This post aims to provide a basic understanding of distribution. As a first step in the vast landscape that is economics, I go through the details for a common definition for economics as a subject. The most established definition of economics is some variant of “the study of production, consumption, and distribution of goods and services”. This post is the sixth part in a series called “introduction to economics”. I recommend that you go back and read the previous posts in the series if you’re unfamiliar with economics as a subject.
In economics, distribution is the way that output, wealth and income is distributed among individuals or the factors of production. Studying distributions is not a privilege reserved for economics. A common definition for the word is some variant of “the way in which something is shared out among a group or spread over an area.”, and taking an interest in how something is shared out among a group is important in everything from mathematics and sociology, to physics and even linguistics. In economics it is important to study because the distribution of resources can help us answer questions about an economy’s function, welfare, productivity and overall health.
For example, if the majority of all wealth and assets in an economy is concentrated to a small number of individuals then this will have an effect on what types of goods and services are in more demand. The wealthy will be only ones with any sort of capacity for purchasing luxury goods while the rest spend their income on necessities. A majority of producers in such an economy will likely focus on catering to the rich, unless they are focused on producing necessities such as housing, food or haircuts. This example is a case of studying the effects of wealth and income inequality which is what the rest of this post will be about.
Economic inequality is any distribution of output, wealth or income that is not equally distributed between the members of a group. In practice, there are virtually no countries where any of those factors are equally distributed between members of its population. Thus, studying inequality is measuring and determining the effects of different levels of inequality. Sure, there are some more primitive societies where most or all resources are shared within the community, but these are more exception than rule. Even though they can make for interesting case studies they’re not really relevant for understanding our modern day economies.
So how do you measure economic inequality? The most common approach is to look at the distribution of income within a country, economists often use something called a gini coefficient. The gini coefficient is a measurement where you look at how large a share of the total income for a country each individual has and then compare it to a hypothetical scenario where income is instead equally distributed. The gini coefficient goes between perfect equality (0) and perfect inequality (1), if the coefficient is equal to zero then all individuals have the same income, if the coefficient is equal to one then one person has all the income. In reality no country comes even close to either extreme: according to data from the World Bank in 2020 the lowest value of any country (most equal) was Slovenia with 0.25, the highest value (most unequal) of any country was South Africa with 0.65. The full list can be found here, you can also check the heat map below to get a rough sense of how income inequality looks in different parts of the world. Some of the data points are quite old though so I would advise you to not refer to it in any sort of formal setting.
How resources are distributed is an important part of any board game. For example, quite a few games start out on roughly equal footing and then build inequality as time goes on. It’s natural given that almost all games have some sort of competitive element, either amongst the players or between the players and the game itself. Without inequality there would be no way to pull ahead economically in a game where you have to manage resources. But even in games where the amount of resources that players get during a turn might be the same, the quality of the given resource might vary. Take Carcassonne for example, all players draw one tile each turn that they place on the board yet the quality and situational value of a given tile varies greatly. Yet few things beat the feeling of drawing exactly the tile that you need.
But, having too much inequality is no fun: it only takes playing monopoly once to realize this basic fact of life. Once someone pulls way ahead of the others the tension disappears as the others lose sight of a path to victory. This is especially troublesome in games where someone can pull away while there is still a significant amount of playing time left – and if it’s really bad then the player in the lead might let the game drag on needlessly. Hence, just like real societies have redistribution schemes and taxes, board games have catch-up mechanics and penalties. In that sense, the designer can be likened to a modern welfare state: making sure that the poor get food stamps while taxing the rich. Finding the right balance between inequality and catch-up mechanics is important: you don’t want to devalue the effort of the one who manages to pull ahead too much.
One thing I’ve been thinking about for awhile is games that allow for unequal starts. I.e. games where players start with not only different amounts of resources, but where some of the starting resources or factions are clearly superior. I recently listened to an old Ludology episode, where they talk about the game Britannia and how some factions in the game are superior compared to the others. To balance this Britannia lets the players control several factions during the course of a game – if you control a superior faction you also get control of an inferior faction. I thought this was an interesting way of introducing inequality in a game while still maintaining some semblance of balance. This got me thinking: how do you balance unequal starts? Therefore the challenge to this post is the following:
Challenge: think of a way to create an unequal start for the players in a game, what are some ways to balance it so that the player with the best start does not always win?