Too goods to be true. Intro part 1

This post aims to provide a basic understanding of goods and services. As with any learning you must first learn the basics – therefore we begin by exploring a basic definition of economics. The most established definition of economics is some variant of “the study of production, consumption, and distribution of goods and services”. This is the first post in a series exploring economics and board games, you can find the full series here.

Goods and services are things that exist to satisfy the wants and needs of individuals. Goods and services come in the form of items, favors or other things said to provide utility. Utility is just another word for ‘worth’ or ‘value’, which in economics is quantified in order to determine how individuals value different goods and services. A typical good might be a pen which gives you value because you can use it to write. A service might be a visit to the doctors which provides worth because it makes the pain go away. The utility provided by goods and services make people want them, this desire constitutes of the fundamental forces of any economy: demand. We’ll return to the finer points of demand once we’ve covered a few other topics. For now, just remember that all demand is a function of the wants and needs of individuals. 

The distinction between goods and services is that goods are transferable, services are not. Transferable means that you can transfer the ownership of an item from one person to the next. You can easily buy an apple (a good) and then give it to your friend. In my experience, it is much harder to pass on that kick-ass massage (a service) you got while on vacation. I often think about the transferability of resources while playing a game. There are plenty of games where a resource logically should be transferable, yet the game does not feature a trade mechanism. A designer might have very good reasons for not allowing trade between players: slowing down gameplay, undermining the intended player experience etc. However, if I can’t buy a much needed resource that in the real world is transferable from another player there is an increased risk of breaking immersion. Theoretically, the same goes for cases where services are transferable in a game – although I struggle to think of a game with transferable services. If you know of one please let me know.

Now, here’s a suggestion for you if you want to experiment with transferability: the next time you play a game where trade is not featured but also not explicitly forbidden – try and trade with other players. If someone objects, argue with fervor that resources ought to be tradable because that’s how the real world works. Better yet: try and control other players’ actions via trade. Or even “better”: try and trade real world goods, services, favors or assets by going into debt for in game actions and/or resources. You might lose a few friends of course but hey – at least it will be entertaining. 

Board games feature plenty of goods, but they are often called something else. All assets, materials, workers, and money are almost always referred to as ‘resources’ in a game. Often goods in a game will be referred to as a resource and lumped together with other resources even if they have different functions. Most commonly a game will feature one or more goods to be used in order to reach the victory condition. Sometimes directly where you might use goods to purchase or obtain victory points. To use a well known example: in Catan, one of the ways to win is to construct settlements. In order to build a settlement you must first obtain bricks, lumber, wool and grain, which are then used in the construction of the settlement which directly nets you victory points. Other times you use the goods indirectly to achieve victory. For example, you might need food for your armies which you in turn use to defeat your opponent, or you might need tools for your builders which then go on to construct buildings that net you points. 

A quick side note and pet peeve of mine with Catan and other games that use goods as inputs. Sometimes there is a disconnect between what is used to produce a thing in a game and what would actually be needed to construct its real world equivalent. I always wondered why it was necessary to collect wool for a settlement in Catan. Are all my villagers naked? Does this parallel universe require bits of string to build a house? Or are drapes a fundamental human right?! I’m ranting, but my point is that designers risk breaking immersion if an in-game resource does not have roughly the same properties and uses as its real world equivalent. 

Games that feature services are, in my experience, more uncommon than games that feature goods. Usually services come in the form of an action, a space on a board, or as a thematic illustration for some effect on a card. To borrow a classic example, in the game Talisman there is a space on the board called the ‘Chapel’ where a character can go to get healed. Rarely, if ever, has a game featured a service as its main resource or primary victory condition. 

A theory of mine is that services are not as straightforward in their production as the production of goods. Producing a good typically (and a bit simplified) requires a factory, raw materials, labor, machines and some know-how or blueprint. A service is typically provided by some individual with a skill gained either through education or practice. Sure, providing a service might also require some materials and a place where you provide it – but in contrast to goods services require more human capital and knowledge. My theory is that this human capital is much harder to gamify – for example, how would you represent learning how to cut hair in a game? Education yes, but would a game where you have to train your workers for extended periods of time even be interesting? Is there such a game? This question intrigues me and therefore my challenge to you is the following: 

Challenge: design a game entirely based around the production of a service. The players might assume the role of doctors, run an auto-repair service, provide internet to the elderly, or any other service that you can think of. Feel free to bounce your ideas around in the comments section below.

Next up: What is economics? Part 2: production.

PS: did you notice how ridiculous the picture at the top of this post is? It popped up when trying to find a picture representing a visit to the doctor. All white, some weird machine (scales?), and the most spacious Kallax-shelf I’ve ever seen in my life. Until next time!

/Daniel Olai

4 Comments on “Too goods to be true. Intro part 1

  1. Good read! I particularly like the way you bring up immersion.

    When it comes to services, you say that services often “come in the form of an action, a space on a board, or as a thematic illustration for some effect on a card”. Isn’t this more or less the essence of a service in a board game – that it is an action?

    Brick and wood are resources. Building a road is a service. If so: Are services rather hidden in the rules and mechanics of the game, and goods are the visible things flowing between agents?

    1. @Johan, I would agree that it would be difficult to represent a service as anything other than an action given its nature. Wether it’s represented as a card, a space on a board, or any other component does not change this. In fact, I think that trying to represent a service via certain types of components might instead break immersion. Services are almost exclusively immaterial and having them represented by physical objects creates a disconnect between the game and the real world equivalent.

  2. One example of a game that uses services is Village. Players are unable to obtain goods unless their people are trained to produce those goods. One of the primary inputs players have is time, and it may take different amounts of time for a person to become a cartwright than a priest.

    1. @Duncan. That’s really interesting. I’m guessing time is a representation of training/education in order learn a skill or profession – which is certainly more akin to how the real world works. The next step, if you’re shooting for realism, would be to have the workers have different aptitudes. Also perhaps make it so you can’t influence what profession workers pursue – perhaps you could get a really shitty baker who would have made an excellent priest or something. Thank you for letting me know about the game, I might check it out!

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