Among my interests which have so far not come up on this blog is board games. I’ve liked board games since I was in primary school. I’ve had flirtations with other games – I’ve spent quite a bit of time playing bridge, for instance; I went through a phase in my teens and early 20’s of liking table top wargames a lot; I did a lot of fantasy RPG play back when the concept was very novel and I’ve played a lot of computer games in my time, but I keep coming back to board games, and in that category tend to like the ones which have at least a nodding acquaintance with some aspect of reality (so chess and go are not high up my list) as well as preferring those without massive amounts of chance (so generally not games involving a lot of dice throwing). Wednesday night is games night here, and most Wednesdays a small group of friends gather with me to play the board game of the moment.
This post is going to involve a lot of talk about games, but it is also going to touch on economic, politics and even maybe a little religion – so non game players may not actually want to stop reading just yet!
For some time now, that has been a game called 1817. This is a fairly recent development in a family of games which revolve around building railways (and making money in the process) which started with 1829, a game set in England (with a later extension covering Scotland), the name being taken from date of the first passenger-carrying railway. I’ve had a copy for a long time! The same game designer, Francis Tresham (who also designed one of my other favorite boardgames, Civilisation, which deals with the rise of civilisations in Mesapotamia and points West of there) then cooperated with others to produce 1830 (the founding of the Baltimore and Ohio RR), which was set in the Eastern United States, and had rules which were far more slanted towards financial manipulations than were those of 1829.
Tresham is one of those game designers whom hobbyists love; he was entirely open to having enthusiasts produce other games using the same basic mechanics, and there are now an absolute host of 18xx games produced by other people, usually with the last two numbers being the date of foundation of the first passenger railway in the country the game is set in – the main Italian game, for instance, is 1841.
1817 is also set in the Eastern USA, but the date comes not from an early railway, but from the date of foundation of the New York Stock Exchange. As you might guess from that fact, it’s possibly the most financially complex of the set so far, having advanced concepts like short-selling shares. It’s also more random than any of the big titles in the 18xx series previously, with players starting their railways in any available station (not one already taken by another player save one double station and one location, New York, with two startpoint station places), whereas the norm is to have fixed, historical locations. It’s taken the 18xx gaming world by storm – at some recent conventions, more than half the games played were 1817.
I’m also a compulsive tinkerer with games, as are a couple of the other Wednesday players. Tresham’s “Civilisation”, for instance, involved a map of Europe and the Middle East and North Africa cut off to the North at around Switzerland, to the West at around the boundary between Italy and France and to the East in Western Iran, and after a little while it acquired an authorised extension map which took the Western boundary to approximately Gibraltar. Those boundaries seemed far too arbitrary to me – after all, Roman civilisation extended throughout Spain and into Britain, and Greek civilisation at one point extended all the way to the Indus valley in what is now Pakistan. So there is in existence a set of extensions designed by me which do include much of the British Isles, all of Spain and the rest of Iran – and no, they aren’t available commercially. There were good game-play reasons why the board was truncated where it was, as I found out in trying to keep the gameplay sensible, and although my extension does allow and additional two civilisations to be played above even those in the extended game, very few people want to try to assemble even the seven players needed for a full game of the original.
By the time I bought a copy of 1817, my Wednesday group had been playing 1830 for a while, but a significantly altered 1830. Many years ago, when Avalon Hill was still producing 1830, they also produced a DOS computer game of the same name, and one of the features of that was that you could have a random map, which I fancied seeing for the board game. I had played around for some years with mechanisms for producing an at least somewhat random map for the game (as had another of our group), and about three years ago I came up with a scheme involving triangles of 6 hexagons which could be shuffled and dealt into a larger hexagon with a set of border pieces and a single centre hex, plus the ability to start railways anywhere on the map (which is now a feature of 1817) and a wrinkle on the ideas of private companies in the base game which added to the randomness. It was a real hit with our Wednesday group, and we’d been playing it (with some slight adjustments to the map pieces to improve balance and playability along the way) more or less exclusively when 1817 came along.
1817 took over. However, after we’d played it for a couple of months, one of our regulars said “Chris, why don’t you do a random map for 1817?” So I did that, and that’s what we’ve been playing on since then. Then someone else suggested we try simluating the westward expansion of US railways in a second phase of building, so we now have a double-hex map with a second set of private companies…
All this tinkering with games and their mechanics has taught me a number of things. Firstly, where a game includes maps, the maps have been very carefully designed to avoid obvious winning positions based on the topography – games are no fun if the only factor is who gets to start! I spent months tinkering with the Civilisation map to ensure that all the start locations had a decent fighting chance of doing well, and even more designing the random map sections for 1830 and then 1817. A game is only fair if you don’t have huge advantages from the start (or alternatively if huge start advantages can be easily circumvented – there are some games where this is the case). Secondly, if you’re trying to design a game which has a long playing time (and both Civilisation and the 18xx games typically take 5-10 hours), you have to be very careful to design mechanics which prevent someone getting an early advantage which is impossible for other players to overcome – and you have to do that through carefully crafted sets of rules, not (for instance) by just saying that everyone in a multi-player game has the same chances of making bargains with others as does any other player. Although there isn’t all that much luck in the 18xx games, there is definitely some – mostly based on where you are in the turn order compared with other players. I’ve mentioned avoiding the first player being able to take a prime position which can’t be matched by others, but in addition the player whose turn is immediately after someone who makes a mistake in game play is typically the one who can capitalise on that mistake.
In chess or go, of course, there are only two players, so it matters a lot less that a single mistake can cost a game – in multiplayer games a single mistake can still cost a player the game, but it can also win the game for another who has done nothing to deserve it other than being in the right place at the right time. Or it can lead to a player being eliminated very early, and having nothing to do but watch the other players for the next few hours, which is also something which game designers are going to want to avoid. Typically, therefore, in multiplayer games you want to have mechanisms in the rules to let players recover from mistakes, and to ensure that someone who is a beneficiary of such a mistake doesn’t run away with the game as a result of that.
In other words, you need a lot of carefully crafted rules in order to have a fair game which carries on for a long time. If you want a game which allows someone to come into it after it’s been running for a while (which we haven’t done in the 18xx games, but which I have considered for other games), you need to have additional rules in order to give the new player a sensible chance of not getting knocked out pretty much immediately – giving them the resources someone had at the start of the game absolutely doesn’t work, because other players will have built up far greater resources than that. Without such rules, even if a new or existing player has a wonderful idea which can improve their position massively, the inertia of others who have massively more resources is impossible to overcome.
With that in mind, I look at the naive suggestion by neoliberals that the “free market” should be shorn of any rules, and see in that a recipe for a “game” which eliminates “players” fairly quickly, leaves them little or no chance of “getting back into the game” and equally prejudices anyone who comes late to the “game”. It doesn’t even have the benefit of an end-point at which you can say “George has won”, after which you pack up the game and, perhaps, start another where everyone has an equal chance at the beginning. It condemns an increasing number of the players to sitting on the sidelines watching others and having no real stake in what is going on. In a financial game like 1817, money makes more money, eventually more or less irrespective of how well a player is playing – unless there are rules to stop that happening, to deliver some penalty for “bad play” – and that is equally what happens in “free market economies” unless they are well-regulated. As the author of this article comments, “Right now, the economic game is enormously fun for far too few players, and an increasingly miserable experience for many others.”
Our Wednesday group is a fairly friendly group, and in fact the better players frequently deliberately don’t make use of opportunities which having vastly greater resources gives them, particularly if that would result in bankrupting another player and thus removing them from the game (a smaller group does occasionally get together for a more cutthroat game in which bankruptcies are very common – but even then tends to declare the game won after any particularly sensational coup which produces an obviously winning situation, so as to relieve the loser from the burden of being a spectator only for some hours). This is, of course, conduct which in the real world, practising neoliberal economics with the dictum that the only responsibility of directors is to maximise shareholder value, would be horribly penalised. The share price of a company run like that would fall hugely, and the directors would be sacked… But it reflects a compassion which neoliberal economics regards as a fault (and, of course, Christianity regards as a virtue), as well as the self-interested motive of retaining the other players’ interest so that you have people to play with next week.
And having people to play with next week is something which neoliberal economics doesn’t take into account, even via the mechanism that, if you grind down all the other players enough, you will have a monopoly (all the money in the game), but you will have no-one able to buy your product any more. Indeed, the end of each game has a player in what is either a monopoly position or which, if continued long enough, one which will become a monopoly position – and a monoply (or, in the real world, more often a cartel) is the inevitable end point of these economic games – and where there is a monopoly or cartel, the “free market” no longer exists. Unlike a board game, you don’t pack up the economy and start from scratch next week.
Against my neoliberal friends, therefore, I can say with complete confidence that in order for there to be a free market, you need rules (i.e. government regulation) and in order for it to stay a free market you need more rules, as a free market is inherently an unstable thing.