Friday, October 10, 2014

A Taste of Crushing Debt

From the "Game of Life" rulebook

There are many games where debt is an important part of the action. I like lots of games with debt. 
You might think debt always works the same…Louis C.K. had a really good comedy bit (I will look it up if I remember) about the only thing worse than having no money is having negative money.

But games (at least the ones I've played) actually fall into 2 different camps on debt. And the "camp" your game falls into can have a dramatic effect on what your decisions should be during play.

1) In some games, debt is a punishment. Back when we were all playing Monopoly, the end game condition for most players was running out of money. But in our more enlightened times, designers never want a player to be kicked out of a big multi-hour economic game so they came up with debt.

Punishment debt is Louis C.K. style debt. You can't actually buy anything. You still have to pay upkeep costs. And the penalty for not getting out of your punishment debt is even more punishment. But you still get to play the game!

2) In other games, debt is an opportunity. If you have played around with punishment debt enough, you  will initially avoid opportunity debt like the plague. But opportunity debt has a fundamental difference, its debt you acquire before you go broke. It's debt you might even WANT to have. Be on the lookout for this!

Opportunity debt allows you to borrow extra money at the beginning of the game. The proper thing to do with this money is to buy more money-making stuff earlier in the game, pay off whatever the inerest on the opportunity debt is later in the game, and eventually make more money than if you had never taken out the opportunity debt.

Example I have played with punishment debt: 7 Wonders (with the special debt expansion).
Example I have played with opportunity debt: London
Example I have played with both: Pret-a-Porter

What about a game with NO DEBT OPTIONS at all? Now that's what I call a fantasy game!

Dungeon Petz, Lords of Waterdeep, Puerto Rico, Galaxy Trucker, none of these games provides the option of accumulating a negative account balance. If you don't have the money, you just can't buy stuff. And there's probably a worker space or role card to give you a little cash for next turn.

Or in the case of Dungeon Petz, you just bid more imps, since cash is more like extra workers (I really need to do a review of that game).

If you are designing an economic game, or if you are just a connoisseur of economic games, its easy to sit at the table expecting debt to be a given. You're so used to it.

But its possible to make a simpler choice, and often the game is more elegant (certainly the decisions can be just as difficult) in the long run.

And surprisingly, it is really refreshing to play a game where there is no option to subject yourself to crushing, soul-destroying shell-of-a-man debt. Merely not having enough, and knowing how to get a little more, can be just as interesting.

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