Sunday, November 25, 2012
I set myself the task of modifying chess in just one of the nine fundamental sub-systems of games: interaction of assets/conflict. Chess has a very simple conflict system: the attacker always wins via “displacement capture”. What happens if we change that?
The obvious change, to me, is to use a randomizer such as dice so that the attacker doesn’t always win. When one piece attacks another, dice are rolled and a comparison determines which piece survives.
In the first method a different multi-sided die is assigned to each kind of piece. A pawn is a D4, a bishop or knight is a D6, a rook is a D8, and the Queen is a D12. Or if you really want a game where the Queen runs amok (I don’t) make it a D20. The attacker adds one to his die roll. So if a pawn attacks a bishop we have an even fight, D4 +1 versus D6. If a rook attacks a pawn it’s D8 +1 versus D4. What happens if it’s a tie? If we give too much advantage to the defense, such as ties are won by the defense, the game could become very static. So I’m going to choose the more exciting alternative which is to reroll ties. (Another possibility: both are eliminated.) I’ll get to the King in a moment.
The drawback of this method is that you need a collection of special polyhedral dice. So in the second method we just use regular D6s. A pawn rolls one D6, a Knight or Bishop rolls two D6s, a Rook rolls three and a Queen rolls four (or again if you want the Queen to run amok have her roll five). The attacker gets an extra die. Reroll ties.
Now in either case, what about the King? The first alternative is that the King is an exception to the rules, with infinite attacking strength and no defending strength. So the king always wins when he attacks, and the usual chess check and checkmate rules apply. In other words we haven’t changed the standard chess rules for the King.
The second alternative is to treat the King as another part of the combat. In this case the King has a dice strength and participates in combat like any other piece, and a player is not obliged to call check when he threatens the King. The question is what dice to give the King. My first thought is the same as the bishop and the knight, enough so that the King can take chances and might actually survive an attack but not so much that he becomes impregnable.
Now we can go further by introducing “support” from nearby units into the conflict. For example, one way to do this would be to add one point to the die result for each piece of the rolling player that is in one of the eight squares adjacent to the conflict square. Another way would be to add one point for each piece of the rolling player that can move to the conflict square (although they don’t actually move). One point is going to mean less in the dice method that uses several D6s, and some players might want to add an entire die for each supporting piece, but then the support becomes more important than the identity of pieces in actual conflict. Nonetheless this support rule should help prevent a raid by one strong piece that just wades into the massed ranks of the other player and hopes for decent luck. Imagine a rook or Queen just attacking one piece after another and accepting counterattacks while hoping that its superior dice carry the day. The support rule is going to discourage that.
Now as I write this I have not tried to play any version of this game with an actual board and pieces. I am trying to anticipate what might happen, that is, I am playing the game “in my mind’s eye”. I think this is much more efficient than not anticipating what might happen and simply playing the game. But that depends on your situation and on how you do things.
Another way to use a randomizer is to give each player some cards from a standard deck of cards. When there’s a conflict, each player chooses a card from his hand and places it face down on the table, both then reveal their cards, and the strength of the cards is added to the strength of the pieces. A card once used cannot be reused. Each player gets an identical selection of cards, say four aces (1s), four 2s, and two 3s for a total of 10. When these 10 cards are used up they become the player’s new hand.
What is the strength of the pieces? A pawn would be a 1, Bishop and Knight 2, Rook 3, and Queen 4 or 5. If the King were used as no ordinary piece rather than an exception that it might have a strength of 2.
The problem I see in my mind’s eye is that players might simply play the largest cards first in order when the initial battles and hope that the consequent material superiority would carry them through even though the other player might have better cards later.
This card method could result in “card counting”, that is, memorizing what cards have been used in order to know what’s left in your opponent’s hand. To avoid that memorization problem - memorization has nothing to do with chess and is generally not desirable in modern games - I’d say that all cards that have been used can be viewed by the opponent so he’ll know what you have left.
This can be further varied by increasing the size of the deck but allowing the player only three or four cards in hand at a time. This introduces uncertainty and further requirement for hand management. If you happen to get really good cards to start with you had better use them well because you’re going to get worse cards later on.
If you use the point values normally assigned to chess pieces and varied the cards much more, with higher numbered cards, that might work better.
Some people will prefer this method strongly to dice because they feel they can manage their cards, and there’s an element of bluff and Yomi (reading the other player’s intentions) that doesn’t exist when you simply roll dice.
I would be unsurprised to find that other people have devised fairly similar chess variants over the years. These methods are original to *me*, but that doesn’t mean they’re original to the world. That’s often the case with game mechanics.
Alternatives to displacement capture
Chess is a game of perfect information, with the only uncertainty coming from the other player’s intentions, but a minimax player can maximize his minimum gain regardless of the intentions of the other player. What we’re doing with the methods above is adding uncertainty to chess conflict.
Can we alter the chess combat system without changing its perfect information nature? In other words, can we avoid uncertainty in combat but change how combat takes place, change from displacement capture to something else. This has been done, more or less, in many variations of chess collectively called “fantasy chess”. New kinds of pieces are devised with new movement and capture methods. For example some may capture by moving away from an opposing piece. Others may capture by forming a pattern around an opposing piece, for example the piece moves so that it and another piece of the same player are on opposite sides of the piece to be captured. There are all kinds of jumps and hops and oddball captures from a distance. I haven’t looked into this for many years but there are chess variant web sites and there are certainly sites about fantasy chess that you can look at.
But how else can we alter the conflict system for all the pieces without changing the movement of the pieces and the perfect information nature of chess? A simple change would be, when a piece moves it attacks a piece in an adjacent square, perhaps only orthogonally (up down and sideways but not diagonally). So a piece cannot move into a square occupied by another piece, opposing or otherwise. An attacker could often have more than one potential target, but he would only be able to attack/take one of them.
Some variation on the support I mentioned above might work, but I’m afraid it would result in two great defensive masses of pieces and regular stalemates.
Another method would be, you move your piece to a square, then it attacks a piece that it could move to if it could move again. That might make the attack quite strong, and would certainly make for a chaotic game. Somehow I feel it might be better if combined with one of the dice methods.
Helping balance the game?
Could we find a conflict system that gives an advantage to the black player, who has much less chance to win than the white player in standard chess? That would need to be a very small advantage or we might find that black wins more than white.
Perhaps we could introduce an input randomizer as opposed to the output randomizers suggested in the methods above. (These are Geoff Englestein’s terms: an input randomizer occurs and is known before players act and (frequently) all players are affected by it as they play; an output randomizer occurs after players have acted and then they get a result as modified by the randomizer. Most conflict methods in wargames are output randomizers.) Because the black player moves second perhaps we could find a way to use the input randomizer to give him the last choice.
Unfortunately, nothing has come to mind that would be sufficiently small to balance rather than overbalance the game. Perhaps someone else will think of something.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
In many “natural” games, such as sports, and in many traditional board and card games, every participant begins with an equal position and prospects to every other. This is symmetry. We can look at game design as devising interesting ways to break up symmetry, to introduce asymmetry. Some of these are achieved through player choice, some through randomness, some through uncertainty, and some through choice or caveat of the designer.
The most obvious way to break up symmetry is to be asymmetric from the start. Give each player different assets, or a different position if it’s a spatial/geographical game, or both. This is a characteristic of most two player wargames but much rarer in wargames for more than two. It’s rare in Eurostyle games as well. In fact it’s pretty rare generally because it’s much more work for the game designer. The designer has to balance at least two different groups in order to make the game fair. In my experience Britannia-like games are a big pain in the rear because there are four sides that are asymmetric in both assets and locations. It is much easier to balance a game that’s symmetric. Diplomacy and Diplomacy variants can be difficult to balance geographically but all sides usually have the same number of units to begin with (in the parent game, Russia is the exception, with four units rather than three).
Asymmetry through game setup
This occurs when players either choose their assets, often according to a point system, or they choose their locations. In Risk players either choose their locations during the setup or the territory cards are used to randomly distribute them about the board.
Sometimes the board/playing field itself changes from game to game as in Settlers of Catan or computer Civilization. Or a game may have an exploration component which means that as locations are explored you get a new and non-symmetric board every time.
Asymmetry through roles
Many Eurostyle tabletop games use the idea of roles, such as King’s adviser or merchant, each belonging exclusively to one player in each round.
Vinci/Smallworld uses a kind of role in the Empire characteristics that a player can choose. The difference is that available roles in typical Eurostyle games are the same every round. InVinci/Smallworld the pairs of Empire characteristics are rarely repeated within a game, so once selected by one player, they aren’t available to another.
Asymmetry through the roundel
Some tabletop games use a roundel or other means to limit the action choices a player has in his next turn. As the player “moves” around the roundel, each turn he has a different set of choices in front of him.
Asymmetry through turn order
In some turn-based games there is an advantage to playing first, or last, or some other place in the turn order, and there’s a mechanism to enable players to compete for the most desirable place in the turn order, such as an auction.
Chess is asymmetric with respect to turn order, with white having a much better chance to win than black. This is accounted for in tournaments by having players play both black and white equally in the course of the tournament. Another way might be to let black move twice after white’s first move.
(The above three amount to asymmetry through what a player can or cannot do in the sequence of his particular turn. There are other ways to do this as well.)
Asymmetry through different decks of cards
Collectible card games enable players to make up decks of cards that are different from other players’ decks. Other games that supply defined decks of cards, such as Fantasy Flight Games’ “Living Card Games”, strictly limit the number of possible decks yet each deck is different from each other deck.
Asymmetry through event cards
Many boardgames include a deck of event cards. Each player is dealt a hand of cards, so each player has different capabilities. There are many computer equivalents of this with many names such as beginning skills, perks, etc.
Asymmetry through character classes, feats, skills, perks
In games where the player acts through an avatar, the game often provides alternatives in character class (profession), character ability numbers, skills and feats, and other ways, both functional and cosmetic, to customize the character and make it different from all other characters.
Asymmetry through uncertainty
There are many forms of uncertainty, some of them resulting from randomness, some from the uncertain intentions of other players, and some from hidden information. Typical games using normal playing cards rely on hidden information, usually combined with the randomization of hands dealt from a shuffled deck to introduce a great deal of asymmetry immediately.
Asymmetry through randomness
I’m sure you knew I would get here sooner or later, because randomness is a straightforward and easily designed way to introduce asymmetry to a game. That randomness can derive from dice or spinners, shuffled cards, chit draws, and other more esoteric methods.
This can be quite straightforward. In Britannia, the setup never varies. But as soon as the game begins, different players attack differently with the Romans; and dice rolls for combat result in even greater variety. So practically speaking the positions of the Romans, Belgae, and Welsh differ from game to game even though the setup is unvarying.
What may be most important about randomness is whether it occurs as what Geoff Engelstein calls input randomness or output randomness. Input randomness occurs before a player acts, and may affect all players equally. An example of this would be drawing a artwork token from a bag that all players will then bid for. Which painting comes out is random but all players are affected equally even though some may prefer a different painting than the one that came out. Output randomness occurs after the player acts, and usually affects only that player, as in the combat dice roll in so many wargames.
Output randomness can be accounted for up to a point, but modern hobby gamers tend to feel better about input randomness than output randomness.
Greg Costikyan has written a brilliantly explained discussion of how randomness can be used in games: http://playthisthing.com/randomness-blight-or-bane.
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Those who like dice games are going to answer this question with “lots”! But game designers can’t think that way. Every item added to a game increases the retail price of the game very roughly six times the actual cost. So if you put in some extra dice that cost $.15 altogether the price of the game rises by at least a dollar. If you add a dollars’ worth of dice the price of the game increases by roughly six dollars.
Not surprisingly, then, it’s the publisher who has the ultimate call about how many dice are included in a game. The designer can suggest, can try to justify, but in the end the publisher will decide.
The publisher will try to include the minimum number of dice that is not obviously inconvenient for the players. The designer is going to want “more dice than the players need”. That’s partly because the designer recognizes that anytime players must delay to find enough dice to roll then the game lasts longer than it should. And in these days when people want, or at least say they want, very short games, anything that unnecessarily makes the game longer is a Bad Thing.
Let’s take some examples. Fantasy Flight Games included five dice in their edition of Britannia. But when the game is played at a tournament the players typically open up their sets and have at least five dice per player, sometimes color-coordinated. :) The tournament games would definitely take longer if there were only five dice in play. Yet you can justify inclusion of only five dice, because a typical battle in Britannia is unlikely to involve more than three attackers and two defenders. There’s a stacking limit of three in clear terrain and two in difficult terrain, except that each nation is able to have one overstack, of unlimited size in clear and four in difficult. So a typical defending force in Britannia is one or two armies and a typical attacking force is two or three. Voila!, five dice. (By the way, roughly 800 dice are rolled in the course of a Britannia game, so dice are important and delays can add up.)
I have a “screwage” style pirate game prototype that includes dice rolling to resolve recruiting, pursuit, cannon fire, and boarding. Over the course of the game there can be quite a few dice rolls but no more than one die is needed by a player at any time. Yet most of these rolls are opposed, that is there’s a roll for both pirate and non-pirate, so you need two dice at the time to avoid delay. The question is, how many dice should be included in the game? Because the game is otherwise relatively inexpensive - it has no board, consisting of cards, some markers, and some dice - my opinion is that six dice should be included. That will be enough for one per player in all but exceptional cases (the game can be played by 2 to 8).
A game that requires two dice to resolve an attack is going to be slightly more expensive than a game that requires one die. If only one player rolls the dice in a battle then you need fewer dice than when both players roll. But as long as you keep the number down to around four dice I don’t think you should customize your design just to keep the number of dice to a minimum.
When you’re playtesting a game you should be aware of how many dice are available because this may impact the length of the game and the attitudes of the players. If you always playtest the game with six dice and the published version has three dice then it’s not quite the same game, probably for the worse. So a wise designer would include no more dice in playing of the prototype than he expects to be included with the published version.
I think most readers will understand that dice other than six sided are significantly more expensive and should be included in a game only when the additional expense is justified by gameplay that could not be achieved with six sided dice.
How did this esoteric question come to mind? I am testing the less-than-two-hour version of Britannia, which uses picture dice. Picture dice are more expensive than normal dice, and though normal dice could be used picture dice are regarded as much “cooler” by players. We started testing with six dice, but as you roll two dice per army that’s only sufficient for a 2 to 1 battle. Too often, I thought, one player had to wait for the other to roll before he could get enough dice to roll. Following the rationale for five dice in the standard version of Britannia I should include 10 dice in this version. But we tried playing for a while with 11 dice as it happens, and that seemed to be one too few, so now we’re playing with 12 dice. That’s a lot of dice but the game can go a little faster, and a major objective of this version is to have a game that takes 90 to 120 minutes. So I will argue in favor of at least 10 and probably 12 dice, but once again the publisher has a lot to say about it, and I may change my mind when I find out how much more picture dice cost than ordinary six sided dice.
“How many dice” is a minor thing in the great scheme of tabletop game design, but lots of little things add up so you need to think about these constraints while you design commercial games.
Another time I’ll talk about the virtues and “sins” of dice in games.
Friday, November 09, 2012
Two military/political aspects of the ancient world hold a fascination for me, because I've not found or seen a really satisfactory way to represent them in games. These are the problems of "the bump" and of tribute.
The first of these is what I call "the bump" or the push. This is the way that horse barbarians migrating out of Central Asia pushed other barbarians before them. Sometimes the pushing continued until ultimately some of them crossed over the borders of the civilized world. For example, the Huns pushed the Goths into the Roman Empire in the late fourth century A.D., and helped push the Vandals/Alans/Sueves/Allamanni/Franks as well.
In historical games that have the benefit (or curse) of hindsight/foresight often the player representing the Goths, knowing the Huns are coming, moves into the Roman Empire on his own. But in terms of causality that is backwards, a flaw that's a consequence of putting history into repeatable gameplay. Also there can be cases where the player is not certain that the Huns (or whoever) are coming, or are coming immediately (this turn). But there's rarely a mechanism in games to enable the Goths to react immediately according to what the Huns do.
If the nation is not allowed to vacate an area until actually attacked then some of the hindsight/foresight problem goes away. But if they're not allowed to flee and attack somebody farther up the line that we don't have a true bump.
I have tried various rules that allow horse units to withdraw from combat without fighting and move to another adjacent area to cause a fight there, more or less replicating the pushing action, the bump, on the steppe. But this can be complex and time-consuming whken there are multiple simultaneous bumps, and I've never found it satisfactory; and it doesn't reflect more subtle pushes that affect foot barbarians farther on (the other Germans).
Confederations and Submissions
Associated with this problem is the problem of shifting tribal confederations. Historians believe that the typical large tribal groups that attacked civilized areas were confederations made up of many tribes, including tribes of varying ethnicities. So the Huns were not all Mongols - or is it Turks, nobody's really sure - but some were Iranians (Sarmatians, Alans) and some were other peoples that they'd picked up in their travels. The Franks were a confederation of many tribes, although probably all German tribes. The Vandals famous for sacking Rome in 455 A.D. were actually much more complex, with two kinds of Vandals plus hangers-on from other tribes including even the Iranian Alans. Along with them into Iberia came the Suevi who were themselves a confederation of Marccomani and Quadi (IIRC), but again mostly Germans.
This also extends to the long-term submission of one barbarian tribe to another, as of the Germanic Gepids to the Huns. (A confederation including Gepids finally took down the Hun empire after the death of Attila. The Lombards and Avars later did away with the Gepids.) Yes, there are submission rules in Britannia, but those don't reflect the reality that tribes submitted to the Huns made up a considerable part of Attila's force that invaded Gaul in 451.
How do we represent the coming together (and sometimes coming apart) of these tribal confederations? How do we keep track of who is who? How do we decide when a tribe submits and when it unsubmits?
The second fascinating aspect of the ancient world is the interaction between tribute and control, especially in the ancient Near East. It seems that most warfare was not actually intended to conquer new land but only to raid adjacent nations into submission, both to gather loot and so that the victims would peaceably pay tribute in the future. The Assyrian empire especially was known for this, and only gradually did they take full control of areas they raided as their tributaries again and again reneged on their promises, especially when a new king came to power. Typically an Assyrian king went on campaign almost every year in order to chastise some opponent by raiding their lands. Sometimes the Assyrian kings raised stele that described in detail the loot they received in the tribute they extracted. And when the king died it was often necessary for his successor to go back and raid areas that had been tributary but stopped as soon as the strong King passed away. In most ancient Near Eastern empires the borders we see on maps represent tributary areas rather than a year-round control, though a few maps differentiate the two as best we can with limited knowledge.
In the Middle Ages, Charlemagne's Empire had some aspects of that tributary nature, but this often took the shape of feudal military obligations rather than actual payment of money and goods. And once the empire was no longer expanding, no longer collecting loot for the army, those obligations were more often not fulfilled. In contrast, in "modern" (post-Medieval) times in European warfare nations nibbled at the borders of their opponents, taking control of fortresses and small areas, or colonies overseas, and rarely resorted to tribute. Only occasionally as in the partitions of Poland did the attackers conquer large areas.
The Assyrians resorted to mass exportations of population to help gain control of new lands. In the end perhaps there just weren't enough Assyrians to control all that they had, and when there was a long fight over the succession after the death of a strong ruler such as Ashurbanipal, this could drag the Empire down, to the point that it was destroyed by its many enemies in the late seventh century BC. Thereafter there were still people around who called themselves Assyrians, and to this day there are people in Iraq and elsewhere in the region who call themselves Assyrians and proudly hearken back to the Assyrian Empire, but there's never been an Assyrian state of any note since 605 BC.
In an ancient Near Eastern game I'm working on I have a simple tribute mechanism, that armies can temporarily vacate an area (which is not normally allowed) in order to attack an adjacent area and extract tribute, afterward returning to the areas they came from. The owner of the raided area can decide to fight or can simply give up the tribute, which is one victory point to the attacker but no loss to the defender. It's the no loss to the defender that doesn't quite fit the historical situation, but in this game the economy is very simple and it's not worth trying to represent economically that the area was raided. The very long time scale - the game covers about 2,200 years in less than three hours for 3-5 players - makes it difficult to represent something that changed year-by-year in actual history.
For whatever reasons the ancients were not inclined to completely destroy enemy cities the way the Romans destroyed Carthage in 146 BC and Corinth in Greece in the same year (when he entered Corinth "Mummius put all the men to the sword and sold the women and children into slavery before he torched the city"). A common culture may have contributed to ancient reluctance; I think the Assyrians were more willing to destroy cities of enemies who were not part of the ancient Near Eastern culture dating back to old Babylonia and Sumeria. The Greeks may have had similar reasons not to destroy cities. The Spartans refused to destroy Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War, but Alexander the Great - a Macedonian, which is somewhat different from a Greek though the Macedonians liked to think they were Greeks - razed Thebes to the ground after the Greeks rebelled at his accession. On the other hand, centuries earlier the Spartans had destroyed Messenia and enslaved the entire population, who nonetheless retained their identity as Messenians.
All of this can come into play in the great mystery of history, the extraordinary effect that good or bad leadership can have in ancient (and medieval) times. Assyria fell when a three-way succession struggle following the death of a strong leader went on too long, but it wasn't the first time Assyria had suffered because of doubtful succession. The Roman Empire's great problem was the succession, and I wonder if more Romans were killed by one another in succession struggles than were killed fighting barbarians. Again and again and again you see the vast difference between outstandingly good and outstandingly poor leadership. I have leaders in Britannia, but their effect is not massive on its own; the Major Invasions have a much greater effect, and those are sometimes a result of leadership. In the much-shorter version of Britannia that I intend to be one of the new editions, you can only move half your armies when you don't have a great leader, a stronger effect added to the leader's bonus in battle.
Wednesday, November 07, 2012
According to tweetdeck, one of the trending:worldwide topics on twitter not so long ago was 6 word stories. In the past few months I've asked people to say 6 words about game design, programming, wargames, stories in games, casual games, zombie games, chance/randomness in games, innovation and plagiarism in games, and game sequels.
This time the challenge is this: say six words about role-playing games.
If you need some inspiration, look at the contributions at: http://gamasutra.com/blogs/LewisPulsipher/20121105/180889/Six_words_about_roleplaying_games.php
Thursday, November 01, 2012
This is a discussion of how some games include a cycle of converting resources through some means of production such as factories or agricultural facilities into assets that are usable to help succeed in the game. These assets are often physical things but can be capabilities or even victory points themselves.
In a recent blog post I talked about to kinds of economies in wargames that have economies, “maintenance” economies and “accumulation” economies. This led to a more general discussion about economic production in games, and I was pointed to a BoardGameGeek post about “means of production” (http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/822865/the-means-of-production-and-how-games-innovate ). The author of that post ("linoleum blownaparte") generalized too far when he or she said that the colored cards in Candyland were a means of production. I am going to use the term "means of production" to refer to the equipment that is used to convert raw materials into something useful within the game - in other words, factories, agricultural facilities, or the like. I'll use "the production cycle" to refer to the process that begins with resources and ends with some result of production. Not all games have a production cycle, of course, or only a rump of one (as in chess and checkers).
The accompanying table lists not only games that use the cycle I'm talking about but some games that do not to provide a comparison and contrast. Table for this article is at: http://pulsiphergames.com/presentation/productioncycle.htm
The economic production cycle works like this.
1) The source of the resources. There must be some resource(s) that can be converted into something else, and these must come from somewhere. The source is listed in the second column of the table, after the name of the game.
2) Resource Collection. Some resources must be gathered, harvested, mined - collected in some way. This may be explicit or it may be as simple as possession/ownership of territory, which is really all you need for the agriculture based economies that have dominated most of history - "land = wealth". Sometimes labor is explicitly involved, as in the workers/peons/peasants in Warcraft II and III and colonists in Puerto Rico.
I have included a separate column to indicate the actual resources that are used up when an asset is produced. Sometimes resources are not used up.
3) Means of Production. Some kind of equipment is used to convert the resources into usable items are capabilities. In the modern age this would be factories. There is usually labor involved, though that is rarely represented explicitly. In an agricultural age the means of production was as simple as plows, kilns, scythes, pottery, storage cellars, and grain silos or the equivalent. (Pottery is one of the great inventions of agriculture because it provides rat-proof storage.) The means of production often governs where new physical assets may appear, such as Industrial Centers in Axis & Allies, buildings in many real-time-strategy games, cities in computer Civilization.
4) Limits on Production. There are sometimes limits on production. The obvious and typical limit on production is the availability of resources; if you don't have enough gold and wood in WarCraft 2 or 3 you can't produce more units even though you have the buildings (factories) with available capacity. You are also limited by labor: if you don't have enough people to collect lots of gold and wood in Warcraft, then you won't have enough of the resources to "fuel" your factories (buildings). Another limit is the availability of the means of production such as factories, so you may have lots of resources but nowhere to convert them into assets.
The limit may also be the capacity of the land (overpopulation), pollution, limits of political organization, or other factors that prevent infinite production even when resources and means of production are available. (In a pure "accumulation" economy there are no such factors; in a "maintenance" economy there will be at least one such factor.)
A few games have a minimum production, e.g. in Risk you get three armies even if you hold as little as one territory (normally it's one army per three territories). Monopoly's "Pass Go get $200" is a kind of minimum production, as well.
5) Assets. I'm going to call the result of production "assets". This is usually a physical item but may be a capability or even victory points themselves in a game, or it may simply be money. In agricultural terms production results in edible goods that enable populations to expand without suffering severe famine. Populations support military units, which in pure agricultural economies amount to little more than armed farmers. In more modern terms production results in weapons and training for people to use those weapons, that is, it results in military units. Military units can be used both to destroy or take away an opponent's capabilities and to defend one's own economy and population.
But the cycle may result in some capability, for example greater mobility for one's assets or more Action Points to use each turn. Sometimes production is devoted to improving technology. Production can even result directly in victory points, or something that amounts to the equivalent of victory points (money is the victory points in Monopoly for example).
In some games there is only one asset (usually "armies"), in others there may be many assets with very different characteristics, e.g. units or technology research.
In the accompanying table I've listed these production cycle steps and include a column that shows victory conditions for the game in question. Normally the production cycle is a means to an end, the end being expressed in the victory condition.
Most of the time the assets are a means to an end (I’ve listed victory conditions), sometimes they are an end in itself closely related to the victory condition, such as victory points.
I welcome suggestions to improve the table.
Producing assets that increase resource collection or means of production, or both.
The key question in the economic production cycle is whether and how much you can produce something that increases your economic production capability, whether resource collection or means of production or both. In many video games you can produce buildings (factories) that enable you to produce more units, or whatever it is that you mostly produce. It's less often possible to produce something that increases your access to resources, such as additional mining equipment or the means to discover and colonization new planets, or better collection/extraction technology.
This is a key question because the more it is possible to increase your production through the assets you have produced, then the more likely the game will result in an "economic snowballing" effect. That is, the more likely it is that the player who best figures out the most efficient ways to improve their economic production - or who is luckiest in exploration and exploitation - will gradually pull far ahead of other players because of geometric expansion of his economic capability. In a wargame, sooner or later he turns assets into units that then overwhelm the opposition. In a 4X space wargame he also produces superior technology that makes both his economy and his military more formidable. In a purely economic game he simply produces more of whatever it is that causes you to win the game: money, victory points, or something else.
An "economic game" or "engine game" is typically dominated by this economic snowball effect. Most of the time in these games it is not possible to take production capability from another player, nor to destroy it. The players who have been less efficient in figuring out the production cycle have no means to arrest their doom. Yet at the end of the game they can see that they have improved their economic production and their own general situation quite a bit so they can feel positive about what has happened even though they lost the game. This is the central equation of many (certainly not all) Eurostyle games.
In a wargame on the other hand there is frequently little option to increase your economic production other than by taking it from another player. This is especially true in board and card wargames. On the other hand, in video wargames such as real-time strategy games it's possible to significantly outproduce the opponent by building up your resource collection and means of production. Furthermore, in most RTS you cannot take an opponent's production and use it for yourself, your only option is to destroy it. In other words some real-time strategy games are both economic snowballing games and wargames. At the very top class of real-time strategy, the professional sports leagues, all the players understand the economic efficiencies and we are back to wargame, with the caveat that players must be able to perform at 200 actions per minute in order to keep up with other opposition.
An appearance of a production cycle.
Some games involve acquisition of some asset, but the players have no way to alter the sequence. For me this isn’t a production cycle. For example, in Go, Tic-Tac-Toe, and Scrabble players acquire pieces, play them onto the board, and then get more. But they have no way to alter the rules about how many they receive, no way to increase resource collection or production of assets, no way to gain advantage over opponents.
Chess and checkers have a minor production cycle in pawn promotion and kinging. The player has one way to control what happens, by reaching the far rank of the board. In both games the acquisition of a new asset can be important. In chess promotion rarely occurs, in checkers it’s normal for kinging to occur.
"Maintenance" versus "accumulation".
In the many wargames where you're not able to use the assets you produce to increase your economic production, the limits on production make a big difference to how the game works. I've discussed this in a previous blog post in some detail. http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2012/10/maintenance-based-economies-vs.html Briefly, in a maintenance economy you must pay upkeep on ("supply") your existing assets before you can produce new assets. This limits the total number of assets you can have. In an accumulation economy there are no limits, or very broad limits such as the large number of pieces available, so you can continue to produce units no matter how many you already have.
The maintenance economy is a great discouragement to "turtling". Turtling is much more common with an accumulation economy. (In case you're not familiar with the term, a turtle is a player who “sits on the sidelines” and does not participate in conflict, using the production cycle to build up his assets while other players are losing theirs in fighting.)
In some sense a zero-sum game - a game where the only way to gain something is to cause someone else to lose it - is the extreme of a maintenance economy, as epitomized by the boardgame Diplomacy. But it is also possible to have a zero-sum game where there is no economic production at all.
Types of in-game economies.
Every game has "an economy", but many don't have a production cycle. "An economy" refers to assets coming into or going out of the game. The question is, over time is there an increase in assets in the game, a decrease, or stability? For example, in chess and checkers the number of pieces decreases as the game goes on, that is, it's a "negative economy". Even though you can gain capability by kinging or by promoting a pawn, the overall outlook is negative. Monopoly is close to a stable economy except for passing Go and collecting $200, and for the cards which can add or subtract money from the game. So it is a slightly positive economy. A great many Eurostyle games have positive economies because the purpose of the game is building up assets. In many wargames depicting battles that take a few days and consequently don't have economic production, we have negative economies because both sides lose units as time passes. In more strategic wargames with economic production you could have positive, stable, or negative economies. Traditional Risk tends to fluctuate, exacerbated by the card turn-ins as they result in more and more armies. Axis & Allies tends to be more or less stable, or a little positive, but that depends partly on how the players play. Britannia-like games fluctuate, and a lot depends on how the players play, but there's usually an overpopulation limit on production so that the games cannot have strongly positive economies.
Not all wargames for more than two sides involve economic production. The ancestor of Britannia, 4-player Ancient Conquest, is actually a "battle game" with no economic production, just an order of battle. History of the World is also a battle game, despite its world-wide scope. The order of battle comes from the empires you end up with.
Games with a maintenance economy tend to be stable unless there are lots of ways to acquire new resources, such as colonizing new planets in 4X games or building new cities in computer Civilization. Games with an accumulation economy tend to be positive.
Where does the production cycle end and something else begins?
That's hard to say. Games with negative economies are unlikely to have a production cycle, a major reason why they're negative. Moreover, the production cycle is generally associated with political states/nations/empires, or with corporations. Games where the player has an avatar that performs most of the action aren't likely to have typical production cycles. When deconstructing a game I look for the resource collection and means of production, as well as the resulting assets.
Race games and word games rarely have a production cycle. The same is true for puzzle-like video games such as Tetris and Bejeweled. Abstract games (such as Blokus) in general are unlikely to have production cycles, but I'm sure there are many exceptions.
Shooters, adventure games, action games, and RPGs have ways to pick up and store new items, but there are no resources or means of production, just assets. The closest we have to a production cycle in a shooter is the items "dropped" by defeated foes (defeated foe becomes both resource and means of production). The more you defeat, the more stuff drops. Some of the drops are money, which can be turned into other usable assets (you purchase weapons). In RPGs you may have merchants who buy your loot (those "drops") and sell you new stuff, and even help you convert or sacrifice items in order to make better ones. In some games the player characters can create or convert items, e.g. making potions. Your loot could be seen as resources you've collected, and the merchants as means of production, with the assets being magic items, weapons, and other personally-usable capabilities (improvements in training, skills, feats), and money if you sell the loot.
Tactical games of all kinds are unlikely to have production cycles, especially those that depict battles. For example, Gratuitous Space Battles involves designing and “building” a fleet to face a foe, but there are no resources or means of production, rather there's a ship value limit, and a pilot limit, on the size of your fleet, which otherwise magically comes into existence for each battle. Chess and checkers are quite tactical games, as well, and have only rump production.
Notes about the table:
This is a large spreadsheet table that does not mix well with most blog hosts. Consequently, it can be accessed through my Web site at http://pulsiphergames.com/presentation/productioncycle.htm .
I am not a Eurostyle game player. While I once knew how to play the games listed, I’ve forgotten more than I know, so I’ve had to depend on regular players, and on BGG/Wikipedia, for some details of production cycles that can be quite complex. Such complexity will not be surprising in “economic engine”/economic snowball games, though I don’t want to imply that all the games I’ve listed involve such. I welcome corrections/additions.
Some of the video games I also have not played or investigated extensively, and others I have not played in many years.
My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" is available from mcfarlandpub.com or Amazon. (Books-a-Million has an eBook version at http://bit.ly/PQQqh3.)
I am @lewpuls on Twitter. (I average much less than one post a day, almost always about games, not about other topics.)