If the rules of your game are the stick, player incentives are the carrot.
Player incentives give the player a reason to do something. Without any incentives the player has no reason to play. Every game needs at least the incentive of winning. Without a goal, you don’t have a game. In shorter games this single incentive can be enough. But as you add complexity to a game you also need to add player incentives.
I believe, to a degree, incentives naturally appear in a game design. If you have a 2 hour strategy game with complex, interacting mechanisms, players will naturally come up with mini-goals, even if they are not intentionally designed.
A player will segment their path to victory to easier to comprehend milestones. Step one collect 10 stone, step two build a mill, etc.
However, if you intentionally build incentives into your game, you can increase their value for player engagement and manipulate players to follow the paths you intended.
As a player, I don’t like being told I can’t do something. In many cases it can feel artificial, like when you hit the invisible wall at the edge of a video game map. But with the proper use of incentives you don’t need to tell players what they can’t do, just reward them for what you want them to do. Don’t say “you can’t open the airlock and get sucked into space”, just say “their are 5 crystals and food in the next room”.
There are obviously limits to this. Your rules must prevent the game from breaking, even if a player decides to do things that are terrible for them. Let that player throw the game for themselves, but not break it for the rest of the players.
Besides feeling more natural, player incentives can give your players the feeling of having a variety of options while actually keeping them pretty close to the narrative or play arc you want them to follow.
If you want players to build buildings in the early game so that the mid game is a complex interaction of various buildings, you don’t need to require that they build a building every turn. Just make it clear that if they build a building they will collect needed resources.
Player incentives can also help get new players engaged in your game. If they start the game with a lot of options and no clear goal, they can feel overwhelmed. Or they can make random decisions that they later regret when they find out they were not optimal. If they are given an initial goal or player power that incentivizes certain actions, they can use that to inform an initial strategy.
In the design I’m currently working on, Plutocracy, player incentives have been very difficult to craft. Plutocracy is a 4X space empire game that primarily focuses on economic manipulation. The core concept of the game is that players do not control their own empire. Instead, they use their influence to manipulate all of the empires.
This concept has been great at creating interest in playing the game, but when players aren’t attached to any set aspect of the game they struggle to see the point in performing any actions.
My goal of the game was for players to have the empires explore the board, gain resources from the discovered areas, grow empires, and have them battle each other. What actually happened was players just maximized their currency exchanges. I had made a rather uninspired stock market game with a lot of extra mechanisms that no one used.
Because players didn’t control an empire, they were not invested in wether that empire won or lost a battle. And if no one cares if any empire wins or loses battles, they just don’t have battles. The same was true for exploring, empires gaining resources had no benefit to the players, so they didn’t waste their actions doing it.
The first step to getting players to explore was to add a player reward. Whenever a player had an empire explore, the player would have a chance at a random reward. The player earned some influence and the empire grew their economy.
Once players were rewarded for exploring it was immensely popular and became the focus of the game since it was the quickest path to gaining more influence. But combat was still largely ignored. It was the only way to lower an economy, but players focused on growth and it became more a game of who could get the most value the quickest.
So, again, I made the mechanic I wanted to happen more linked with the mechanics players were using. I reduced the number of spaces on the board, so if an empire wanted to expand it would have to take that area from another empire.
Now, there is no shortage of exploration and combat. However, I ran into another incentive issue related to how much a player can do on their turn. Early on I kept player turns to a single action so the game would move along. The problem was that anything they did could be undone or changed before their next turn. This gave the game a very random feel and players were not incentivized to build anything up out of fear of an opponent getting the rewards.
To counteract this issue I allowed players to do as many actions as they wanted and could afford. This made each turn feel very significant and allowed players to follow through on strategies. But because each turn was so significant, the board state was very changed by your next turn. So while each turn was strategic, the game as a whole was not cohesive.
The answer seems to lie somewhere between 1 and unlimited actions. Future iterations will focus on finding the number that incentivizes players to make progress but also feel like they can set up later game actions.
Incentivizing players to do the actions you want is important to build engagement and to move the game forward in the way you want. Think of the core goal of your game and give your players obvious rewards for doing those things.