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Fresco by Queen GamesFrench economist Thomas Piketty has written a book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century[amazon template=f_textamazon&asin=067443000X], that discusses a very simple fact of snowball effect economics: as long as r > g, that is wealth generated by capital is greater than economic growth, capital will tend to accrue with a select few.

Piketty holds an interesting TED talk about the snowball effect in economics.

So what does this mean for game designers? Simple: as long as passive income earns you more points than active income (i.e. actions) your best bet is to invest in money, nothing more.

For example, take a look at Fresco. There you’ve got multiple types of actions, from buying paints, to mixing paints, to keeping your workers happy. But if you play without any expansions then all those actions are worth too little points in comparison to the simple action of taking money all the time (the so called “Big Money” strategy). Unmodified Fresco has a r > g strategy: don’t grow, just take money.

Add in a couple of expansions and suddenly the other options become much more viable as you get higher returns on your other actions.

So keep an eye out for your r > g situations and you’ll be able to avoid snowball effects.

The Russian writer Anton Chekhov once advised writers to tear their stories in half and begin in the middle. There is merit in such an approach – a game should begin as close to the end as possible without losing player volition.

Take a look at Ticket to Ride. The game starts with each player getting 4 cards (resources) and a choice from 3 tickets (goals). During the game you can draw new cards or new tickets. The game could easily have started with the players having nothing – except that they’d probably have begun the game by A) drawing cards and then B) drawing tickets.

If Ticket to Ride begun from scratch players would have more choice and influence over their strategy. But they’d also have no hooks, nothing to give their action any meaning. If you don’t have any goals (tickets) and you don’t have any sets started (cards) then a white is equal to a red is equal to a black – it doesn’t matter what you draw. By giving players a starting set of resources and goals they are nudged in a certain direction and can start acting meaningfully from the start. The random setup enables player volition right from the start. (more…)