Once upon a time I was interested in balancing the game I’m working on (Voluntarios) using excel sheets. Finding nothing I got to writing. And writing. And writing. The result was a series on in-game economics, of which this post is the next installment.
The other posts in the series are:
The general idea of a feedback loop
The general idea of a feedback loop is a system that has both inputs and outputs and where the output of the system is also (part of) the input. Thus the output loops back to again form the input.
An example of a feedback loop is a microphone that starts “singing” when it is held too close to the speaker. Normally a microphone captures a sound, transforms it into electricity and sends it to the speaker, which emits it as sound. When the microphone is held close to the speaker however, the sound that the speaker emits becomes the input for the microphone, which creates an electronic signal which is the input for the speaker, which…: Speaker => sound => microphone => electricity => speaker => sound => microphone => …
This already shows an important aspect of a feedback loop: The input / output can be changed while passing through the system (a normal sound quickly turns into horrible noise in the loop above)
What is being fed back?
To understand a feedback loop, it’s important what the relevant inputs and outputs of the parts of the system are.
Let’s start with a very simple example: If you put money in the bank, you get interest. Money => more money. Here it is clear that the thing that is being fed back is money.
In the example above the feedback loop was in two steps, sound to electricity to sound (etc.). Can you say which is the starting point? In this case yes. The loop starts with a sound; in a completely silent room there will be no feedback.
Feedback in board-games
Without delving into what a feedback loop in a board-game is just yet, let’s take a look at what would get fed back.
In the first post in this series I discussed resources as the basic building block of board-games. It is therefore natural to express feedback loops in terms of resources as well.
In Catan you can use a wood, brick, sheep and grain to build a village, which then throughout the game will produce more of the same (depending on where you place your village of course). Resources => village => more resources. And then those “more resources” would allow you to build another village (perhaps with a bit of trading), completing the circle.
If you read the first post in this series you’ll remember that “a village” (like basically anything you can acquire in a board-game) is also a resource.
The essence of a feedback loop in board-games then is: Anything that lets you spend resources now, to get even more resources a bit later.
Positive and negative feedback
So far we’ve been talking about situations where you get more of what you already had: More sound, money, resources. This situation we call a positive or exciting feedback loop.
The alternative is a negative or inhibiting feedback loop: The more you have, the less you get (or the more you need to pay, or the more difficult it becomes to obtain).
Let’s look at a few practical examples to understand this better.
Examples of feedback loops in board-games
- In Catan, having more resources allows you to build villages / cities which will get you more resources. Resources => village => resources
- In Agricola having more actions allows you to get more resources, which in time can be turned into a bigger house and get more family members, giving you more actions. Actions => resources => house & family member => actions
- In dominion you buy powerful cards that give you extra money / cards / actions, which in turn allow you to buy more powerful cards. Powerful cards => money / cards / actions => powerful cards
- If you’re winning at Catan other players will most likely place the robber next to your villages, reducing your income and thus your chances to win. Getting ahead => robber => more difficult to get further ahead
- In Agricola getting more family members means you have to generate more food, which takes (some of the) actions from your (new) family members, thus reducing the number of useful additional actions you get. Family members => need more food => reduction in “useful” actions
- In Dominion you need to buy green “points” cards, but these do not do anything useful outside of winning the game, clogging up your hand and making it more difficult to buy further points cards. Points => clogged hand => less ability to buy points
Building the engine
Get to that first new village in Catan before the others do and you are well ahead of them.
Building up a feedback loop (the “engine”) is an important part of many board-games. Starting with very little you improve your lot a bit, so that you get more, so you can improve a bit further. The essence then is to do this as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Positive feedback loops gone wild
Positive feedback loops help players win the game. And as players love winning, they’re very happy with their positive feedback loops.
Unless they are not the first one to get them running. If another player gets to a strong positive loop, it can be very difficult to gain in on them again. This can be seen in Catan, where if someone has two more villages than the rest, the game is in many cases already determined.
This is known as the “runaway leader problem”, where the person who is ahead is in such a strong position (has such a strong feedback loop) that there is no real chance of catching up anymore.
Taming the positive feedback loop
There are three ways of keeping a positive feedback loop in check:
Keep it mild: If I get only 1% interest on my savings then eventually I’m going to be a millionaire, but that’s going to take a long time indeed! Positive feedback loops where the output is only slightly larger than the input are very manageable and probably won’t produce a runaway leader. On the other hand, if it’s not really going to make a difference, then why include it in your game?
Quit when they’re winning: An elegant solution is to end the game when it’s reasonably clear who has the strongest loop. This way the winner is indeed the person who built the “best engine”, without forcing everybody to keep on going through meaningless motions of having the winner win even more
Introduce negative feedback loops: Make it costly to be ahead. Levy a “tax” on the strongest resources (feeding your family in Agricola). The combination of a positive and negative feedback loop can give some very interesting and deep gameplay, as your players very naturally get two (or more) things that they need to pay attention to.
Consequences for board-game design
Feedback loops are an important part of board-game design. When used well they can increase the depth of the game. Positive feedback loops give players something to “build on”, a progression. Negative feedback loops on the other hand can add a very satisfying “struggle” or something to “fight against”.
The challenge for board-game designers is to balance positive and negative feedback. Too much positive feedback and you get runaway leaders and frustration. Too much negative feedback however makes your game never get off the ground, resulting in a tedious churn. Balancing however is not trivial, as by their very essence, feedback-loops interact. The result is a broad space that needs to be explored to ensure that the game “works” under many different circumstances.
Feedback adds depth, but with that it also adds complexity. One positive and one negative feedback loop work reasonably well in most games and more can certainly be incorporated. This can be interesting for players, but also make it very difficult to predict what the result of a choice will be. Take this into account when designing your loops.
Feedback loops are an important part of “emergence” in games, a subject I hope to write about in the future. They also work over time, giving rise to the idea of “time-value”, a subject for yet another post. Finally, much more could be written about feedback itself, going deeper into examples, how to balance feedback, exactly how different loops can interact; perhaps I’ll find time to write about that as well.
If you have preferences, do let me know?
I try to make a feedback loop with this blog: I write something which hopefully is useful to you. You leave a reply or interact with me on on Twitter, giving me new insights, thoughts or questions, which I can then write about.
Help me close the loop: 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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