Understanding an Action Economy Game – Part 1: Net Action Advantage

posted in: Game Design, Tutorial, Unpub | 0

In the last Unpub PH meetup, there was a game which had a problematic dominant strategy. The theme of the game was you are all cooking food in a shared pot. Players used Actions to place food in the pot. Once food is cooked by staying in the pot for a round, players could then use Actions to claim the food to score points and missions.

The problem arose when one of the players figured out that they could win by not spending any of their Actions to cook food. They used their Actions only to claim food. In the end, the players who cooked did not have any cooked food to claim and could hardly score any points and the player who did nothing but claim food won.

There were lots of analysis and discussion after playtesting to try to figure out how to fix the game but to me, the best tool to explain what happened would be to use the lens of the Action Economy to explain the problem; specifically, the concept of Net Action Advantage.

When I wrote this blog, I wanted to do a whole entry on Action Economy games, but it became too long so for this post I will focus on what is a Game Economy, defining an Action Economy game, and Net Action Advantage, and continue the discussion next time with a Part 2.

What is the economy of a game?

Before going into what an Action Economy is, you have to first look at a game as an Economy. What do we mean by that? When we look at a game as an economy, we aren’t talking about the actual in-game economy of the game which are things like the money, wood, gold, and other resources of a game. We are looking at the meta-economy that the players are given by the game to win.

Think of it this way: every game gives its players a set number of resources and the player that wins the game is the one who is best able to utilize these resources. Resources can be anything from actual in-game money and resources to intangible resources like turns, actions, cards, etc. What is important for a resource in a game economy is that it is finite, the game gives it to you, and that you must use them to win the game.

For designers, looking at a game as an Economy helps primarily in two ways:

  • It helps us diagnose problems in the game’s mechanics because it helps us see how resources are utilized and wasted.
  • It helps us balance a game by relating resources to each other so it’s easy to see their relative value to each other.

For a player, looking at a game as an economy informs us in our decision making because it helps us analyze what are the most efficient moves to make.

Primary Resources and kinds of Game Economies

Often, a game can have one or a few Primary Resources. These are the resources that serves as the most basic unit of reference to which all the other Secondary Resources can be defined by. For example, if a game’s Primary Resource are Cards, then it is a Card Economy game.

Without going too much in detail here are some examples of game economies:

  • Card Economy Games:
    • Many TCGs like Magic the Gathering are Card Economies because the cards you draw are you biggest resource to win the game.
    • Drafting games like 7 Wonders can also be considered a Card Economy because, while you get the same number of cards, it’s the synergy between cards that make you win.
  • Turn Economy Games: Many games with equal turns and you choose what to do on your turn can be considered Turn Economies like Splendor, Ticket to Ride and Sea Salt and Paper.
  • Mixed Economy Games: Heavier Euro games often have more than one primary resource which makes it harder to gauge the value of something. For example, a game like Ark Nova makes resources cyclically dependent on each other which muddles their relative value (Animals need enclosures, Enclosures need money, Money comes from Actions and other stuff including the Animals you already have in your zoo).

What is an Action Economy?

A game is said to have an Action Economy when the Primary Resource it gives players are Actions. If there are a set number of turns in a game and in each turn, you get X number of Actions, then most probably it is an Action Economy game.

Games that are Action Economies include many Worker Placement games like Lords of Waterdeep (an Action is the act of placing a Meeple), Action Selection games like Pandemic (you get X Actions per turn), and even games where the number of Actions you take can be variable like Blood Rage (for the lack of a better example. Blood Rage is most probably a mixed economy because it also has a draft. I just can’t think of a purer example on the top of my head.)

To analyze an Action Economy game, it helps to think that the player who wins the game is the one who best utilizes the limited Actions the game gives to them.

Analyzing Action Advantage

For the sake of discussion, we will use hypothetical game XYZ. Analyzing a game’s economy is often complex (if it were simple the game just wouldn’t be that fun because the decisions would be obvious) so a lot will be simplified. The important takeaway for the next parts is the thinking process used to analyze the game.

In an Action Economy game, ideally every Action you take as a player brings you closer to winning. For the sake of discussion, let’s say the way to win game XYZ is by having the most victory points. Therefore, each Action you take must directly or indirectly earn you VP.

Action Advantage

Because of player interaction, players can often disrupt (and sometimes help) other players. There are many ways in doing this: taking resources from a player, forcing them to discard cards, taking Action spaces from them, disrupting combos, etc. In an Action Economy game, the way to analyze these disruptions are through the concept of Net Action Advantage.

Let’s make a very simple example: in game XYZ, you can play a specific card for 1 Action to steal 2 Gold from another player. How do we relate this to Actions? Assuming it takes 1 Action to get 1 Gold, then the value of 1 Gold = 1 Action.

Let’s look at the disrupted player first: they lost 2 Gold. If 2 Gold = 2 Actions, then they lost 2 Actions. Some gamers and designers would call this a “-2 Advantage”.

Then, we look at the disrupting player. They spend 1 Action to gain 2 Gold. Thus, we can say they got a
“+1 Advantage” because they spent 1 Action to get 2 Gold when it usually takes 2 Actions.

Net Action Advantage

Are we done? No, not yet. Because it is a game and winning means performing relatively better compared to the other players. Then, the total Net Action Advantage is +3. Why +3? Because the disrupting player gained 1 Action, while the disrupted player lost 2 Actions. So relative to each other, the disrupting player netted +3 Actions. Another way to phrase this is that the disrupting player has “gained 3 Actions over” the disrupted player.

Now, is this fair and balanced? This seems to be a very powerful move to be honest and doesn’t seem balanced. Often, designers forget to see the net effect between players and is why they can add very overpowered abilities and powers in a game. The Action Advantage in a vacuum looks okay but the Net Action Advantage is strongly imbalanced.

Diagnosing Action Economy Problems

Going back to the example of the cooking game that was playtested at Unpub PH, let’s use the lens of Net Action Advantage:

If you spend an Action to cook food and someone else claims the food, you have just spent an Action that does not help you and, worse, helps your opponent. This can be described as

You Cooking a Food that costs 1 Action : -1 Action

Other player stealing your food and not having to cook : +1 Action

Net Action Advantage of the person “stealing” food : +2 Actions

Therefore, the player that cooks will lose an Action and not gain anything for it. They just gave away VP for nothing. While the player that “steals” food gets +1 free Actions from the player who cooks. When you add that up, the Food Stealer has a Net Action Advantage of +2 Actions! No wonder the player that only steals wins! They are basically getting free actions from the other players for nothing.

What we learned

Sometimes if a game doesn’t seem to be working or there are imbalances, the problem can be correctly diagnosed by viewing the game as an economy and looking at the net resource advantages that are happening between the players.

Stay tuned for Part 2 for a more in-depth look into Action Economy games. If you like my content, consider subscribing to our blog.

Follow Nico Valdez:

Game Designer

Nico is a game designer, programmer, songwriter, ex-audio engineer, amateur fiction writer, and president of Balangay Entertainment®. One of the less competitive members of Balangay, Nico only wins against 2k, Marx, and Aya when he's played the game before and they haven't. Nico always wins against Aa. He'll play almost anything as long as it's not loud. He likes euro games for their strategy and thematic games for their roleplaying. He doesn't like party games that much because they get too noisy for his ear disability.

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