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The economic production cycle in games
November 04, 2012
This is a discussion of how some games include a cycle of converting resources through some means of production such as factories or agricultural facilities into assets that are usable to help succeed in the game. These assets are often physical things but can be capabilities or even victory points themselves.
In a recent blog post I talked about to kinds of economies in wargames that have economies, “maintenance” economies and “accumulation” economies. This led to a more general discussion about economic production in games, and I was pointed to a BoardGameGeek post about “means of production” (http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/822865/the-means-of-production-and-how-games-innovate ). The author of that post ("linoleum blownaparte") generalized too far when he or she said that the colored cards in Candyland were a means of production. I am going to use the term "means of production" to refer to the equipment that is used to convert raw materials into something useful within the game - in other words, factories, agricultural facilities, or the like. I'll use "the production cycle" to refer to the process that begins with resources and ends with some result of production. Not all games have a production cycle, of course, or only a rump of one (as in chess and checkers).
The accompanying table lists not only games that use the cycle I'm talking about but some games that do not to provide a comparison and contrast. Table for this article is at: http://pulsiphergames.com/presentation/productioncycle.htm
The economic production cycle works like this.
1) The source of the resources. There must be some resource(s) that can be converted into something else, and these must come from somewhere. The source is listed in the second column of the table, after the name of the game.
2) Resource Collection. Some resources must be gathered, harvested, mined - collected in some way. This may be explicit or it may be as simple as possession/ownership of territory, which is really all you need for the agriculture based economies that have dominated most of history - "land = wealth". Sometimes labor is explicitly involved, as in the workers/peons/peasants in Warcraft II and III and colonists in Puerto Rico.
I have included a separate column to indicate the actual resources that are used up when an asset is produced. Sometimes resources are not used up.
3) Means of Production. Some kind of equipment is used to convert the resources into usable items are capabilities. In the modern age this would be factories. There is usually labor involved, though that is rarely represented explicitly. In an agricultural age the means of production was as simple as plows, kilns, scythes, pottery, storage cellars, and grain silos or the equivalent. (Pottery is one of the great inventions of agriculture because it provides rat-proof storage.) The means of production often governs where new physical assets may appear, such as Industrial Centers in Axis & Allies, buildings in many real-time-strategy games, cities in computer Civilization.
4) Limits on Production. There are sometimes limits on production. The obvious and typical limit on production is the availability of resources; if you don't have enough gold and wood in WarCraft 2 or 3 you can't produce more units even though you have the buildings (factories) with available capacity. You are also limited by labor: if you don't have enough people to collect lots of gold and wood in Warcraft, then you won't have enough of the resources to "fuel" your factories (buildings). Another limit is the availability of the means of production such as factories, so you may have lots of resources but nowhere to convert them into assets.
The limit may also be the capacity of the land (overpopulation), pollution, limits of political organization, or other factors that prevent infinite production even when resources and means of production are available. (In a pure "accumulation" economy there are no such factors; in a "maintenance" economy there will be at least one such factor.)
A few games have a minimum production, e.g. in Risk you get three armies even if you hold as little as one territory (normally it's one army per three territories). Monopoly's "Pass Go get $200" is a kind of minimum production, as well.
5) Assets. I'm going to call the result of production "assets". This is usually a physical item but may be a capability or even victory points themselves in a game, or it may simply be money. In agricultural terms production results in edible goods that enable populations to expand without suffering severe famine. Populations support military units, which in pure agricultural economies amount to little more than armed farmers. In more modern terms production results in weapons and training for people to use those weapons, that is, it results in military units. Military units can be used both to destroy or take away an opponent's capabilities and to defend one's own economy and population.
But the cycle may result in some capability, for example greater mobility for one's assets or more Action Points to use each turn. Sometimes production is devoted to improving technology. Production can even result directly in victory points, or something that amounts to the equivalent of victory points (money is the victory points in Monopoly for example).
In some games there is only one asset (usually "armies"), in others there may be many assets with very different characteristics, e.g. units or technology research.
In the accompanying table I've listed these production cycle steps and include a column that shows victory conditions for the game in question. Normally the production cycle is a means to an end, the end being expressed in the victory condition.
Most of the time the assets are a means to an end (I’ve listed victory conditions), sometimes they are an end in itself closely related to the victory condition, such as victory points.
I welcome suggestions to improve the table.
Producing assets that increase resource collection or means of production, or both.
The key question in the economic production cycle is whether and how much you can produce something that increases your economic production capability, whether resource collection or means of production or both. In many video games you can produce buildings (factories) that enable you to produce more units, or whatever it is that you mostly produce. It's less often possible to produce something that increases your access to resources, such as additional mining equipment or the means to discover and colonization new planets, or better collection/extraction technology.
This is a key question because the more it is possible to increase your production through the assets you have produced, then the more likely the game will result in an "economic snowballing" effect. That is, the more likely it is that the player who best figures out the most efficient ways to improve their economic production - or who is luckiest in exploration and exploitation - will gradually pull far ahead of other players because of geometric expansion of his economic capability. In a wargame, sooner or later he turns assets into units that then overwhelm the opposition. In a 4X space wargame he also produces superior technology that makes both his economy and his military more formidable. In a purely economic game he simply produces more of whatever it is that causes you to win the game: money, victory points, or something else.
An "economic game" or "engine game" is typically dominated by this economic snowball effect. Most of the time in these games it is not possible to take production capability from another player, nor to destroy it. The players who have been less efficient in figuring out the production cycle have no means to arrest their doom. Yet at the end of the game they can see that they have improved their economic production and their own general situation quite a bit so they can feel positive about what has happened even though they lost the game. This is the central equation of many (certainly not all) Eurostyle games.
In a wargame on the other hand there is frequently little option to increase your economic production other than by taking it from another player. This is especially true in board and card wargames. On the other hand, in video wargames such as real-time strategy games it's possible to significantly outproduce the opponent by building up your resource collection and means of production. Furthermore, in most RTS you cannot take an opponent's production and use it for yourself, your only option is to destroy it. In other words some real-time strategy games are both economic snowballing games and wargames. At the very top class of real-time strategy, the professional sports leagues, all the players understand the economic efficiencies and we are back to wargame, with the caveat that players must be able to perform at 200 actions per minute in order to keep up with other opposition.
An appearance of a production cycle. Some games involve acquisition of some asset, but the players have no way to alter the sequence. For me this isn’t a production cycle. For example, in Go, Tic-Tac-Toe, and Scrabble players acquire pieces, play them onto the board, and then get more. But they have no way to alter the rules about how many they receive, no way to increase resource collection or production of assets, no way to gain advantage over opponents.
Chess and checkers have a minor production cycle in pawn promotion and kinging. The player has one way to control what happens, by reaching the far rank of the board. In both games the acquisition of a new asset can be important. In chess promotion rarely occurs, in checkers it’s normal for kinging to occur.
"Maintenance" versus "accumulation". In the many wargames where you're not able to use the assets you produce to increase your economic production, the limits on production make a big difference to how the game works. I've discussed this in a previous blog post in some detail. http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2012/10/maintenance-based-economies-vs.html Briefly, in a maintenance economy you must pay upkeep on ("supply") your existing assets before you can produce new assets. This limits the total number of assets you can have. In an accumulation economy there are no limits, or very broad limits such as the large number of pieces available, so you can continue to produce units no matter how many you already have.
The maintenance economy is a great discouragement to "turtling". Turtling is much more common with an accumulation economy. (In case you're not familiar with the term, a turtle is a player who “sits on the sidelines” and does not participate in conflict, using the production cycle to build up his assets while other players are losing theirs in fighting.)
In some sense a zero-sum game - a game where the only way to gain something is to cause someone else to lose it - is the extreme of a maintenance economy, as epitomized by the boardgame Diplomacy. But it is also possible to have a zero-sum game where there is no economic production at all.
Types of in-game economies. Every game has "an economy", but many don't have a production cycle. "An economy" refers to assets coming into or going out of the game. The question is, over time is there an increase in assets in the game, a decrease, or stability? For example, in chess and checkers the number of pieces decreases as the game goes on, that is, it's a "negative economy". Even though you can gain capability by kinging or by promoting a pawn, the overall outlook is negative. Monopoly is close to a stable economy except for passing Go and collecting $200, and for the cards which can add or subtract money from the game. So it is a slightly positive economy. A great many Eurostyle games have positive economies because the purpose of the game is building up assets. In many wargames depicting battles that take a few days and consequently don't have economic production, we have negative economies because both sides lose units as time passes. In more strategic wargames with economic production you could have positive, stable, or negative economies. Traditional Risk tends to fluctuate, exacerbated by the card turn-ins as they result in more and more armies. Axis & Allies tends to be more or less stable, or a little positive, but that depends partly on how the players play. Britannia-like games fluctuate, and a lot depends on how the players play, but there's usually an overpopulation limit on production so that the games cannot have strongly positive economies.
Not all wargames for more than two sides involve economic production. The ancestor of Britannia, 4-player Ancient Conquest, is actually a "battle game" with no economic production, just an order of battle. History of the World is also a battle game, despite its world-wide scope. The order of battle comes from the empires you end up with.
Games with a maintenance economy tend to be stable unless there are lots of ways to acquire new resources, such as colonizing new planets in 4X games or building new cities in computer Civilization. Games with an accumulation economy tend to be positive.
Where does the production cycle end and something else begins?
That's hard to say. Games with negative economies are unlikely to have a production cycle, a major reason why they're negative. Moreover, the production cycle is generally associated with political states/nations/empires, or with corporations. Games where the player has an avatar that performs most of the action aren't likely to have typical production cycles. When deconstructing a game I look for the resource collection and means of production, as well as the resulting assets.
Race games and word games rarely have a production cycle. The same is true for puzzle-like video games such as Tetris and Bejeweled. Abstract games (such as Blokus) in general are unlikely to have production cycles, but I'm sure there are many exceptions.
Shooters, adventure games, action games, and RPGs have ways to pick up and store new items, but there are no resources or means of production, just assets. The closest we have to a production cycle in a shooter is the items "dropped" by defeated foes (defeated foe becomes both resource and means of production). The more you defeat, the more stuff drops. Some of the drops are money, which can be turned into other usable assets (you purchase weapons). In RPGs you may have merchants who buy your loot (those "drops") and sell you new stuff, and even help you convert or sacrifice items in order to make better ones. In some games the player characters can create or convert items, e.g. making potions. Your loot could be seen as resources you've collected, and the merchants as means of production, with the assets being magic items, weapons, and other personally-usable capabilities (improvements in training, skills, feats), and money if you sell the loot.
Tactical games of all kinds are unlikely to have production cycles, especially those that depict battles. For example, Gratuitous Space Battles involves designing and “building” a fleet to face a foe, but there are no resources or means of production, rather there's a ship value limit, and a pilot limit, on the size of your fleet, which otherwise magically comes into existence for each battle. Chess and checkers are quite tactical games, as well, and have only rump production.
Notes about the table: This is a large spreadsheet table that does not mix well with most blog hosts. Consequently, it can be accessed through my Web site at http://pulsiphergames.com/presentation/productioncycle.htm .
I am not a Eurostyle game player. While I once knew how to play the games listed, I’ve forgotten more than I know, so I’ve had to depend on regular players, and on BGG/Wikipedia, for some details of production cycles that can be quite complex. Such complexity will not be surprising in “economic engine”/economic snowball games, though I don’t want to imply that all the games I’ve listed involve such. I welcome corrections/additions.
Some of the video games I also have not played or investigated extensively, and others I have not played in many years.
My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" is available from mcfarlandpub.com or Amazon. (Books-a-Million has an eBook version at http://bit.ly/PQQqh3.)
I am @lewpuls on Twitter. (I average much less than one post a day, almost always about games, not about other topics.)