valuations which rely on other players’ actions prompt some folks to consider what seems most likely, while other people will treat their fellow players as sources of randomness that are either unknowable or not worth trying to anticipate.
Some players may nope out of mechanics-based valuation altogether. Perhaps they just don’t enjoy valuation, or dislike it if it’s too involved, or maybe they had a rough day at work and don’t want to think much. So they make decisions randomly or based entirely on non-mechanical factors1. If one player doing this has the potential to mess up the gameplay, that’s not necessarily bad – there are exquisite games which happen to be very fragile to a player not pursuing victory – but it’s definitely worth being aware of, and perhaps telegraphing in the game’s written materials so that playgroups know it going in rather than discovering it the hard way. And if it can be mitigated in some easy way, so much the better.
In Conclusion
I don’t think any of the above is particularly new, but most of the time I see these sorts of considerations, they’re framed as being about “presenting interesting decisions” or “players making choices”. I suspect it’s worth thinking one level deeper, about the mental process a player is likely to engage in when presented with a decision requiring a choice.

1 For instance, a player may factor in aesthetics, ethics, challenging themselves, or self-expression when weighing which options are “best”. My thoughts here are about the more mechanically-affected portions of valuation, though this is a limited view: mechanisms are far from the only relevant part of a game.
2 Eg: physical enaction (any dexterity game); perception of choices (when there are enough options that merely perceiving them all is mentally challenging); working memory challenges (holding plans/data in your head); social perception (reading/anticipating other players); social action (persuasion/bluffing); expression/non-verbal communication (as in Pictionary); sensory perception (as in Mord Im Arosa), and more.