Friday, December 01, 2006

The Currencies of Fun

I played a game of Reiner Knizia’s Palazzo for the first time a week or two ago. One of the things that struck me about the game was the use of color-coded currency cards that are used to buy the palazzo pieces that create victory points. A player may only use cards of one color currency when bidding at auction. A player may have a substantial amount of money in his cards, but if they are evenly divided between the two colors, only half of his cash will be useful in making a single purchase.

One of the reasons I took note of this mechanism is because Alhambra uses almost the exact same mechanism. The biggest difference is that Alhambra has four colors of currency. Having the perfect tile come up for purchase can be a frustrating experience if you have money in every color except the one you need.

Many game uses assorted currencies as part of their game mechanisms. I am going to use the term currency to mean any resource that can be accumulated, that is portable (land doesn’t count as currency although it can sometimes function as one), and that can be converted into something else of value in a game. Games like Caylus and Silk Road have both cash and little wooden cubes in their games, but the resource cubes are just another form of currency. The trick in these games is to produce or acquire the currencies that are most useful to you, and convert them into something that can get you closer to victory.

One of the pleasures of having multiple currencies in a game is that different players can be in the lead in different areas of the game. In a game of Caylus or Silk Road, one player may have more cash than anyone else, but other players may have more cubes of one color or another than the other players. This can make these games seem more balanced and competitive than a game in which cash is the only currency, and it is clear who has the most of it.

Currencies seem to come in two types:

1) Currencies which are equal in value. In Alhambra each color currency has no more value than any other. One color currency might be more valuable to you in a particular situation, but that difference in value is temporary, and not part of the structure of the game. In Silk Road, each coin and each resource cube is worth one victory point at the end of the game. It doesn’t matter what form you wealth takes—it only matters that you have more of it than the other players.

2) Currencies which not equal in value. In Caylus gold cubes are worth victory points at the end of the game, but all other colors of cubes are worthless. Therefore gold is a more valuable currency than all the other colors of resource cubes. There may be situations in the game when what you really need is a pink cube, or a brown cube, or a gray cube. But at the end of the game what you really want is gold. Caylus players should keep this consideration in mind when using gold to create buildings; is the payoff going to be worth the payout? In addition, cash is needed every turn just to place a player’s workers on the game board. Because a certain amount of cash is needed every turn, it is an essential currency. The in-equivalence of currencies makes calculations in Caylus fascinating and difficult.

It’s always a risk using a game I haven’t played as an example of a point I want to make, but from reviews of Through the Ages, the civ-building game from Czech Board Games, it seems that the game has a number of currencies. Food units feed population, rocks are used for construction, light bulbs are used to purchase civilization advances. I don’t know if these resources can be converted so I may be fudging my definition here. But it’s easy to see how multiple currencies could function in a civ-building game if you’ve played Sid Meier’s computer game Civilization. In that game, scientific research converts into farming or industrial production indirectly through tech advances that allow growth in various aspects of your nation. Farm surpluses can be indirectly converted into other currencies by freeing up farm workers to do something other than produce food.

Games with multiple currencies usually make a point of restricting the ways that players can convert one currency into another. If a player could convert one currency into another at any time at a one-for-one exchange rate, then for practical purposes you don’t have two currencies, you have one.

When games limit currency-conversion mechanisms, then access to these mechanisms usually becomes part of the strategy of the game. In Silk Road, converting one currency into another at a favorable rate of exchange is what the game is all about. Players in Silk Road bid for the right to choose the next city that the caravan visits and thus control the trading opportunities at that city. If you have a large amount of red cubes, and you see that one of the next cities has a trading opportunity to convert red cubes into blue cubes at a rate of one for two, then you will probably try to win the auction. If there are no opportunities to trade red cubes immediately ahead, then winning the auction will be of lesser importance, and you may want to save your cash for a later auction.

In Caylus players compete to produce currencies (resource cubes), to convert currencies from one form to another by placing workers in the appropriate buildings, and to spend these currencies in a way that generates victory points. Every step of the process is competitive, and players must learn to change their plans when their abilities to produce or convert currencies are thwarted.

Although the use of multiple currencies and the mechanisms used to convert them can be used to create a game, I think in the future games will be more interesting if the multiple currency mechanism is used in games which have more going on than just currency conversion. As I mentioned, civ-building games may be one mini-genre that could use this mechanism well. Euro-wargame hybrids could use this mechanism for the non-military part of the game (the currencies might represent cash, technology growth, or political or religious power).

Multiple currencies and resource conversion—like the area majority mechanism—is a simple mechanism that can take so many forms that it can appear again and again in games without wearing out its welcome. I expect gamers will be spending real world dollars for multiple currency games for years to come.


Yehuda said...

I'm not sure I would call all resources "currencies". Otherwise, the number of action or time you have, which you convert into cubes, would also be called currency.

We tend to call of these things resources, of which currency is one.


huzonfirst said...

Excellent article, Kris. I agree, games with multiple currencies pop up everywhere and have been around for a while. For example, the different resources in Settlers can be considered currency, which the players can exchange with the bank (at various rates), trade with other players, and use to build useful things (most of which allow them to earn more currency).

You're correct about your assumptions for Through the Ages. The different levels can be viewed as currency and they aren't readily convertable. Even military units can be viewed as a type of currency, since they can be "spent" to increase your attack or defense level (this is a much weaker correlation than for the other resources). The similarity to the computer Civilization game is no accident, as TtA is clearly derived from it.

Yehuda, one reason you might not consider "actions" to be currency is that they are usually static and non-convertible: you usually have the same number of actions a turn, you can't trade them to other players, and you use them or lose them. However, there are games where actions are more dynamic. In Mexica, they can be saved from turn to turn. In Through the Ages, you can acquire governments which increase the number you have each turn. I'm not sure about the latter case, but in Mexica, I think it's very reasonable to consider actions to be a form of currency.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Goa being one game where actions are currency (at least actions are represented by cards, which can make one feel they are more like a resource/currency...)

Fellonmyhead said...

An interesting article; like Yehuda I consider it to be the other way round and view currency as another resource. This has less to do with the semantics and more to do with how I analyse games in general.

The most interesting aspect of actual game currency for me is the way it is often valued. For instance, there are some games in which it is the fixed scale by which everything else is valued (Monopoly, Age of Steam, Puerto Rico and other games where items are bought at fixed prices); then there are others in which the value of the basic currency unit changes over the course of the game (and often the price of items), such as in Goa, Traumfabrik and Modern Art where the amount in general circulation fluctuates.

I suppose it doesn't matter much; I could go on to say actions are/are not resources (for various reasons).