Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Setup Instructions

Hi, I'm Jason, and I'll be using this blog to try to start a conversation about how to design the best possible board games, institutions, and real-world economies.

I'm fascinated by strategy games, especially games that put you in charge of a civilization and ask you to build an empire from the ground up, like Eclipse, Puerto Rico, 7 Wonders, Endeavor, Race for the Galaxy, Dominion, Nations, Through the Ages, and, of course, just about everything ever published by Sid Meier. For the last three years or so, I've been casually designing my own custom board games to share with friends, and the process of playtesting these games, I've had to do a lot of thinking about what kinds of rules make for the most interesting resource management. If players can do anything they want in a board game, then the game will have more of an imaginative, roleplaying kind of feel -- more like friends sitting down together to tell a story than a contest of strategy. On the other hand, if players have only a very tightly constrained set of options, then the game will have more of a deductive, mathematical feel -- more like a puzzle to solve with a right answer than an interactive game.

In practice, the only way I've been able to hit the sweet spot for a fun strategy board game is to model the game as a kind of economy, with its own currencies and rules of exchange. Suppose you're playing a game where if you spend 3 gold, then you can buy one more card to look at; every card you see will give you a chance to move an average of 1.6 of your workers, and each of your workers will usually pick up between 2 and 5 gold when it moves...what's the most important resource to have? Do you need gold? Workers? Cards? What resources do players tend to desperately need more of, and what resources do players tend have so much of that they can't even afford to make use of it all? What are the most common 'engines,' or feedback loops, that players use to try to exponentially increase their available resources, and which of these engines are most effective? Why?

Once I've answered these questions for a given game, I tend to have a good idea of where it needs improvement, how it can be tweaked, and what parts of the game are the most fun to play. This doesn't necessarily do me a lot of good, because I'm not a professional game designer -- I work full-time as a maritime personal injury lawyer, and while I sometimes tinker around with prototypes or sales sheets over the weekend, I don't have a strong talent or a strong interest in marketing my games. So far, at least, I'd rather spend my free time playing, designing, and thinking, as opposed to marketing, manufacturing, or selling.

The interesting thing is that some of the same questions I've been asking about the pretend economies in strategy board games can also be asked about real economies in the real world. There is a tremendous amount of literature out there trying to predict whether the price of gold in US dollars will go up, or down, or stay the same - but very little analysis of gold's functional role in the economy. Is gold a chokepoint, i.e., do we find ourselves (either as individuals or as a society) having to put off some of our favorite activities because we don't have enough gold to get them done? Is gold a surplus good, i.e., do we find ourselves with lots of extra gold sitting around that it isn't really worthwhile to try to exploit? What about food? water? labor? housing? medicine? children? transportation? slinkies? --and so on. As far as I can tell, professional economists rarely or never ask these kinds of questions. Because no one person is in command of the global economy the way a board game player is in command of his or her civilization, it's difficult for people to think about how to manage society's total pool of resources over time, as opposed to thinking about how to divvy up the resources we currently have among different individuals. I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, but I do believe that pondering the economies of board games has prompted me to ask some interesting, unusual questions about modern economic theory that could lead to fresh insights about how to make the world a better place. And, hell, even if I'm totally wrong about that, it should lead to some good board games and some good debates.

So, if you've read this far, welcome! I need your help to call bullshit on my weaker arguments, suggest solutions I haven't thought of, chime in with real-world examples and counter-examples from both the world of board games and from the real world, put me in touch with other people (and blogs) I need to be talking to, and generally turn the comments section into something more interesting than a low-bandwidth advertisement for generic brands of Viagra. Guest posts, link exchanges, and requests for board game reviews will all be welcomed. Although I will ban and delete spam as needed, please be aware that comments are not moderated.