Skip to Content

Maintenance based economies vs. “accumulation” economies OR, Economic “Limits”

“War” games are fundamentally different from “battle” games, although most people would call both wargames. In the former there’s an economy and the war is essentially about controlling a better economy that ultimately gives you the preponderance of force. The focus tends to be strategic rather than tactical with maneuver contributing to gaining or keeping control of economic locations.

In a battle game you have an order of appearance that rarely changes, and no economy. Then the focus tends to become tactical, finding better ways to butcher the enemy before they butcher you. There may be objectives that are locations on a map, but if you slaughter enough of the enemy you’re likely to take those objectives. Maneuver then contributes to killing the enemy (or scaring them off) not to capturing/controlling economic resource/production locations.

Wargames for more than two players are almost always of the first type, and wargames for two players are usually of the second type. The scale of wargames of the first type tends to be much greater both geographically and chronologically than the scale of the “battle” type, as well, which befits the importance of economy. In a few days, the time-scale of most battles, economy is not going to matter.

Wars are about economies (and technology in recent times). Battles are about troops and terrain.

I’ve discussed this at much greater length in an article that will appear in Against the Odds magazine. Here I’m only interested in the fundamental types of economies and how they affect games with an economy.

The first and more true-to-life economy is the “maintenance model.” You must have the resources to support the units you already possess before you can recruit/build new ones. Consequently there’s an upper limit on how many units you can have because of the cost of maintaining them.

The simpler “accumulation model” lets you use your economic power to build new units regardless of how many you already have.

In some sense the maintenance model is zero-sum insofar as when you reach the limit of units, the only way to get more is to take economic capability away from another player, which will also reduce the number of units he can have. Sometimes this is explicit as in the classic game Diplomacy, where there are 34 “supply centers” on the map of Europe and each one can support exactly one army or fleet. A player wins with 18, because he then has a majority of the board and (presumably) will gradually overwhelm all further opposition.

Sometimes this zero-sum affect is much less obvious because players rarely hit their maximum maintenance level. They keep losing units at such a rate that they can’t build enough to “max out”.

Frequently when the maintenance model is used explicitly it costs much more to build the unit than to maintain a unit. For example in my prototype “Seas of Gold” about the Italian maritime cities in the age of the Crusades, maintenance costs one economic unit for an army or fleet, but an army costs three economic units to build and a fleet four to build.

In my highly simplified version of Britannia that will be part of the new editions of the game, the number of units a player has on the board is subtracted from the economic value of his holdings, and that results in him losing an army, standing pat, gaining one army, or in rare cases gaining two armies. This does away with the Increase Point Track of Britannia and also means that overpopulation rules are not required, because if the comparison is bad enough the player actually loses an army.

There are hybrid economies that let a player build units as though in an accumulation economy but provide a limit on the number of units. This limit can be “overpopulation”, as in Britannia, or it can be a maximum army, fleet, or air force size as in Britannia and many other games, usually reflected in the piece mix. For example, if you have no more battleship pieces for your nation you can’t build more battleships. In Britannia the maximum force size is supposed to represent the limits on communication and control for primitive Dark Age nations; for more modern games it may not represent anything specific but still has the maintenance limit affect. Britannia’s economic model is consistent with the idea that the armies represent both populations and military forces, as was generally the case in the dark ages where there were no professional armies and few trained/experienced warriors. Most of an army was essentially farmers armed with whatever they had to hand. The more farmers you had, the bigger your army could be.

But piece mix limits can represent real-world limits. In World War II most of the major participants reached a maximum size military because some 10% of their population was under arms - most of the men of military age – and the rest were required to run the economy or were not of an appropriate age or gender to fight. In earlier times the percentage of participation in the military was usually much less at any given time, although if we go back to Greece and Republican Rome we’ re again at high levels of participation. While population is not strictly an economic variable it becomes a limit for the size of militaries unless mercenaries are available. There’ve certainly been times when mercenaries were commonly available as in Greece after the Peloponnesian War and in Hellenistic times, in Italy at the time of Machiavelli, and during the 30 Years War.

So there’s a variety of ways to introduce limits on the size of military forces in a game that are not directly related to the economy but have many of the same effects as an economic limit.

In contrast to the maintenance model we have the accumulation model as seen in games like Axis and Allies, traditional (pre-2008) Risk, and Vinci. You could play Axis and Allies for quite a long time without fighting much, and still have more pieces to use to create new units. A&A is not much like the real world but you don’t really notice because of the constant slaughter of units that means the real economic limits, if any, will never be reached.

We get the massive armies of traditional Risk because it’s an accumulation economy. Imagine how different the game would be if you could only have, say, three armies per area you own, or maybe only two. The latter is my initial step in turning Risk into something that might resemble a real “war” game. Vinci and Smallworld go one step further in providing no economy for most empires most of the time. An Empire begins with its maximum military and can only go downward unless the Empire characteristic includes a special rules to gain more armies

In general, "games about war" with no pretense to being models of reality (Risk, Vinci, Smallworld, Conflict and Broadsides from back when, and many many others), as opposed to war games, tend to have accumulation or no economy at all.

In games that depict a single battle there is rarely an economy, but there can be order-of-battle based objectives that introduce something like an economy. For example, a side may get a few reinforcing units if they can take a particular road junction. This pseudo-economy can occur in games that have a regular economy, as well. For example, in Britannia there are two cases where the Angles won’t get a leader if they don’t control a particular area. In effect, that area becomes a temporary economy that “produces” the leader.

In games with more than two sides - what tabletoppers call “multi-player”, though that means something else to video gamers - the nature of the economy can be critical to successful design. An accumulation economy encourages turtling, that is, sitting on the sidelines while the turtle watches the other players fight and lose resources or units, as he accumulates resources and units (also known as “camping” in video game shooters). If Risk didn’t have the territory cards then turtling would be very common because you can accumulate armies quickly while other players lose armies quickly when they fight. In fact I strongly suspect the cards were added to Risk to discourage turtling, you can only get a card by capturing an opponent’s territory, that is by attacking and risking losses. And you have to get cards so that you can turn them in for large numbers of armies. In a long Risk game more armies will be acquired through the cards than through the economy.

This is in contrast to Diplomacy where you cannot sit on the sidelines if you want to win. Some other players will be gaining supply centers and consequently units while you will be static. If no one gains or loses supply centers for a while then you have a stalemate and the game ends in a draw.

If there is no economy in a more-than-two-sided game, no player will want to fight because while he and his opponent lose resources or units the other players do not. A multi-sided conflict game with no economy is likely to be a “turtle-fest.”

These are not problems with two player wargames because each player only has the other to fight, so fighting rather than turtling is going to happen.

Economies of one kind or another are common in big video games. They are obvious in games like Civilization and real-time strategy (RTS) games, games that are (or can be, in Civ’s case) wargames involving more than two sides. Civilization tends to have some limits on how big your economy can grow because of population unhappiness and pollution, but when you produce a unit there’s no reference to how many units you already have, there’s no limitations. In the end you have an accumulation economy. In most RTS games your buildings produce units as long as they have resources without regard for how many units you already have, a classic accumulation economy. Turtling can work, but if there are limited resources in the “world” and you’re sitting in one corner rather than gaining those resources you will probably lose in the end. I think particularly of WarCraft III where the amount of gold in the world is limited because there are only so many gold mines and so much gold in each mine, and gold is needed to create new units. If other players gain control of this gold while you turtle then you will probably lose, unless they managed to slaughter themselves down to a level that lets you take over.

Even a shooter has an economy of sorts as the players pick up various weapons and medical supplies that miraculously lay about. This is an accumulation economy except that you don’t need to own any particular economic resources to produce more, you just find it - so the affect of economics on maneuver is much smaller. And there is a limit sometimes on how much you can accumulate because your inventory allows you to carry only so much, though some of these games allow you to store the rest of your “stuff” somewhere else.

In platformers and Nintendo-style games like Mario there are still things to pick up but there’s not really an economy because you don’t accumulate a lot of “stuff”.

What I said about shooters brings to mind an important aspect of economy. In the shooter you don’t have to hold any particular place in order to gain more stuff, you just pick it up where it’s lying about. Although some players would say you have to kill things in order to take what they “drop,” who plays a shooter without killing things, since that’s the major focus of most such games? The point is, if there are no locations that can be gained or lost in order to improve or lose economic capability, then you’ve lost the major point of strategy and maneuvering in the game, and it can once again become a matter of slaughtering more of the enemy than you lose. But that doesn’t work well in a multi-sided game because it encourages turtling.

Some non-wargames have ways to gain new forces or assets. These can resemble an economy or they can resemble an order of battle. Within those economic models you can also have maintenance or accumulation. Monopoly (the accumulation) has a minor economy from passing Go and collecting $200. Money is victory points in Monopoly, and there would be no sense in limiting what you can accumulate. Chess and checkers are mainly tactical games with a strategic component, mainly battle games, but they do have economic appendages. Chess has a minor economy from promoting pawns, just as checkers enables you to make Kings. In both cases they contribute to the importance of maneuver in the game as you want prevent your opponent from reaching the last rank with a pawn or checker.

The unlimited supply of X’s and O’s in Tic-Tac-Toe or the unlimited supply of letters in Scrabble are more or less an order of battle rather than economy.

The economy/ order of battle question, and the maintenance/accumulation economy question, tend to be much more important in conflict games where you are hindering the other player(s) by destroying their assets. This isn’t common in Eurostyle games, though common in screwage games like Bang! and Munchkin.

There are board and video games that are essentially economic engines, resource management games. The economy here may be of either type, though there’s often a technology element that lets you remove the hybrid economy’s limitations on maximums. The contrast with wargames is that in many wargames the economy is an aspect of the game rather than the major focus, while in many non-wargames the economy is the major focus.

Comments

What a great read.

Kudos to you Lew. I invisioned how my card game game mechanics work by reading your blog. My card game is a NCCG. A Novel Customizable Card Game. The game is a high fantasy strategic war game. I thought of some interesting game theories that may improve the some of my later decks in the series. Thank you. Keep up the great work on your blogs and projects.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Syndicate content


blog | by Dr. Radut