Board game design, In-game economics

In-game economics: Value

Clear value right there!
When we want something in real life we go to the appropriate shop, give them some of our money and take whatever it was we desired (of course there are things that money can’t buy, but for this post I want to focus on things that are definitely in the sphere of standard economics).

If I desire a particular teacup you own, while you desire it less, it makes sense for me to give some of my money to you and take your teacup. This way I get something I desire and you get the ability to buy something else you desire.

Of course goods don’t just spring into existence – teacups need to be made. And to make things you need to give up things of value: You need to buy materials and pay workers. Perhaps you also need to buy tools and machines. You pay for marketing your product. And having it shipped to shops. Etc.

We’ve built up a whole economy designed to produce things that other people value more than the value that needs to be given up in producing the thing (and getting it to the buyer).

This means that in a production process the amount of value has to increase. The amount of value output has to be higher than the amount of value input.

What does all of this have to do with board games you might ask?

Value in board games

Board games have an in-game economy. We spend some resources (wood-tokens, turns, cards, actions, etc. – see this post for more on in-game resources) to get other resources (stone-tokens, new cards, different actions). In this sense a board game resembles a modern economy quite closely.

In the real economy we do things because they produce value, where value is measured as “something that people desire” (I’m sure if you dig into it you can go to an even deeper level. Something having to do with survival-of-the-fittest or something. I’m perfectly happy to leave it at this though.).

To understand the in-game economy it helps to understand what “value” means within the game.

As a first approximation we can use the same notion as we use for the real economy: “Things that players desire”.

But because this is a game, it’s quite easy to go one step further. Because while in real life people’s desires a decidedly murky, in a game it’s very clear what the goal is: To win! And so players “desire” whatever brings them closer to winning.

“Value” in a board game therefore is equivalent to getting closer to winning.

Some examples

I value you this much higher than your sheep!
The previous paragraph was quite abstract, so let’s make this more concrete.

In Catan I win when I have 10 victory points. And thus I will greatly value a victory point, because it most directly gets me closer to winning.

But I will also value anything that helps me get victory points; I love getting a village because it’s 1 VP closer to the finish. But that village is also going to produce resources. And those resources are going to help me get more victory points!

To build a village I need to gather resources: Wood, sheep, grain and stone. So I value those resources, because each one is one step towards building something that gets me 1 step closer to victory! If you think that’s convoluted, it can much worse… But let’s not get into that right now (I’ll spare your and my own brains!).

I also value anything that stops my opponents from getting closer to winning. Placing the robber helps me only marginally, but it can be quite a big issue for the other players. And as long as they are not winning, I have more time to get my own victory. Clear value creation!

Comparability

The idea of value makes it possible to compare different options. If I can either get an additional village or I get a “1 victory point” card in Catan, which do I prefer? I would say it’s the village, as it will produce further resources and thus has a higher value than the single victory point card.

In this example it is possible to make a direct comparison between two options and declare one of them better.

Of course such comparisons are hardly ever so easy. Because the 1 victory point card costs less to buy than a village. But there is also a randomness to buying a card, so I might not actually get that 1 point. And I can even imagine edge cases where I would prefer the 1 victory point card (something with knowing that my opponent holds a “monopoly” card). So even in such a simple and clear-cut example there is uncertainty.

And this is good! You want players to be able to more-or-less compare options, but not entirely. Because this is where interesting decisions are born! If there is ambiguity on which option actually holds the most value players will have to make a choice and live with the consequences.

Because if the value of each option was perfectly known, there wouldn’t be any choice to make: Simply take the one with the highest value!

The value economy

Got to keep the economy running!
In the beginning of this article I wrote how our economy is geared towards increasing value with each (production) step. The same should hold true for your board game economy.

Many games take multiple steps to get to a “final product”. In Catan I need resources to build first roads, then a village and finally a city. In each of these steps I’m increasing the value of what I have. This creates a sense of progression for your players as well a clear incentive to make certain choices (see this post on incentives in board games). Increases in value thus are a clear way of “steering” your players, without forcing them to do anything (they are free to not take the value increasing option…).

Of course it can be very interesting as well to make it much less clear that something actually has a positive value. Imagine a city in Catan being worth 0 points. Then there is a benefit (increased production) but also a downside (losing a victory point!). Given the target audience of Catan I fully understand that they decided not to go with this, but maybe your own game could use such a value trade-off?

Value is relative

I love going on vacation, while you might want a big car. We value different things.

In most board games players start out similarly (there are exceptions of course) and so in the beginning players will value the same thing the same way.

But once the game gets going players will have made choices that change the value of things for them. If you have a grain harbor you value grain more than if you don’t. If you’re one ore away from building a city then that ore is much more desirable than if you already have a hand full of the stuff.

When players are doing just-about the same you get a boring game. You want players to take different avenues. And for this you want them to value things differently. You want to vary how much additional benefit players get based on what they already have.

This can relate to strategic but also to tactical choices: What gives the most value in the long run versus what gives the most value right now.

Of course you also don’t want players to have completely different valuations, as that would mean they would have nothing to compete over!

Closing thoughts

This is closed now…
Thinking about the value of things in your board game can help you take a step away from the gritty details of the design and take a more holistic approach: What are ways of creating value? How can value be lost? Are there very efficient ways of creating value? What would happen if it was easier to create value? Or if you made it more difficult?

Under what circumstances would players value options differently? How big are those differences in value? And are they likely to occur? Can you increase those differences? should you?

I hope you found this post valuable!

Further reading

A while back I wrote a number of other posts about in-game economics. Here is a small selection:

Most fundamentally is the idea of resources in board games.

This current post also closely links to this post about cost and value in board games.

And finally an interesting way of creating value is through the use of (positive) feedback loops.

About the author

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.

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2 Comments

  1. Russel Fleming

    Thanks again Bastiaan, for a well written piece. For my game (an area control 4X-type game) I made the first iterations of the map quite balanced in terms of resources. I am considering changing the map (also making it modular) so the resources are not balanced and will encourage different paths within the game and lead to more competition for desired resources.

    I don’t however want to restrict choices and limit player growth.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Russel,

      Thanks for the compliment 🙂

      What form of balance do you mean? Symmetry in access to resources? Or balance in win chances? The first can be a way to achieve the second, but shaking it up a bit can make for more interesting games (with different paths to victory as you write yourself).

      Restricting choices is not such a bad thing I believe, as long as there are interesting choices left to make. But when you can choose between 20 options or 5 options, I think in general the latter is preferable (less analysis paralysis!)

      Good luck!

      Reply

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