Board game design

In-game economics: Cost and Value

Introduction

A foray into “balancing a board-game using excel” turned into an exploration of “in-game economics”. This is the second post in the series. The first is about “resources” and the ideas presented there are used in this post; reading it before continuing here might be a good idea.

In this post I want to take the concept of “resources” one step further and look at how resources relate to each other, taking a look at cost and value within the economics of board-games.

Let’s start by taking a look at real world economics.

Real world economics

Lots of economy!
Lots of economy!
Most people won’t be able to tell you exactly what “economics” is, but most will have an idea that it has something (or a lot!) to do with money.

In modern times they would be right. But money did not always make the world go round.

During the agricultural revolution life was fairly simple. You sowed your fields, harvested what came up, raised some animals and ate most of what you produced. If you had some left you could barter that with your neighbors: My grain for your sheep (is this starting to sound like Catan yet?). People traded resources.

As civilizations grew, the trading became more complex. To facilitate this they invented a resource that was easy to carry, didn’t spoil and could be traded for anything else: Money! Soon everything was traded indirectly through the use of these magical coins, but the essence was still the same: One resource gets swapped for another resource.

Trading in board-games

I already mentioned trading sheep for grain in Catan. This is a textbook example of trading and could happen in the real world as well (except that in the real world you’d give up an animal and not a card depicting one).

One player gives something to the other and gets something else in return.

Adding value

A canoe for 3 clams? That's definitely adding value!
A canoe for 3 clams? That’s definitely adding value!
In the real world trading of “raw” resources is not the only thing that happens. Generally steps are taken to increase the value of what is traded: The sheep gets skinned, the grains are separated from the straw, wood is turned into a house and plastic is molded into a toothbrush.

In our games something similar is done: 3 “wood” tokens are discarded and a “house” tile is placed on the board. The actual “manufacturing” is abstracted, but a transformation nonetheless takes place. And hopefully that house is more useful to the player than the 3 wood were.

The cost of the thing

Getting any type of resource has a cost: It takes time to sow and harvest. You need to give away some of your grain to get a sheep.

In the real world we have a convenient unit to denote cost: Money.

Just about anything you might reasonably want is for sale: Pay an X amount of money and you get your [sheep, house, toothbrush]. And that makes the cost of the thing X.

In games the cost of something is also generally quite clear: It costs 3 wood to get a house or two grain to get a sheep. This already shows an issue: We normally do not have a single resource that can be traded for everything else. So though the cost of something is clear, it is not quite so easy to compare that cost of one thing (3 wood) to the cost of something else (two grain).

Something to remember is that board-games have many less obvious resources. Perhaps a getting a house takes 3 wood, but also an action, a card and a board space. These should all be taken into account when looking at the cost of an in-game resource.

But what is it worth?

We have a tendency to think that cost and value are the same: If this toothbrush costs 2, then it must be worth 2.

In most cases this is not a bad approximation, but it most certainly doesn’t always hold. What’s the value of a cup of water for someone who is dying of thirst? And compare that to the value for someone who is drowning.

In real life it is difficult to ascertain the value of something. This is because value is subjective and time-dependent (as the example above hopefully shows). Luckily this is not really a big problem, as we do not need to explicitly state what the value is: If something for you, now, has higher value than it costs, it’s a good idea to acquire it.

Opportunity cost

I could use some of my coins to buy sugar. But then I can't buy anything else...
I could use some of my coins to buy sugar. But then I can’t buy anything else…
In the western world a lot of valuable things are really cheap. So why isn’t everybody drowning in stuff (even more)?

This is because there is one more “hidden” cost to getting something: You can’t use the resources used to obtain it for something else. We call this “opportunity costs”; one of the costs of obtaining Y is that you no longer have the resources to obtain Z (or any of the other letters of the alphabet).

In the end it isn’t just a question of finding something that has more value than it costs, it is a matter of finding the thing that has the most value for its cost.

There is an obvious parallel to board-games: There might be a lot of good things I could do (get), but which option is the best? If you ever played Agricola you will most certainly know this feeling!

Which brings us to the concept of value in board-games.

Value in a board-game

As mentioned, in the real world it’s hard to explicitly state the value of something. Interestingly enough, in a board-game this is easier!

Real life doesn’t have an over-arching goal, but a board-game does: Winning!

And so the value of any resource can be expressed in how much closer it brings you to winning. Especially when winning is quantified (e.g. through victory points) then you have a simple unit to expressing the value of an in-game resource.

If a house is worth 1 victory point and a house costs 3 wood, then the value of 1 wood is 1/3th of a victory point. Simple!

Of course things can get more complex: If a house also costs a card then 3 wood and 1 card together would be worth 1 victory point. Then if we can somehow translate the value of a card into victory points we can use some high-school algebra to express the value of a wood in victory points.

And in theory it is possible to do this for all of your resources (even if those calculations might be very complicated!). In general however it’s not necessary to know this exactly, as even an approximate value already gives a lot of information.

Back to costs

We can now (theoretically) express the value of any resource in terms of how much closer it brings us to winning. And for simplicity’s sake let’s say our game actually has victory points so we can express value in those.

This allows us to look at the cost of in-game resources.

If (after some calculation) we find out that a wood is worth 1/3th of a victory point and that a sheep is worth half a victory point, then we can say that something that costs 2 wood (= 2/3th victory point) is more expensive than something that costs 1 sheep (= half a victory point)!

Implications for board-game design

Make them p(l)ay!
Make them p(l)ay!
Resources are the elemental building blocks of board-games. And through some (complicated) calculations it is possible to look at the value and costs of those resources within the game.

In general actually doing these calculations might not be useful, but the concept can be of use when designing a game. When you’re designing you get to set costs and values of your resources. This is mostly done implicitly, by fine-tuning (balancing). Expressing things in their victory-point equivalent however gives a much more explicit way of doing this.

This leaves out a lot of very important factors, such as scarcity of resources, tactics, strategy, feedback-loops, etc. As such it will most certainly not be the end-all for game balancing. But there most certainly are cases where it is a useful tool in our arsenal.

Another use is to check whether different paths to victory are equivalent in difficulty: If the total cost of one path is much lower than another then you can expect players to converge on that option.

Next steps

In this post I explored the concept of cost and value of resources within the in-game economy.

This however is only the tip of the iceberg; cost and value aren’t static, instead they depend on the state of the game. In future posts I want to delve into some of this dynamism. Specifically I want to take a look at scarcity (if you can’t get wood, the value of wood goes up!) and feedback-loops (in Catan resources build villages, which allow you to get further resources; how to value those resources in this case?)

Finally, I hope to bring these (and other subjects) together to delve further into how to balance your game using spreadsheets. The result of that will hopefully be a reduction in the amount of play-testing you need to do to get your game from “good” to “final”; as we all know, time can be traded for money. And money can be traded for anything!

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know if you agree and where you think I completely missed the point!


Hi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

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6 Comments

  1. Olaf

    Talking about value: one of the things i like about Koehandel is the occurrence, through gameplay, of inflation by increasing the money supply. It is a more explicit idea of your “scarcity” argument, i suppose…

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      That’s a good one, I’ll definitely have to use that as an example in one of the upcoming posts 🙂

      Come to think of it, there are quite a few games which have “inflation”, in the sense that something which was very valuable in the beginning isn’t anymore in the end, as a lot more gets produced (and thus the value drops).

      Might even be an idea for an entire post… Thanks!

      Reply
  2. Wim

    Economics, my university professor used to tell me, is the study of scarcity. It studies how people, or society, can make most use of scarce resources. In this way it relates directly to boardgames. Not only ‘economic’ boardgames, but to virtually all of them. Because most boardgames are about overcoming hindrances, and most times those hindrances are limitations on resources – in other words, those resources are scarce. Even in non-economic games like chess or parcheesi, your scarce resources consist of the limited number of your game pieces, the limit of moves you can make per turn (just one) and the limited number of spaces you can move to on the board.

    Economics also tells (in an abstract way) how to make best use of these scarce resources, with the concept of utility. You said that real life doesn’t have an over-arching goal, but an economist might state that people should (or at least do) strive at maximizing utility. People generally use their resources in such a way that it gives them the highest utility. Now in economics, ‘utility’ is pretty vague, but in games, it’s much clearer; it’s how close you get to winning (one might argue that in a ‘victory point salad’ game, victory points are as abstract as utility – you can maximize those points in a myriad of ways, the same like in real life you can spend resources in lots of ways to gain utility). You should use your resources in a way that brings you closest to victory. Depending on the game that could mean maximizing the number of victory points you get or money you make, maximizing your movement towards the finish, getting the best strategic position on the board, anything else, or a combination of it all.

    So yes, some concepts of economics can certainly be used in boardgames. One thing that the economist in me likes about Settlers of Catan is how the relative value of the different resources changes, depending on their scarcity and on what players like to build. Sometimes a brick can be worth three sheep, but a few rounds later that value has most likely changed.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Thanks for your response!

      I wasn’t implying that what I wrote was only for “economic” games, just about every game has an “economy” and indeed, it is the scarcity of resources that creates the obstacles that we are to overcome. A very good subject for a follow up post! 🙂

      Utility is indeed somewhat of a “vague” concept. Victory points are most certainly “abstract” (they don’t need to relate to anything in the real world), but they are not “vague”; you can point your finger at exactly how many victory points you scored at the end of the game. I also used the example of victory points as they are the easiest to quantify, but the same analysis can be done with anything else that gets you closer to winning (though that might be more difficult).

      Economics can help to understand what is going on in board-games. It can help players make better decisions, but (in my opinion) more importantly, it can help designers make better games. In Voluntarios (the game I’m developing) I used the idea of value and cost to see what would be reasonable “exchange rates” (and that would be another good subject for a new post)

      Thanks (again) for the feedback!

      Reply

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