Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Invisible Hand

The pseudonymous "Adam Smith" wrote, in "Wealth of Nations", about the invisible hand "to illustrate how those who seek wealth by following their individual self-interest assist society as a whole and build the common good." (Wikipedia) In Britannia-like games, there seems to be an "invisible hand" that tends to balance the game, over many plays, as players recognize that everything they do affects the game as a whole. E.g., in situations where it might be possible to wipe out a nation, a player might choose not to do so because he knows that later this will be of too much benefit to a third player.

Now this doesn't prevent games from being unbalanced--Maharajah 4 player comes to mind, though I understand that can be fixed--but it does help counterbalance problems.

Unfortunately, the "invisible hand" depends on experience and foresight from players, which may be a reason why experienced players often prefer to play with other experienced players, rather than with newbies. The newbies won't foresee the long-term effects of their actions the way the experienced ones can.

From a designer's point of view, the problem is getting playtesters with enough experience to "enforce the invisible hand".

I am particularly worried about the "invisible hand" in a game like EPIC Barbaria, where there are many small nations that might be easily wiped out (there are 44 or so nations among the five players, and few have maxes as high as 10 armies). There's always a temptation, for players, to wipe out a relatively weak nation that foresight shows will often score a lot of points.

In Brit, my solution to this worry about important nations being wiped out prematurely was the submission rules, and this is still the #1 method, though I try to stay away from it because it's fiddly (Brigs to Angles case in point). In Normannia the Bretons are rather vulnerable, but here I have the historical precedent of the appearance of exile Alain Barbertorte from England, who reconquered Brittany from the Vikings using troops from outside the country. In Barbaria I have the relatively weak Spanish vulnerable to the Muslims, and in cases like that I can have new troops simply appear in Asturias even though it might be controlled by Muslims. In the case of the Irish in Normannia, the Vikings might be able to wipe out the Irish, so I've made Connacht an "unoccupiable" province for the Vikings, and the Irish keep coming. In Viking Gold (not a Brit-like game) I have all areas in Ireland rise up against occupiers in the last two rounds of the four-round game. These techniques reflect the fact that Ireland was never Romanized, never united under one administration, and the chaotic Irish keep throwing up gangs of warriors from their forested fastnesses to fight off invaders.


Ian Schreiber said...

It's funny, I just had a conversation about this with some students a few days ago, and I didn't even think of the Invisible Hand analogy. I just called it a "take down the leader" dynamic, which is very common in multiplayer games that allow players to attack one another (either directly or indirectly).

I don't think it's this dynamic that requires experienced playtesters; in euro-style games with relatively simple rules, even inexperienced players seem to understand "hey, Bob's winning, everyone attack him". It helps, I suppose, that it only takes one player at the table to point out that someone's winning.

So, I'd suspect your need for experienced players is more a function of the game complexity than the presence of "Invisible Hand" dynamics.

Lewis said...

The tendency to gang up on a leader, of itself, is usually called "leader bashing". The Invisible Hand seems to be much more subtle, in part because it's hard to know who's ahead, but easier to know that, say, Green doesn't have a chance if the Welsh are wiped out.