The focus is on game mechanisms - what makes a game exciting and why. How did the board game designer make his game fun? Components and theme are secondary. The play's the thing.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Taking Care of Business Games - Readers' Comments

The comments on “Taking Care of Business Games” mostly focused on games I had omitted from the discussion.

My goal was to look at a certain kind of business game and examine the mechanisms found in it. I wanted to see how different games in the genre deal with some of the problems that are specific to that genre. I also wanted to show the breadth of games, themes, and mechanisms that I believe still share common links.

Unlike my series on scoring mechanisms, I decided to identify four games and stick with them for the entire article. The idea was to show just how games can share common mechanisms, face common design issues, and still be very different. I didn’t want to just look at a bunch of mechanisms – I wanted to look at the whole game.

For every angle, I wanted to compare *every* game in my list, if possible. That meant keeping the list down. If I had six games instead of four, the article would have been 50% longer, and it was quite long enough.

The need to limit the games I examined and the desire to look at the whole game meant that some excellent and relevant games wouldn’t make the cut. The most significant of these were the 18xx series and Age of Steam. In both cases, I felt that these games had so much more going on than just “production”. The rail-building aspect of the games, and the stock aspect of 18xx dominate a player’s decisions. So while it is true that in Age of Steam, players invest in rail lines, reap income from them, and reinvest the proceeds in more lines, I couldn’t fairly examine that game without getting into the specific issues that occur on the game board - which were outside the scope of my article.

Martin Sz said:

“... what about Acquire? An all- time classic, and possibly the best pure business game ever. Lord knows I love both Power Grid and Settlers, but to focus on these to the exclusion of Acquire in an article centerd on business and eco-dev games is perhaps a serious oversight, in my opinion at least.

To a lesser extent, Puerto Rico merits a mention as well.”

Regarding the omission of Acquire, adiamant nailed it when he responded:

I don't think Acquire actually fits the mold here... Jonathan is talking about production oriented business games, while Acquire isn't that. Puerto Rico certainly fits and is indeed mentioned in the article, even if not analyzed thoroughly.

Yes! I wanted to focus specifically on games where players build up some sort of production mechanism that grows and pays off ever more as the game develops. Acquire is more a game of stock speculation. Players owning shares in an Acquire hotel aren’t getting income from it. They might get a big payoff if it gets acquired, but that creates entirely different strategies than the ones found in the four games I focused on.

Adiamant also said:

Civilization games are probably more similar to the production business games. AH Civilization was what came to mind as an example of producing a variety of goods then using them to buy future production capability, but the way it's used is more circuitous, less direct.

I agree with this. In games like Civilization or Antike your “factories” take the form of population or cities on the board. But like Age of Steam, what’s happening on the board dominates the game in a way that would have taken the discussion in a different direction. Puerto Rico also takes its inspiration from Civilization. I excluded it similarly because it has so many mechanisms outside the basic invest-produce-reinvest structure. Also in Puerto Rico players don’t invest in plantations, they just get them as a result of certain actions.

Anonymous took us beyond the realm of games and into the dismal science:

You seem to come from the bigger is better school of economics, but bigger is not always better. Economies of scale apply only to a point, depending on business; and after that, the top of the organizational pyramid is just an extra cost.

So, bringing this back to gaming, the diminishing returns of Power Grid may be quite appropriate.

Yes, it is true that I advocate increasing returns to scale – but this is from a game perspective; it has nothing to do with reality. I point out in my article on The Art of Scoring, that games often use and benefit from a scoring system that escalates progressively – such as 1,3,6,10,15… Power Grid’s payoff does the opposite. In this sort of game, it is appropriate and needed to help slow down a runaway leader. I think that this regressive payoff scale is a good, integral way of slowing down a runaway leader, whereas I think that all the other benefits given to trailing players are pasted on.

[What follows may cause those of you who haven’t taken Econ 101 to glaze over.]

In terms of economic reality, Power Grid’s payoff scale does follow the “law of diminishing returns” and in this sense is entirely consistent with classical economic theory. Now the law of diminishing returns mostly applies in the short run. The idea is that if you try to produce more with your existing factory you have to pay your workers overtime, you use methods which aren’t the best, and so on. Power Grid arguably simulates more of a long run environment, where the standard assumption is that you can always at least reproduce your production abilities, and possibly improve on them. Anonymous argues that this isn’t always the case – that as you get bigger, you end up with more bureaucracy and can run less efficiently. One could also make the case that what Power Grid simulates in its use of a declining payoff is running down the demand curve. The more you produce, the lower your price needs to be in order for you to sell of all of your inventory. Now in Power Grid, it doesn’t matter if you’re the only person selling into a given city, or whether you share it with two other competitors. Try Medieval Merchant if you’d like a game where that mechanism is used. Maybe Power Grid uses the declining payoff to simulate this effect in the easiest way possible. Or maybe… it’s just a game.

More business analysis from Anonymous:

(To comment on Acquire, what drives anyone with business knowledge crazy about the game is that you want to be the loser, the acquired company, not the big company in the game. A good game, but far from a simulation!)

Now here I disagree. All of us who have been through the dotcom wars know that it’s often best to be the acquired company. The larger company will pay a premium over the market share price to get a controlling interest, and the shareholders of the acquired company benefit. In fact, there have been academic papers showing that when a merger is announced, the acquired company’s share price typically rises, while the acquiring company’s share price will, on average, stay the same.

Thanks to everyone who read and appreciated Taking Care of Business Games. I’m busy at work on my next piece which I promise will be SHORTER THAN AVERAGE! We’re going to be looking at “The Well Constructed Game”.

I also invite comments on the format and nature of the blog as well. My articles tend to be a lot longer than most of what’s out there. Some have commented that they are “really long”, while others have said that it’s nice to read material that’s so different in scope from most of what else is out there.

My articles also tend to be pretty technical. Do you feel that you’re getting something that really increases your appreciation of the hobby? That’s my goal – I want to elevate writing in this hobby to look at games almost like an art form. But man, sometimes I think it would be easier, and probably better appreciated, to write about how to choose what game to play, and which Settlers expansion is best, and… REVIEWS! People love reviews, and I’d get some freebies!

While I’m on the subject of game writing that is out of the norm – I’ll put in a plug for a guy who I regard to be a sort of soulmate on the other side of the country. Mike Doyle is a graphic designer with a special interest in the physical design of games. He frequently will completely redesign a game and present it on his website:

It is very refreshing to see someone examine games from a genuinely original angle – with such creativity and talent!


Brian Robson said...

Since you would like feedback on the nature of your blog ...

I very much enjoy reading your "really long" articles for the same reason I enjoy reading detailed games reviews in Counter - it is good to have an in depth consideration of games and gaming topics. Much of what is published on the web is at the shallow end of comment, and there's precious little analysis.

Due to family, friends and work commitments I unfortunately don't have much time to post comments, hence the brevity of this note, but if you continue to publish this high quality writing, I'll most certainly continue to read it.

Badkins said...

I love the detail of the articles.
I'm not familiar with many of the games you are talking about, but in reading your articles, I want to go out and pick them up.

I think you would be a great reviewer, and maybe you should start another blog for just that. But for people like me, you should link back to these articles you've written that give you another view of the game.

And keep this blog up, the information is invaluable for anyone interested in design and game theory.

Matthew Miller said...

You ask for feedback on the nature of your blog. I don't have much time to post anything, but I wanted to let you know that I read this site and like it very much the way it is. The articles are not too long or technical, and I wouldn't be as interested in reviews as I am in the kind of analysis you write here.

The only change I'd like to see would be more frequent posts :-)

-- Matt