Friday, September 29, 2006

The Joy of Shopping

First, a reminder that at Charcon (the first game convention in Charleston, West Virginia), on Saturday, October 7, at noon, I plan to run A Game of Thrones mini-tournament. Fantasy Flight Games has generously donated a copy of the Storm of Swords expansion as a prize for the game. You can sign up for this competition by e-mailing the Charcon gnomes at Find out more information on CharCon at

And now, today’s blog…

I once read a New York Times article in which the female writer claimed that she enjoyed the computer hack-and-slash game Diablo because it was all about shopping. She explained what she meant, but because I also had played the game (along with my wife) I already had experienced the joy of Diablo shopping. While it was fun to wade into tombs and dungeons and battle varieties of monsters, often the most satisfying part of the game was when I returned to town with my loot. After selling unwanted magic items and weapons, it was off to see what the various specialists offered in the way of armor, weapons, and magic items. I was particularly fond of magic items that sucked life or mana from enemies, and it was a happy day when I could upgrade my vampiric weapons.

Shopping is one of my favorite game mechanisms. Many of my most beloved games include shopping, and some of the most highly-rated games of all time (like Puerto Rico) have a shopping component to them.

Let me define what I mean by shopping so there’s no confusion. Shopping is the ability to pick and choose among weapons, defenses, tools, or special abilities within a game, and acquire them for some kind of price. Shopping is almost never about acquiring victory points (or at least not primarily about acquiring victory points). It is about obtaining the tools of victory.

In Arkham Horror, players can have their characters literally go shopping at the stores and magic shops of the haunted city. Players usually get a choice of three item cards; if the player can afford one, he can buy it for a price. There is a certain luck-of-the-draw with this mechanism, but usually at least one item is useful even if it isn’t exactly what the player was hoping to get. Characters can improve most of their abilities by acquiring the right weapon, tool, vehicle, or magic item.

I’ve only played Fantasy Flight’s Descent once, but I believe it includes shopping experiences that roughly mirror Diablo’s. After ransacking a dungeon, the player-character can teleport back to town, sell his swag, and then go shopping.

But a game doesn’t have to feature individual characters to include shopping. Shopping for buildings is a vital part of Puerto Rico, the economic development game. Each of the buildings gives a player a special ability that affects one of the phases of the game. These buildings also are worth victory points, but it’s the special abilities that make them so desirable. I particularly like the quarry--a building that decreases the price of buildings when I shop for them. And the construction hut is a building that makes it easier to shop for quarries. I’ve noticed that some of the items I most like to buy are the ones that help me with shopping.

What is the appeal of shopping? I think it is the seductiveness of improving one’s abilities coupled with the idea that you may be getting an advantage unavailable to other players. And both of these ideas are linked with the Western belief that happiness and fulfillment can be obtained from consumer spending. In real life, linking happiness with consumer goods can be a path straight to credit card hell. But within the game world, shopping may indeed be the path to salvation. Or at least, victory.

Are there certain guidelines for adding the shopping mechanism to a game that make it especially enjoyable? I think there are.

Items must have a cost. Parents have long noticed that children value a toy more if they’ve had to work and save for it. The same principle applies to shopping in games. It’s hard to value something that’s free. For some reason, I enjoy an object more if I get it by shopping and paying for it--rather than getting it assigned to me by a random event card.

Players must have a choice. Shopping in Arkham Horror would not be as satisfying if a player was given only one item to look at when visiting a store. To buy or not to buy is not nearly as agonizing as deciding between three different potentially useful items.

Items should be in limited supply. Even if the game contains dozens of items for sale, few of them should be identical. Scarcity adds value to items. And some items (legendary magic items, for example) should be unique. (In fact, we so expect legendary items to be unique that it can become funny when they aren’t. I’m thinking of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when King Arthur arrives at the French castle and asks if they know anything about the location of the Holy Grail. The Frenchman played by John Cleese replies with something like: “Yes, we have two of them”).

Maybe my favorite shopping game is Martin Wallace’s Struggle of Empires. There are a couple of dozen improvement tiles available in SoE, and it can be very hard deciding which to acquire. Army Training makes your armies tougher. But Banking allows you to raise funds without getting stuck with so many of the dreaded Unrest markers. And logistics…

Well, you get the idea. My mouth waters just thinking about all the ways I could turn my empire into a lean, mean, fund-raising-without-unrest machine. The idea that I am getting special abilities that the other players aren’t is just so enticing.

There is even a strategy I read about on Boardgamegeek based on the improvement tiles. The general idea is too spend the first half of the game trying to snatch up as many tiles as possible. Once your empire is as strong as Popeye after a spinach banquet, you can conquer your way to victory with ease.

Sounded good to me. So I tried it. I ended up spending two-thirds of the game getting the improvement tiles, and by the end of the game there wasn’t an army in Europe that could defeat me. Unfortunately, I had waited too long before beginning the conquering part of the strategy. Other players had racked up so many points that I couldn’t catch up with them unless the game went into overtime. Which it can’t.

I know what I did wrong, but I suspect that the next time I play I could easily make the same mistake. The lure of the improvement tiles may be too strong to resist. So if you want an easy-to-defeat opponent, join me for a game of Struggle of Empires. While you’re conquering, I’ll be shopping.


Anonymous said...

Don't let Kris fool you with is pleasurable fun retoric. Over time I have seen him play the first time to understand the game, and, after he thinks on it, he becomes unbeatable. He has a keen insight to game mechanisms and is a dynamic player.

I think his post really goes to understanding other players and how they value various items in a game scenario. You can play the same game with different groups and get many different values of items.

Kris has kicked my butt at many an auction game in his sly way.

Fraser said...

You just love going into stationery supply places don't you? There's bound to be some sort of game that could be made out that :-)

Melissa said...