Understanding an Action Economy Game – Part 2

posted in: Game Design, Tutorial | 0

In my last blog post, we discussed the different kinds of economies in games, the Action Economy, and New Action Advantage. For this post we are going more into detail into the concepts of an Action Economy as well as tips and tricks on how to analyze one. If you haven’t read the previous blog, I highly encourage you to do so because this builds on topics from that post.

This blog will be more theoretical than most and may read like a textbook but I hope it’s monotone won’t discourage you from understanding Action Economies.

To recap, an Action economy game is a game where the primary resource the game gives its players are Actions. The player that best utilizes these Actions will eventually be the winner.

Analyzing an Action Economy

For the sake of discussion, let’s use the same example from the previous post. We will use hypothetical worker placement game XYZ. 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.

Relating Actions to VP

Let’s say there is an Action that, when taken, gives you 1 VP. Can you think of a game with an Action like that? Actually, most Worker Placement games where each ending resource is considered a victory point is like that! If each Gold resource is 1 VP at the end of the game, taking an Action that gives 1 Gold gives you 1 VP. Thus, 1 Gold = 1 VP. And, since it takes 1 Action to get 1 Gold, then 1 Action = 1 VP. Thus, if game XYZ gives you 20 Actions per game and you do nothing but take resources, you already have 20 VP. But that’s no fun and isn’t a wise usage of turns. To win the game, you must use your Actions more efficiently so that you are scoring more than 20 VP.

Minimum Action Cost

Let’s say there is a quest that you need 3 Gold to complete and scoring a quest is also an Action. Then you can get the Minimum Action Cost (MAC) of that quest. The MAC is the minimum number of Actions it actually takes to score that quest using the basic Actions of the game.

What’s the purpose of finding the MAC of a quest? It later gives us a baseline to see the relative difficulty of quests compared to each other and the Action Efficiency of that quest (which will be discussed later on). Note that it’s important to compute the MAC using the basic Actions of the game (when applicable) because future abilities and actions can become more efficient and give you more resources for just 1 Action based on the skill of the player.

If you take 3 Actions to take 3 Gold and 1 Action to score the quest, then that would mean the MAC of the quest is 4. So, you should be getting a minimum of 4 VP in scoring that quest just to “breakeven”. If the quest gives you 3 VP, then you’ve actually lost points! Because if we convert all the Actions to VP, it means you just traded 4 VP to get 3 VP.

Action Efficiency

However, you don’t want a quest to simply “breakeven” because if it did, why not just take the 4 gold? The act of completing a quest or a mission should net you even more VP than its basic Actions. Let’s say the quest gave you 5 VP instead of just 4. Then that means you spent 4 Actions/VP to gain 5 VP which netted you +1 VP: a 25% increase in VP for your 4 Actions! This is how players actually win Action Economy games: finding the most efficient ways to use their Actions. For the example of game XYZ, it’s how to net the most VP possible with the 20 that the game gives you.

The more points you gain for the less number of Actions is Action Efficiency and is how you gauge which moves are optimal and sub-optimal.

Action Groups

However, not every Action gives you VP directly; many give it indirectly. In the previous example, let’s change the rules and say scoring a quest is actually a free Action but you need to first draw that Quest card which takes 1 Action. Thus, using an Action to draw a Quest card nets you 0 VP but is a critical step in scoring quests This is where the concept of an Action Group becomes important. We can sometimes only see the worth of an Action when it is grouped with other Actions. As a player, this means that sometimes it is okay to take some Actions that are sub-optimal if when you take it as a group of Actions, the group is actually very efficient.

Risk and Flexibility

Let’s look at another example: let’s say there’s another quest that has an MAC of 8. If the quest with an MAC of 4 gives you 5 VP, should the quest with Action cost of 8 give you 10 VP? Is that a good balance?

No- and this is because the quest that costs more Actions is inherently more difficult to complete which means it is less flexible and gives more risk. Because at the end of the game, you only get the VP if you actually complete the quest! The higher the Action cost of a quest, the higher that chance you won’t be able to complete it. So, the player who does complete it should be given more points for their worthy endeavor. How you balance it is up to you. For example, if the 4-cost quest gives you 8 VP and a efficiency of 25%, then what if the 8-cost quest gives you an efficiency of 150%? If it did, it should give 12 VP. Then, playtest if this feels like a good markup in Action Efficiency given that the added level of risk and lack of flexibility going for higher cost quests gives.

Plugging it into the spreadsheet

With these basic analysis tools, you can now plug in your Quests and other game spaces into a spreadsheet for analysis, comparison, and balancing.

How I would do it for game XYZ is I would make a sheet for the Quests. On the sheet, I would first make a column for the Quest names. Then, I would make a few columns for the requirements needed to complete the quest (Gold, Resources, Actions). Then, I would make a column that computes the MAC of each quest using the formulas discussed earlier. The MAC is a function of the Resources and Actions needed to score the quest. Then, I would make another column for the VP that each quest would give if scored. Finally, a last column for the Action Efficiency which is simply VP / MAC. The columns would look something like this:

| Quests | Resources | MAC | VP | Action Efficiency% |

With this simple table I can easily compare all the quests in my game XYZ and make edits to them! The values under MAC and Action Efficiency% are automatically computed dependent variables while the values under Resources and VP are independent variables I can manipulate. With this I can, at a glance, see the general balance of all the quests in my game, compare their relative difficulties and Action Efficiencies, and make edits as I see fit.

This is a basic setup. You can add more columns depending on the needs of your game. In games I’ve worked on I’ve added columns for abilities, weighted VP costs for each of the resources, turn simulations, Net Action Advantages (as discussed in the previous blog post), etc. What’s important is all the data is in front of me and are easily comparable.

What we learned

With this simple breakdown of an Action Economy, I hope it gives a better idea on how to analyze each of the components and relate the different resources to each other, Actions, and VP. The spreadsheet is a practical application on how to visualize this analysis so it is easier to balance and edit your game.

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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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