Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Game Design and Economics

I begin this article with an experience I had with one particular product I had to sell as part of a previous job. (The product I'm referring to and my previous job are in no way associated with the realm of board games but I choose to start with them because the principles I learned there apply to the subject at hand.) The decision to buy the product in question was made by other people higher up in the company after being given some sales pitches by the manufacturer. However, the eventual task of selling this product was handed to me.

Now, usually in retail of any kind, the MSRP (manufacturer suggested retail price) is around double what a retailer pays for the product from either a wholesaler or directly from the manufacturer. In this case, we were purchasing the product directly from the manufacturer and, because of the cost involved for the manufacturer to produce the product, their eventual asking price from us as a retailer was around $500 per product. This cascaded into a retail price of around $800 to $1000. The product was put on display at our retail location and I was given the assignment to sell it.

For the most part, the product was proclaimed a very good idea by every customer that I introduced to it and it might have actually sold well if our asking price was around $300. However, because there was a strong mismatch between our asking price and what most consumers would reasonably pay for a product of that type, it simply didn't sell.

Game Design and Economics

What does that have to do with game design? Well, I submitted a game design this past year to a respected publisher who was willing to take a look at it and see if there was something there. They ultimately decided not to publish the game and one of the points made to me as part of their feedback was that the publisher saw my game as being a game that would be suited for a particular price point but that the number and type of components in my game made the publication of the game cost prohibitive for the level of play that it offered. Thus, publishing the game would be an unwise idea. Now, I was aware before I submitted the game of how it's important in general to keep the total number of components down in any game design - thus making the game a more likely candidate for publication. However, I had not actually asked myself "What is the specific price that this game would/should command in the marketplace?"

The Price of Games

Right now, a game like, say, "Caylus" sells for about $50.00 while a light card game such as "No Thanks" sells for about $10.00. This makes sense because Caylus is a very component heavy game while "No Thanks" is not. However, the level of play offered by a game like Caylus allows a manufacturer and a retailer to have an asking price that allows them to make profit off of selling the game (many people are willing to pay a larger price for a game that offers the type and amount of decisions that Caylus offers). If someone has designed a game that plays with about the same amount of weight as "No Thanks" but the component structure is on the same level as "Caylus", then the game is probably dead in the water up front - regardless of whether or not the game is fun. People will look at the game, perhaps play it, maybe even say it was fun, but there's no realistic economic viability in producing it because people simply won't pay that high of a price for it.

Thus, in general, how heavy a game is with respect to weight of decisions and how component intensive a game is are two aspects of design that need to line up for the publication of a game to be a reasonble business decision. There are obvious exceptions (Crokinole, for example, is a very simple game that requires lots of work to produce a board and pieces). Nevertheless, in general, if the game is going to be expensive, it needs to offer a level of play that will allow a consumer to justify the expense.

All of this brings me to my main point: judging one's own game design purely on the basis of whether or not it is fun to play is simply not a complete evaluation. It's easy to let one's self indulge in partial evaluation (after all, it's the publisher that will be dealing with the dollars and cents...right?....). As a game designer, one has to look at one's game as a "product" and take into account the economic viability of the game as a "product". The product I was assigned to sell at my previous job was a good idea in terms of what it offered but a terrible idea in terms of the economics involved. Games are the same way.

With this perspective now in place of "designing a game" = "designing a product", what are some things a designer can do to keep a game's component structure appropriate for the level of play offered by the game?

Simplification and Consolidation

I've found that, usually, simplification of processes within a game tends to equal consolidation of components as well. This is because most components are simply physical objects used to keep track of something going on in a game. Again, using "Caylus" as an example, there are lots of wooden pieces and components in the game. However, there are also a lot of things to keep track of (who built which building, how many sections of the castle were built by any one player, where the Provost is, whose workers have been placed and whose have not, turn order, etc.). A game with that many things to keep track of results in lots of components while a game with fewer things to keep track of results in fewer components. Thus, to make a game an economically viable product, simplification of rules and processes within the game is usually a very good idea as that simplification will tend to equal a consolidation of the components required to play the game. It's important to ask one's self with each and every component in the game "Is this absolutely necessary to have?" If the answer is "Yes because of rule X", then the next question should be "Is rule X really necessary?"

Most of these points deal with games that are being designed with a Eurogame audience in mind as gaming publishers that take the opposite approach (i.e. Fantasy Flight with their $80, bit/component intensive games) don't accept outside game submissions. Their designs come from in-house designers and their audience is looking for a component-rich gaming experience with "epic" game design (i.e. lots of rules to facilitate a very highly thematic game), not a simplified, Eurogame design.

Some Math

So, how much is your game worth? What would be a price that others would be willing to pay to have a copy of your game? Doing some mathmatical generalization, whatever that price is, divide it in half because that's most likely what a retailer will be paying for it from their wholesaler. Then, divide that number in half again because that's probably what the wholesaler will be paying for it from the manufacturer. Now consider that that's where the publisher's cost needs to be per unit to make a profit off selling it to a wholesaler. Let's spell this out using a game like "Carcassonne":

-Carcassonne sells for about $25.00 retail.

-Dividing that in half for the price from the wholesaler to the retailer can be estimated as being around $12.50

-Dividing that in half again for the price from the manufacturer to the wholesaler can be estimated at around $6.25

Now consider that a publisher like Rio Grande will have to produce copies of Carcassonne for less than $6.25 per copy to make money off of it.

Print Runs

The next issue one encounters in this process is the issue of print runs. Printing companies will charge less per unit if there are more total units in the print run. Printing enough copies to make the cost of the game worth it leads to the issue of now having to sell that many more copies of the game to make a profit. So, if you play it safe and do a small print run of 500 copies of a game (assuming a printing company will do a print run that small) then your per unit costs will be prohibitive. If you make your per unit costs more acceptable by doing a 2000 copy print run, now you are under pressure to sell a lot more games to turn a profit. Now consider just for a moment that making a game at even $4.00 per copy and printing 500 copies of that game equals a $2000 investment. It's no wonder that game publishers have to take into account the components involved in a prototype they are looking at. Every piece of the game is going to cost money to make.

The Focus of Design

Many of us who try our hand at designing games can get caught up in the smaller particulars of design and, in the process, lose sight of whether or not our game is an economically viable idea. I've presented a few thoughts on the matter here simply to help remind all of us, myself included, that we can't ignore the economics involved when we are creating a game. We owe it to the publishers to give them as slick of a prototype as we can so that they have all the more reason to say to themselves "Alright, let's invest our hard earned money in this guy's game because we believe we can make money off of it."

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Quick Look at Audiences and the Acclaim of Puerto Rico

At present, Puerto Rico is the highest rated game on Board Game Geek and is so by a wide margin. Why? What is it about the game that causes it to be rated so highly? What elements of appeal are involved in the game so as to evoke such a positive response out of so many gamers? This article offers a quick look at these issues.


First of all, let’s look at audiences within the gaming community. Audiences tend to be aggregates of people who have some similar dispositions with regard to their gaming tastes. If these audiences grow to a certain critical mass, they tend to be identified and classified with a label. These labels are imperfect mental groupings at best but, despite the imperfections inherent within the type of generalizations that come from using labels, they can immediately conjure up lots of information in the mind of a person when they are used. Calling someone a “Eurogamer” for example carries lots of implications – some of which may be accurate and some of which may not. Nevertheless, the term can be a useful term despite it’s imperfection.

With all of that said, my main argument in this article is that the primary reason why Puerto Rico appeals to so many people is because it has a mixture of elements in it that appeal to audiences who normally don’t have all that much in common with respect to their tastes in gaming. Let’s see why this is.

The “Eurogamer” Audience

The term “Eurogamer” generally applies to a person who tends to like the following elements in a game:

-Fairly simple/streamlined rules set

-Minimal amounts of luck involved

-Interesting mechanics and systems – regardless of how strongly or poorly they reinforce the theme of the game

-Balance in the game play (i.e. prevention of a run-away leader problem and so forth)

The Amerigaming / “Ameritrash” Audience

The label of an “Ameritrasher” is one that still carries some ambiguity. However, there are a few characteristics that can be identified as generally applying to someone who chooses to identify themselves with the Ameritrash label:

-Theme and thematic immersion is the primary goal of a game

-Balance, luck, mechanics, systems, and relative simplicity of rules are all subservient to the goal of having a strongly thematic experience. Exceptions to rules or specialized rule-breaking abilities are seen as being positive or negative within the framework of the question “do they reinforce the theme?”

-Usually, the more direct player interaction in a game, the better.

The “CCG” Audience

One of the main points of appeal of CCG’s (Collectible Card Games) is that a gamer gets to be a quasi game designer as they acquire various cards, build their deck and, through deck building, are afforded the opportunity to use their creativity to determine how the game plays. They are like a painter having access to a wide palette of colors to paint the rules and privileges that they want to try using in a particular game.
Aspects of Appeal

Puerto Rico has the following aspects that allow it to reach out and appeal to a wide variety of gamers:

-The variety of buildings available and the different possibilities for interaction between buildings affords a player the opportunity to create what their gaming experience will be like within the game – much like how CCG gamers create their gaming experience through deck building.

-Unlike CCG’s, and unlike many “Ameritrash” games, the amount of luck in Puerto Rico is minimal at best. This aspect of minimal luck appeals to many Eurogamers.

-The elements of managing a workforce and the different amounts of exceptions to rules provided by the buildings in the game allow an Amerigamer to find some areas of thematic appeal.

-Often times, when you have lots of exceptions to rules in a game, the game can become convoluted if one player’s modifiers have to be reconciled with another player’s modifiers due to direct player interaction. For example “If I attack you with character A using Modifier X but you respond with character B using Modifier Y but I counter with an additional Modifier Z and you realize that if you counter with Modifier…etc.” When games become convoluted, they bog down and the fun of the game can be lost in the math or in the keeping track of some sort of clunky set of protocol. Puerto Rico offers lots of exceptions to rules and benefits through the buildings available for purchase but those privileges and exceptions apply to the owner and only on their turn and don’t have to be reconciled with other player’s buildings because there’s no “combat” per se in the game. Thus, there’s no messy sets of detailed orders of operations that have to be processed.

-On the other hand, even though there is no combat in the game, there are opportunities to really “stick it” to other players. Taking the Captain and requiring someone to ship a crop that they desperately needed to trade is one example. This aspect has potential appeal to Amerigamers because Amerigamers tend to prefer the ability to directly impact other players through one’s own choices in a game.

I’m sure there are other aspects of appeal that cause Puerto Rico to come off positively to a wide variety of crowds but what I’ve listed here are a few of the main points. The number of different privileges the buildings afford their owners allow a person to really play with a wide variety of possible combinations in their approach to the game and the luck of the plantation draws offers just enough variety to keep Puerto Rico fresh over time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Triangulation Issues in Resource Attrition Games

It's been a while since I've posted but it's good to be back at it. Recently, after a hard day's work at the fiendly local game store where I'm employed, a couple of friends of mine agreed to stay afterwards and play a game with me. One of them had just bought the game "La Citta" and was anxious to try it out:

It's currently ranked number 72 on BoardGameGeek and it's pulling a rating of about 7.5 out of 10 in its rankings. That seems like a pretty safe bet to make if you're going to purchase a game before playing it. Well, he opened up the game, read through the rules, and off we were.

After about 20 minutes into the hour long game, we came up against a fundamental aspect of the game's design that illustrated a glaring problem. Even though La Citta isn't a player elimination game, the mechanics result in quasi player elimination (you're not out of the game, but after a certain critical point, you no longer have any realistic shot at winning). This problem only became worse as the game progressed.

It's a simple matter of there being an inherent problem with any game (note: any game) where the possibility exists for more than two players to play the game and where the game implements a resource attrition mechanic that is dependent on direct player interaction as the main source of points. This is because of basic triangulation attrition issues that can take either one of two possible forms:

1. Player A and Player B beat each other up while Player C waits, remains strong, and then, once both of the other players are sufficiently weak, comes in and cleans up.


2. Player A gets an advantage over Player C. Then Player B joins in and beats up on Player C because Player C can't fight back now and it's more advantagous to pile on Player C than to attack Player A as Player A is a more formidable direct opponent, thus putting Player C out of contention at a certain point and making the rest of the game tedium for that player.

In games with only two players, resource attrition due to direct player interaction is perfectly fine. War games are all about resource attrition (the resources being troops). It's when you introduce a third player into the mix that it becomes a problem.

In La Citta, the second of those two dynamics I just discussed is at work. If player C finds his citizens being sucked out of one of his cities early by player A, player C becomes an easy target for player B as well. This is because limited citizens limits the number of colors that the city can develope and, thus, limits that city's abilities to suck citizens out of other cities. Because of these mechanics, there is no real incentive for player B to not take advantage of the situtation. Thus, the game can very quickly devolve into an exercise in pillaging the guy who got picked on early simply because there's no real incentive not to do it.

What this creates is a situation in which player C can never recover because, once you're down, there's not really a viable way to get back up in this game (assuming the maraudering players have taken steps to account for growth of their cities via markets, public baths, and having enough food to feed the new citizenry). This is because once a city has been robbed of citizens enough times early on in the game, it becomes nothing more than a source of easy citizens/VP's for the other players who will already have larger cities with multiple colors developed. Those larger cities will tend to suck away citizens from the smaller city consistently before that smaller city is ever able to reach a critical mass of functional competitiveness.

It's a classic case of the "rich get richer" while the "poor get poorer". This results in a broken game where the basic reward system inherent in the game design motivates me as a player to help contribute to a situation where another player is having to suffer through the game even though he knows after some early events that he has no shot at winning. Either that or it creates a situation where I'm the one suffering through tedium. These criticisms wouldn't necessarily apply as strongly in a 4 or 5 player game as there are enough other players to possibly "cannibalize" each other and keep one person from developing a massive city.

The problem might not be so critical if citizens were simply lost out of a city. (i.e. a player is having a net loss of -1 citizen when losing one). However, because a citizen switches places from the losing city to the winning city, it's a net swing of 2 (-1 for player A, +1 for player B). The game implements a food/feeding-your-people mechanic that should make it harder to accomodate a larger number of citizens but, if the player is savy, he or she can account for that somewhat easily and still keep their city sufficiently large to suck points out of the small city managably. Granted, you could "house rule" the game into playability by changing some of the basic aspects of the game play but that's not the state one wants a game to be in when one purchases a game.

None of us at the table could believe that a game that's been around for so long and was published by a respectable company like Rio Grande was so fundamentally flawed. Granted, the one who had purchased the game had read some feedback on BoardGameGeek about it and he indicated before we started the game that, in the past, it was noted that the game had a runaway leader problem that was supposedly fixed. Well, it wasn't fixed. It can't be fixed when the basic system of the game is the inherent problem. If points were awarded independent of resources switching hands, then you've got a game that might work - but this game's system simply isn't sound.

This issue of triangulation in relation to resource attrition is the same thing that makes Risk a game that is, in my opinion, a fundamentally broken game. It suffers from the first possible scenario I listed above: that of one player waiting while two other players slug it out and weaken each other - thus allowing the third player to more easily come in and clean up.

What defies my understanding is how La Citta has achieved such a high rating on BGG. As I glanced through the comments made by various people who had rated it, there were some comments acknowledging problems with the game even though the ones making those comments had rated it a 10.

Ultimately, La Citta was an exercise in tedium for one of the players and offered an unrewarding victory to one of the other players. I'm personally glad I didn't ever consider buying this game and that I was allowed to try it because of another player's copy. Unfortunately, that other player is now looking for a way to get rid of it (like Ebay or at BGG's marketplace).