One of the hot terms being bandied about a lot these days in this wonderful hobby of ours is Point Salad games. Unfortunately, it’s not obvious that there’s anything close to consensus about exactly what that label means. To try to shed some light on this, several of the OG writers recently held a roundtable discussion about this very subject. It was organized as a quasi-Socratic dialogue, with questions being asked and each writer free to respond however they liked. Here is the complete record of what was said.
The participants in this free-for-all included Larry Levy (who composed the questions), Jonathan Franklin, Fraser McHarg, Ben McJunkin, Mark Jackson, Greg Schloesser, Matt Carlson, and Jeff Allers.
- First, before we get to the more detailed questions, do you have a concise definition of a Point Salad (PS) game? For many, it seems to entail a game where points are scored frequently and for a variety of achievements. Is there anything you would add or remove from that characterization.
Jonathan: Such that everyone is in the game until the end because scores naturally clump. For example, Russian Railroads is not a Point Salad because half way through, you can tell that someone will end 100 points ahead of you. I don’t think you can get blown out in a Feld game.
I’d say you can pick any strategy and not feel out of it.
In the subsequent discussion, people talk about Trajan – my sense is that in Trajan, some action areas are better than others. I have not played it enough to know if you can pick a bad path and still be in it at the end.
Larry: Interesting, Jonathan, that’s the first time I’ve seen someone cite the nature of a game’s strategies as being part of the PS definition.
Fraser: My assumption is that Point Salad is multiple ways of scoring points, however I am not sure if that translates into multiple paths to victory. I am hoping somebody can enlighten me.
Ben: I distinguish between “point salad” and “multiple paths to victory.” The “salad” metaphor suggests a mixing of numerous discrete items into a conglomeration made to suit one’s personal taste. In game terms, it means I can do a little of this, a little of that, and ultimately end up in a competitive position. Generally, “paths to victory” connotes the existence of particular replicable strategies that get you from beginning to winning. In these games, you can win by doing this or that, but you generally don’t mix and match.
Larry: For me, a Point Salad design is an efficiency game where you score frequently by doing a variety of actions. Just about everything you do can improve your position, so the skill of the game is deciding which positive actions are the best ones–hence, my calling them efficiency games. A long-term strategy can be important, but isn’t essential. I think Ben’s definition is very close to mine. I like his use of the salad metaphor, although I’m not sure I’d say that all PS games feature the capability of succeeding while doing a little of this and a little of that.
Mark: I’m going to offer a less nuanced view to the conversation – feel free to ignore me.
I use the term “point salad” infrequently, but when I do, it’s a pejorative term indicating a game that seems to be a mish-mash of mechanics focused on accumulating points without any meaningful thematic thread to tie those mechanics together. It may be a perfectly balanced and/or playable game, but it doesn’t feel like a unified whole.
Jonathan: I think what I was trying for is not in contradiction – in a point salad game, any approach will permit you to be in contention. I imagined it as an all-you-can-eat buffet. You make a chef salad, he makes a cobb salad, and I fill my bowl with tomatoes. We all have salads. Maybe one game a cobb wins and another time a cheff wins, but even all lettuce is in it until the end.
Greg: My interpretation is that there is a wide variety of ways in which to score points. Just about anything you do will earn points. The challenge is finding the optimal combination so as to score the most points possible.
Matt: If I hear the term Point Salad I picture a game that has many different ways to score points, without a particular primary pathway for points. If a particular source of points is required (barring extreme outliers) to be pursued in order to win the game, it would not be a Point Salad game. It makes no difference whether the points all come at the end (from different parts of the game) or by churning points (from different sources) during the game. A game like Agricola would be a Point Salad game. Lords of Waterdeep is not, because it has a few ways to score points but you cannot expect to win without completing at least a few Quests.
- Is there a level of point-scoring that is required for a game to meet the PS description? For example, I assume most gamers wouldn’t say it applies to Puerto Rico, even though the VPs scored for buildings and shipping are very different and very abstract. Presumably, this isn’t enough variety of scoring types or frequency for it to qualify? How high do things have to get? Or is this a relevant question?
Jonathan: PR has big swings that affect the entire game. Point salad games have small swings and are generally about optimizing sequences to get a few more points out than other paths.
Ben: I’ve never heard anyone describe Puerto Rico as a “point salad” game, and I am skeptical that the designation applies. Going back to my answer to the previous question, Puerto Rico (at least when played well) tends to be a competition among people taking rather well-defined strategic paths. While the game gives some points along the way (1 or 2 points per small building, for example), Puerto Rico primarily rewards players who complete the big path (getting all of the synergistic buildings, including the large end-game scoring buildings).
One way to think of the distinction between “point salad” games and “paths to victory” games is to consider the point-scoring incentives for completing a strategic sequence of moves. Consider two prototype versions of the same game. In one version, if a player takes actions A, B, C, and D in order, the player scores 15 points at the end of the game. This is very clearly a “path” design, as it provides an all-or-nothing reward structure. In another version, action A is worth 2 points immediately, action B is worth 3 points, action C is worth 4 points, and action D is worth 6 points. This is more in line with the “point salad” design. Doing all of the actions is still worth 15 points, but players may take them out of order or may elect to stop short of finishing the sequence if they find better point-scoring options elsewhere.
Larry: Ben, I’m not saying that Puerto Rico is a PS game or that anyone else is. Just to be clear what I’m trying to accomplish with these questions, we have a popular term (Point Salad) that is being used a great deal, but which I suspect isn’t universally defined. By citing examples of games that aren’t PS, but which might resemble these games in some aspects, I’m trying to define the term by exploring the boundaries of it.
Matt: I find once again defending the possibility of an end-game point scoring phase as a part of a Point Salad. T’zolkin has a fair number of points available at the end of the game, but I consider it a Point Salad game since there are so many places you can earn points – none of which are an expected requirement for a win. I concede the term Point Salad is used pejoratively in most cases. I, too, first think of a system of points to be earned independently from one another. I would consider Puerto Rico to be stretching the term, while for some reason I think T’zolkin is a better fit. Ben makes a good point in that a point-generating path game gives less of a feeling of a Point Salad. However, that may best describe the situation when it is used negatively. Many times the term is used negatively to describe a game with so many options to earn points, the game has lost some of its theme or coherence, or both.
- Does a strong theme matter? I’m thinking of Vlaada Chvatil’s games, many of which have a wide variety of point scoring and which frequently include complex end-game scoring mechanisms. And yet, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone refer to one of his games as PS. Is this because his games are usually very thematic? Can you think of games with strong themes that would nevertheless be called PS?
Jonathan: What, you want to merge a debate about what is point salad + what is thematic? The answer is a black hole as in when matter and antimatter meet.
Ben: I don’t think theme has much to do with whether a game is a “point salad” or not, beyond the following: If a game has a well-integrated theme, the theme helps guide your actions and the points reward you for making thematically appropriate choices. If a game has a poorly integrated theme, points are needed to help players make a decision about what to do. That is, players of these latter games make choices because of the point values associated with those choices. As a consequence, points are often more prevalent and more prominent, even in incremental decisions, which is consistent with a “point salad” design.
Larry: I’m not sure I agree. While games like Dungeon Lords, Dungeon Petz, and Agricola aren’t classic PS games, I wonder if one reason why no one even thinks about labeling them as such is their strong and consistently applied themes. If you took one of these games and changed the theme to something more generic and Feld-like, might some people then consider them to be PS? I think it’s entirely possible.
Mark: Again, my two cents: the thematic “line” in Dungeon Lords & Agricola (two games I really enjoy) keep them from feeling like “point salad” games – to me. And you’re correct, Larry: if you abstracted the theme out of Dungeon Lords, I wouldn’t bring it to the table. Nothing wrong with the structure/design – but the theme keeps it from being a soulless exercise in what I’ve called “cube-pushing”.
Matt: I have to disagree with Mark about Agricola. It is totally a Point Salad game to me. I love the game, but you can’t win by specializing. Although there is the barest of paths – how do you feed your workers, you have to get a little bit of every type of point source in order to win. A strong theme will prevent a game from being labeled a Point Salad game in a negative way, but I’d prefer to still use the term if the mechanics fit the bill.
- One complaint you sometimes hear about PS games, accurately or not, is that you can score for everything you do, so to some extent, it doesn’t matter which actions you take. Does it matter, then, if a game forces you to focus on a particular strategy? The game I’m thinking of is Russian Railroads, where doing a little bit of everything is a sure way to lose. Still, you score lots of points every turn, in several different categories. Should Russian Railroads be considered a PS game?
Jonathan: No, as I said above, I don’t think Russian Railroads is a point salad. if someone can pull away in scoring before the very end, it is not a PS game.
Larry: To me, the necessity of a focused strategy is what keeps Russian Railroads from being a PS. That, and the fact that even though you score constantly, most of the scoring comes from the advancement of your rail lines and industry. There’s lots of variations of that theme, but just about all of the scoring comes from advancing your markers down one of the lines on your player board.
Matt: If a game encourages a focus on a particular strategy/source of points, it is not a point salad.
- Does it matter when you score the points? To illustrate this, let’s consider Agricola. There’s a fairly long list of things you score points for and, unlike Russian Railroads, the scoring system pretty much forces you to consider all or most of them—specialization is very much discouraged. But again, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the game called PS. Is that because all of the points are scored at the end of the game, and not during every turn?
Mark: I know I’m beating an already dead horse, but I don’t think when points are scored matters nearly as much as why points are scored. (To paraphrase Bill Clinton: “It’s the theme, stupid.”)
Greg: My thinking of “point salad” is that you score continuously throughout the game for a wide variety of actions. Just about anything you do scores points.
Matt: Still of the opinion of: the points in the middle or points at the end – doesn’t matter, still Point Salad.
Larry: Matt, I think you’re in the considerable minority–I strongly suspect that very few people consider Agricola to be PS. One reason may be the theme, but I also think it’s because you only score at the end. Scoring frequently throughout the game seems to be a big factor in getting a game labelled as PS.
However, that’s why I’m finding this discussion so interesting. We’re finding lots of different definitions of Point Salad games. I thought we might have a variance of opinions, but it’s even greater than I thought it would be when I started this.
- How much do you think the PS term is based upon the date of publication? Is it just a currently fashionable term, so that older games that might have qualifed as PS aren’t usually spoken of that way? Are more current games labelled as PS than is accurate, just because it’s hot terminology? Do you think there are quite a few older PS games, but the concept was only noticed recently, so that this issue isn’t quite as recent a phenomenon as is usually thought?
Mark: For all my personal irritation, I think “point salad” may be as clear & helpful (ha!) a gaming term as, say, “multiplayer solitaire” or “Ameritrash”. In other words, it’s a way to dismiss a game quickly – often without thinking about it and/or playing it.
Jonathan: I am not sure that those terms are necessarily pejorative, even if they are in the eyes of the person using them. If I hear MPS, I am more interested. If I hear point salad, I am less interested. I am sure there are folks for whom it is exactly the reverse.
Matt: I think Point Salad is often seen as a negative term, and as it is a newer term it is rarely used to label older games. I admit that when I hear the term Point Salad, I’m expecting a game to be lacking a clear theme or focus.
Larry: When I posed this question, I figured I’d be able to find lots of examples of PS games in the past. However, my research has not shown that to be the case. Instead, it’s been more of a continuum, a gradual trend in which games have slowly developed PS traits over the years, with the greatest preponderance occurring at the present. PS is not necessarily a new thing, but we certainly seem to have more PS games currently than we ever have.
One of the reasons for that may be the popularity of Worker Placement and Action Selection games over the past few years. If you’re trying to do different things with the worker spaces or the actions you select, you need to distinguish them. And one way of doing that is to give VPs for the various activities and to have them be scored in different ways. WP games in general tend to be efficiency games and as I mentioned earlier, I think of most PS games as efficiency designs, so there’s something of a match there.
Looking back in time, I can see the trend toward PS games beginning around 2000 or so. Some of the early Alea games had PS tendencies, including Ra, Taj Mahal, and Princes of Florence. They were still probably too focused to be considered true PS titles, but the idea of assigning points for many different kinds of achievements are there. Knizia’s designs from that era (including the ones he created for Alea, as well as Through the Desert, Rheinlander, Merchants of Amsterdam, Traumfabrik, and Africa) were well known for featuring scoring for a bunch of things. Some of Kramer’s games of the time, including Wildlife and Hacienda, were inching in that direction. A bit later on, some of the Italian designers seem to embrace the PS approach; I’m thinking of games like Florenza. The popularity of Agricola, released in 2007, probably helped–again, I don’t think of it as PS, but it no doubt made the idea of scoring for many different achievements more mainstream. As I said, it’s a continuum, where over the past 15 years, you’ve seen more games including more of these concepts, until today, PS games are quite common (and quite popular).
Jeff: I also thought of Italian designs, as they seemed to be trending toward PS as early as 2005. I remember playing Il Principe, for example, and thinking how hard it was to determine the best path as everything a player did seemed to score points (and for the record, I did enjoy playing the game).
It’s no surprise, really, that PS has been an increasingly popular tool for game designers. As efficiency games have gained in popularity among hobby gamers, so have they gained in popularity among designers–and there are more game designers out there than ever.
With complex efficiency games, balance is everything, and PS offers an easy way to balance all the moving parts. With so many points awarded for each possibility, the numbers can be quickly and simply adjusted during playtesting when imbalances are discovered. The game is a “machine for playing” and each part can be fine-tuned separately by adjusting VP output without affecting the other parts.
Is this the “easy way out” of the problem, however, and is there a better solution? I went the PS route with New Amsterdam to some extent, but I’ve lately tried to avoid that approach in my current designs, as it feels like taking the “road most travelled” when designing an efficiency game.
- Are there certain designers that you associate with PS games? Certainly most people would put Stefan Feld into that category. Is this accurate? Are there other designers you can think of who also produce a lot of games you consider PS?
Mark: When you look up “point salad” in the gamer dictionary, a picture of Stefan Feld is sitting there smiling at you.
Greg: No doubt, Stefan Feld is the Grand Poobah of Point Salad games.
Larry: Even though the association of Feld with PS is a bit exaggerated, I’m forced to agree that he has created the best known, and quite possibly, the best PS games. His designs are “obviously” PS, whereas you might have to look harder at the creations of other designers to realize that they are indeed PS. Castles of Burgundy might well be the quintessential PS game. There are lots of different actions and activities and you score points for just about all of them. Because you don’t have complete control of the way the dice roll, you can’t guarantee that strategies will work, so there’s a fairly strong tactical element in which you’ll take advantage of scoring opportunities on different turns. The “a little of this and a little of that” concept Ben talks about is viable here, but while it can give you a decent score, it has little chance of winning (a more focused approach is needed for that, even though a successful strategy will include many different ways of scoring points). Still, this could easily be considered the poster child for PS; the fact that it’s currently the 11th rated game on the Geek shows that titles like this can be very successful.
Who are some other designers who favor PS games? I still feel that Chvatil’s design style in many of his games tends toward PS. Dungeon Lords, Dungeon Petz, even Mage Knight to some extent feature lots of ways of scoring and detailed end-game scoring mechanics. He does a better job of integrating all these point-scoring activities into the games’ themes than Feld does, but their PS nature is still there. Kramer and Kiesling are definitely trending toward a PS style, evident in games like Nauticus, Coal Baron, and Palaces of Carrara. Even Rosenberg is moving in that direction; maybe not so much from the scoring end, but perhaps with what you could call “action salad” games–lots of different, complex actions, almost all of which lead to point-scoring. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not really a yes/no question with PS games, but more of a continuum, and I’d say those designers have moved quite a bit to the PS side of things.
- Do you have any other thoughts on this subject? And what do you think of Point Salad games, assuming that you now feel that we’ve defined them? Do you like them, avoid them, or don’t feel it affects whether you like a game or not?
Jonathan: Based on the comments above, maybe my thinking is that point salad games permit any path to be a path to victory or at least contention. Not something I find that satisfying in a game because it removes the feeling of being clever and turns it into a game of micro-efficiencies.
Larry: There are very few absolutes in my likes and dislikes of games. Area majority games? I like some and dislike others. Same for worker placement and almost every other category you can think of. So it’s no surprise that some Point Salad games are among my favorites and there are others I’d just as soon avoid. Of the PS games I’ve played, though, I’d have to say my overall impression is favorable. It helps that I’m a big fan of Feld’s, but I also have no problem with the inherent nature of PS games. If a game is well designed, it doesn’t need a focus in order for me to like it. I’m not opposed to efficiency games per se, so a well crafted PS game is certainly one that I can enjoy. I certainly don’t view the label necessarily as a negative one, even if some folks use it as a pejorative.
My other main takeaway from this discussion is that I’m quite surprised at the lack of consensus over the definition of a PS game. If the OGer’s, who are probably better connected to our hobby and more inclined to deep thinking about it than the typical gamer, can’t come close to agreeing what the term means, is it really surprising that everyone seems to have different ideas about what it entails? I’d say that’s a cautionary message when it comes to discussing Point Salad designs: the person you’re arguing with might have a very different definition of PS than you do!
Well, that’s our take on the subject, but there’s no reason we should have all the fun. What definition comes to mind when you think of Point Salad games? Do you think they’re the greatest thing since Sliced Feld, the worst thing to hit gaming since Candyland, or something in between? Feel free to leave a comment and let us all know!