Board game design, In-game economics

In-game economics: Time-value


Time waits for no-one. Except in board-games, where your turn can be as long as you want
Time waits for no-one. Except in board-games, where your turn can be as long as you want
One thought leads to the next: I was writing about the cost and value of resources in board-games, which led to feed-back loops in board-games. One idea that popped up there was that there is a “time-value” to getting resources. In this post I want to explore that idea further.

What is time-value?

Either I give you 10 Euro right now, or I’ll give you 10 Euro in a year. Which do you prefer?

Under normal circumstances you would prefer the money right now. Because maybe I’ll forget in a year or have gone completely bankrupt by then. And spending money now is way more fun than knowing that you can spend it later.

Thus, people generally have a preference for getting things sooner rather than later. With a technical term this is called the “time-value” of something (or even more technical, the “time-discount”).

Time in board-games

Time in board-games works somewhat differently than in real life: In a game of Chess it’s not uncommon to think for many minutes of real-time, in which nothing happens within the game. Then in a second you move your rook and the board has suddenly changed.

Time in board-games is discrete: There are only certain moments in which you are allowed to act. Only when it’s your “turn” (which is different from everybody else’s) do you get to make any meaningful changes to the in-game world.

The natural measure of “time” in most board-games thus is the “turn” or the “round”.

Time and positive feedback loops

In this post I discussed feedback loops in board-games. There I very generally described an in-game (positive) feedback loop as any mechanism that lets you spend resources now to get back more resources later.

A good example is a village in Catan, which costs you four resources to build and which will pay back a random number of resources over the course of the game.

Time required to earn back an investment

Wait long enough and you can grow as large as you want
Wait long enough and you can grow as large as you want
In board-games (like in life) it’s a good idea to only “buy” (expend the resources for) something if it’s going to give you more than it costs.

However even if it eventually pays itself back, that doesn’t mean it’s a good investment; a bank account that gives me 0.01% interest is going to make me a millionaire eventually. Unfortunately I’ll be long dead before I get to enjoy my riches.

So it’s important to consider how quickly your “investment” pays itself back.

An example

Let’s look at a made-up game, in which you can spend some resources to build a woodcutter which provides one wood every turn.

If this woodcutter costs you one wood then it will earn itself back in a single turn and all turns after that are a profit. If however it costs five wood then only five turns later are you out of the red.

Of course in many games the examples will be more complex, with production and cost being in different types of resources (build the woodcutter using stone, whilst it still produces wood).

Available time

In this post I write about how all games must come to an end. This means that there is a finite amount of time in which an investment can earn itself back: Even if the woodcutter costs just one wood, if the game is exactly 1 round, then you will never be able to make a “profit” off of it.

Or (more realistically), if the game is going to end at the end of this turn, there is no reason to build that woodcutter.

Thus, you need the time (turns) for something to deliver more than it initially cost.

The result of this is that the value of something that generates resources changes throughout the game: Get that woodcutter on your first turn and you’ll get to enjoy the spoils for many turns and thus it’s very valuable. Build it late-game and the returns are minimal and thus so is the value.

Opportunity cost

You can go left or right, but you can't do both
You can go left or right, but you can’t do both
Let’s say you will in fact have enough turns left to enjoy the spoils that your woodcutter is going to bring. Then there is still one final thing to consider: Opportunity cost.

Instead of that woodcutter, what else could you have built? Maybe something that gives you points? Or that hinders your opponent? And would that have been more useful? In this case you need to weigh the value of those extra (future!) wood against all the other things that the investment cost could get you right now.

Time as a natural negative feedback loop

“Time” forms an essential element of a feedback loop (you need time for output of one process to become input for the next).

When time is unlimited this means that a positive feedback loop can run completely wild (produce extreme results).

In board-games time (turns) is limited. This means that a positive feedback-loop will only produce a limited amount of advantage. This then means that there is cut-off point after which setting up a (positive) feedback loop (an engine) is not cost-effective. Thus “time” is an automatic negative meta-feedback loop, reducing the effectiveness of any possible positive feedback loop.

Consequences for board-game design

In this post about resources I wrote that anything that lets you influence the state of the game is a resource. I’ll now explicitly add time (in the form of a turn) to the examples there.

The value of something that generates resources changes throughout the game. This can be used to give your players some interesting choices: Go for that production unit as quickly as possible to reap the most of its rewards, but forego other options in pursuit of that?

Or, make something so expensive that you’re right on the edge of having enough time to make it pay-off or not.

Either way it’s good to think about how much time your players will have to enjoy their resource-production. Will this cause runaway effects, or is it so limited that it’s not worth pursuing? Either is no fun, but somewhere in between any number of interesting games live!

Next steps

This post deals with time-value in a general sense. It is theoretically possible to “calculate” what that value is. It’ll be quite a mathematical post, but it might be very interesting really dig into it. It’ll expand nicely on another previous post on the value of resources.

So: Watch this space!

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! Leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter?

Bastiaan_smallHi, 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.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter?



  1. Really well done, Bastiaan. This is a tricky topic and one I’ve always been fascinated by for the gaming application of real-world finance and economics.

    One of my favorite examples in games is the big you addressed: when is the future payoff not worth it? I love mechanics that provide some resource in perpetuity, like the Agriculture space in Stone Age that provides additional food every round. It’s a fantastic space on turn 1, but how good is it on turn 12? Especially in a game without a fixed number of rounds where you can’t be certain if you have say 2 or 4 more turns.

    In many ways this entire idea is something worker placement games tend to struggle with. Getting additional workers on the first few turns will always outweigh any downsides, and the process of doing so rarely has a good valuation (opportunity cost) placed on them, such as an auction where players could at least set a competitive cost.

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Alex,

      Coming from someone who certainly knows about board-game design, that is high praise indeed!

      Regarding the worker placement games: Agricola does a very good job at this. There is no way to get an additional worker immediately and there is a very real cost involved, both initially (the expansion of your house, the turn to get the worker) and for the rest of the game (having to feed your worker).

  2. Olaf

    Of course resources are not necessarily priced by the game maker. One thing i like about “koehandel” (possibly called Cow Trade in English????) is the fact that through coding you can see that different players put different values on the different “resources” on the game…

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Auctions are a very nice way of not setting prices for something, indeed. The downside is that they tend to take quite some time. For Kuhhandel (which I think is the official “English” name) this is no problem because that’s the entire game, but when including it in a game that does more, it can become a drag.

      Catan does something similar, through an informal “auction” barter system


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