Kind Fortress: Design Patterns - A Rich Victory
From Monopoly to Food Chain Magnate, and many games in between, players earn the victory by becoming the wealthiest by game end. Given that so many games are economic simulations, perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. What might surprise us is how many games, even economic games, are not won by becoming the richest player.
I don’t know when the victory point was invented, but I’m certain it’s the most important invention in modern gaming. The victory point allows designers to reward a variety of behaviors and in-game achievements on a consistent scale. That alone makes the VP a powerful and flexible tool. But there’s a second feature to the VP that is at least as important. By providing rewards in the form of VP, games can avoid creating rich-get-richer loops that lead to runaway victories.
Victory points are typically a destination currency, a term I’ll use to describe a currency that cannot be converted back to its component resources. In most games, once you spend resources to obtain victory points in some fashion, you can’t ever convert those VPs into something else. The inputs have reached their terminal destination, and by implication, those VPs have no further in-game use, except to determine the winner. That one-way ticket is the key to preventing runaway leader.
And yet, despite the brilliance and importance of this innovation, some games do allow VPs to be spent. Let’s explore this pattern of more fungible VPs.
Some games allow VPs to be spent under very limited circumstance, as a kind of last resort. Agricola is famous for its punishing feeding phase, and requires players to take a Begging card, which is worth negative VPs, if a player can’t feed her family. Nations similarly charges players VPs when players don’t have sufficient resources, like books or food to pay a cost imposed on them.
The last phrase is the key: “a cost imposed on them.” Games that inflict a cost on players involuntarily, whether through an upkeep mechanism or as the outcome of an uncertain event or conflict, need to answer the question of what happens when players can’t pay the named cost. While some games ignore unpayable costs, some economic systems would be vulnerable to degenerate strategies if players could ignore costs of specific resources. Stone Age’s upkeep mechanism allows players to substitute any resource for food in its feeding phase, but its economy is tuned such that it may be preferable for players to feed their people wood instead of acquiring food. Opinions may differ on whether this is a degenerate strategy or not. Personally, my feeling is that finger should be pointed at the design flaw that allows it, rather than the player who exploits it.
There are games that don’t treat VP loss as a last-resort, calamitous expense though. In some games, VPs are something more like a traditional currency that can be expended, or perhaps an acceptable cost. The recent abstract hit Azul falls into this group. In Azul, players pay a VP penalty for any tile they acquire which they either cannot or choose not to play. While avoiding being forced to accept a bunch of useless tiles is an important strategic consideration in the game, in many cases, taking a modest negative VP hit is the correct play. In Azul, claiming the first player market by being the first to draft from the pool in the middle of the play area comes with an automatic cost of at least one VP. The 1st player token is a tile that must be played into the excess tiles area, where tiles are worth some number of negative VPs. Yet, going first is an advantage that is often worth paying a VP for.
Many games with money, or any currency, provide an end-game resource-to-VP conversion rate. This rate is typically pretty poor relative to the VPs that could be earned by converting the resources through other game systems. One could nevertheless view any type of resource use as spending VPs in some sense. Where this gets more to the heart of this design pattern is when that conversion rate isn’t actually that bad relative to other options for conversion.
Consider 7 Wonders. At its core, 7 Wonders is a drafting game in which resources are never spent. Instead, they function as prerequisites for card acquisition. 7 Wonders does use money as a means of allowing access to resources that you may not have in your tableau. To gain the temporary use of the resource, you pay a neighboring player who does have that resource two coins. At the end of the game, every 3 coins is worth 1 VP.
On its face, this is a one-way conversion of money to resources, and doesn’t fit the pattern we’re discussing, where VPs can be spent as money. However, in 7 Wonders there’s no function for money other than to gain access to resources from your neighbors. There is no other means by which to convert money to VP, aside from that endgame conversion. Aside from the thematic issues, there is no real difference in describing money in 7 Wonders as VPs. One could just as easily describe all the uses of money in 7 Wonders in terms of fractional VPs.
The endgame conversion of money to VPs in 7 Wonders at that 3:1 rate is relatively high compared to other games that allow conversion. The reason for this is that it addresses the issue that players can’t really spend money on very much at all. A player may find himself amassing money because his neighbors keep renting his resources, while the player himself may not need to pay to access any resources himself. The rules don’t allow players to bar their opponents from trading, so a player really has very little agency over how much money he acquires. Given that dynamic, 7 Wonders offers a more generous conversion. Experienced players will typically evaluate cards by expressing their benefits in terms of VP, applying the 3:1 conversion to value money.
Which brings us to our final example: Smallworld. In Smallworld (formerly Vinci), players earn money for controlling territory and spend it to acquire new races with which to do battle. At game end, the player with the most money is the victor. Money and victory points are essentially the same thing, and Smallworld elides this issue by describing the component, the token itself, as a Victory Coin. This nomenclature captures both uses of the token – it’s both a currency and a measure of victory.
This choice is psychologically interesting. Calling the VP tokens coins does help to communicate to players that they are meant to be spent. At the same time it obscures their true value. When a player chooses to spend, say, 3 coins to choose a “better” race and power combination from the market, they’re betting that they will net out at least 4 additional VPs by using this race than any of the more affordable choices. In my experience it takes players, especially novice gamers, a couple of games to truly understand this wager.
The relationship between VPs and money has some interesting dimensions in social and cultural critique as well. The Game of Life, when first released, assigned the victory to the richest player. In the face of critique, the game later introduced Life Tiles that were awarded based on achieving non-monetary milestones. Nevertheless, each tile was valued at a certain amount of money, and the aim of the game remained to be the richest player. It is possible that VPs became popular not only for their undeniable mechanical usefulness, but also to express different societal values and to provide a less baldly capitalist metric by which to judge success.
Much more remains to say, but we’ll conclude our discussion here. Please add your thoughts on this vast topic in the comments!