Monday, 18 February 2013

Five contemporary games with excellent food and agricultural economics insight

Here is my top-five list of contemporary board or card games to play with students, colleagues, or friends who have interests in food economics or agricultural economics.

Among older games, Monopoly (1933) offers buying and selling, but it misses some of the decision-making tensions that really make economics fascinating as a social science.  Monopoly still probably deserves better than its two stars on the Board Game Geek site, which is used throughout this post as a linked source for more information about each game.  The old card game Pit (1903) -- also designed in part by George S. Parker -- imitates the raucous sound of an old commodities exchange, but the trading ratios do not really have anything to do with prices that represent resource scarcity.

The newer generation of games listed here includes economics themes in imaginative ways.  My kids, spouse, and I enjoy the game-play of all five. 

5.  Roll Through the Ages (2008).  This dice game by Matt Leacock is one of the easiest games on the list.  Each player gets a score sheet (as in Yahtzee) and a wooden board with pegs (as in cribbage).  The goal is to earn points by improving your civilization.  If you build more cities, you get to roll more dice.  In each turn, you must provide enough food for your cities.  With any surplus production, you can develop new technologies (such as irrigation to prevent drought) and build wonders (such as pyramids).  Costly early investments generate later advantages.  Those who make such investments benefit from a longer game, while those who make fewer early investments benefit from a shorter game, so a lot of strategy depends on actions that can shorten or lengthen the game.  Food production is central, and the game illustrates some simple aspects of development economics.

4.  Bohnanza (1997).  In this card game by the German designer Uwe Rosenberg, you plant cards representing various bean crops in fields on the table in front of you.  You earn coins when you harvest the beans.  In the game's best agricultural economics feature, you can trade cards with other players who are growing different crops.

3.  Agricola (2007).  In this elaborate board game, also by Uwe Rosenberg, you start with a wooden hut and try to build up a thriving pre-industrial farmstead.  You begin with two family members.  Each turn, you send out family members to work at tilling fields, collecting resources, or building things.  Every several turns, there is a harvest season, with extra tension as you bring in crops and multiply livestock, trying to ensure enough food for your family.  If you raise more family members, you have more laborers but also more mouths to feed.  Agricultural economics themes are pervasive.

2.  Railways of the World (2005).  This dramatically over-sized board game by Glenn Drover and Martin Wallace is a spinoff of the old computer game Railway Tycoon.  The non-computerized version is terrific.  The target audience surely includes old steam train fanatics, who will love the detail about various 19th Century locomotives, but I think the economic history aspects also are very good.  For example, in the Eastern United States scenario that comes with the basic set, you make early investments to connect cities.  The game cleverly replicates some U.S. economic history, in which short routes between Northeastern cities are central in the early turns, but then a network of links from Chicago becomes crucial later.  Small color-coded cubes representing goods are distributed randomly to color-coded cities at the start of the game.  You earn points by delivering the goods to similarly-colored cities on the rail links you have built.  The best agricultural economics feature arises from the natural way that the presence of pent up supply of a good in one place, combined with unsatisfied demand for the good in a city elsewhere, generates a great incentive to invest heavily in a rail link between the two locations.  There is an astutely designed system for taking out bonds to fund early investments, but each bond requires later interest payments.

1.  Settlers of Catan (1995).  This game by Klaus Teuber is one of the most popular in the past quarter century of innovative European board games.  You build settlements and roads on an island with three or four other players.  The board itself is composed of randomly distributed hexagons, so it is different each time you play.  Each settlement entitles you to resources from surrounding hexagons.  Different resources -- clay, wheat, sheep, ore, and lumber -- are used in various combinations to build new settlements, upgrade settlements to cities, or support armies to attack your neighbors.  The game earns the number one spot here, because it succeeds more than any other game I know in imitating some key insights about pricing in real-world economic markets.  Players trade resources with each other at prices they determine themselves.  For good players, the prices adapt to random changes in the relative scarcity of the various resources.  This pricing system works itself out naturally, and doesn't get in the way of the game play, which is plenty entertaining.

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