This post aims to provide a basic understanding of labor as a factor of production. In my last post I covered the basics of production and talked briefly about land as a factor of production. If you are unfamiliar with the definition for the factors of production then I highly recommend reading it. This is the third post in a series exploring economics in board games, you can find the full series here.
Labor as a factor of production is defined as human effort used in the production of goods and services. The keyword here is ‘effort’, something produced by exertion or trying, as it distinguishes labor from all other human contributions to production. To be considered labor it must therefore involve some individual committing time and effort towards production. A carpenter hammering away: labor. An engineer making sure the math checks out: labor. A man-made machine: not labor. Even though machines are in almost all cases a result of human effort the finished machine is not considered labor. The same goes for all goods and services that are used in the production but are not a direct result of the production.
The key feature of labor as a factor of production is that it requires on-going compensation in the form of wages. Since the abolishment of slavery the price of labor is usually larger than zero – with the exception of altruistic acts like helping out a friend in need. If you need another internet rabbit hole there are plenty of sources discussing whether or not there are any pure altruistic acts. Regardless, we assume that all labor requires wages as the opposite wouldn’t really be an economic problem – you would just use as much as possible of the free labor.
But how do we decide the compensation needed for labor? In the simplest model we assume that all workers choose between leisure time and time spent working. Some will prefer more time doing whatever they feel like, while others prefer more time at work to have more income. By extension, different workers require different wage levels in order to supply their labor. Someone with a preference for relatively more leisure time will require more wage than someone that prefers working.
On the opposite side of the spectrum producers have a demand for labor. When deciding if they should hire an additional worker, producers check how much their presumed hiree provides in terms of additional production. If the additional revenue from that additional production is higher than the demanded wage of the worker then they are hired. In reality workers will also provide different amounts of additional production, producers will therefore be willing to pay more wage to individuals that provide relatively more production.
The most obvious connection between labor and board games are worker placement games. If you’re unfamiliar with these types of games they generally involve placing a bunch of pieces, often referred to as workers, on a board and in doing so you perform different kinds of actions. Another common feature for these games is that there are only a set number of available spaces for placement for each action so that players must compete for the most attractive actions. Labor as a factor of production feature in other types of games as well, commonly as actions on cards or spaces.
Common for almost all board games is that the acquisition of labor is a simplified version of its real world equivalent. For starters workers usually provide the same amount of production, there is only one type of worker. There are exceptions, for instance in the worker placement game Viticulture there is a type called the ‘grande worker’ which can be placed regardless if there are any open action spaces or not. They are not really more productive per se but they at least portray differences between workers – a step in the ‘right’ direction if you’re aiming for realism.
There is usually no cost associated with having or employing workers in board games. Sometimes there is a one time fee to acquire an additional worker but usually all you have to do is spend an action or another worker to gain an additional worker. Personally I prefer games where you must spend a worker to gain more workers, partly because this creates a trade-off between current and future actions, but also because it fits better thematically. I can easily visualize the need to commit labor towards acquiring more labor – hiring new employees in a modern economy is quite costly and usually requires a number of working hours from someone in HR.
There are, of course, exceptions to games not requiring you to pay some form of compensation to your workers. However, games that do feature upkeep costs for your workers usually don’t present this upkeep cost as wages. Games like Stone Age, Agricola and Le Havre all have upkeep costs in terms of food for your workers. In any modern economy compensating your workers only with food would be frowned upon which is perhaps why most of these types of games tend to thematically take place in societies where it was not unheard of. In these types of game the upkeep is usually the same for all workers, which I guess makes sense from an economic point of view as long as they don’t provide different levels of production.
What would a more realistic worker placement game look like? One where workers contribute different levels towards production, ask for wages, and also demand different levels of compensation. Imagine a simple game where you have two types of workers, one low-cost low-skill and one high-cost high skill. The high skill one will provide more production but also cost more and vice versa. If done straight up then there will of course be a strict preference for the higher production one as income goes up for the player. Yet imagine a game where the pay-off from action spaces depends on what type of worker you place. Players would then face a trade-off between having impactful workers and many workers. Combined with the ability to block spaces for your opponent I believe it could make for a quite interesting game.
Challenge: design a game with different types of workers. Think of different combinations for their production and compensation and think about how this impacts gameplay and player experience. Feel free to leave your thoughts below.