The core mechanic of all great strategy games is a coherent and balanced in-game economy. Regardless of an emphasis toward city-building or conquest, real-time or turn-based, all strategies are largely governed by the same logic: Achieve a goal by deciding how to collect resources, produce objects, and organize their function toward that goal.
In some games, these goals are met through purely economic means, whereas in others it is through combat. But even games that at first glance are all about tactics — such as the Warcraft or Command & Conquer series — in truth rely extensively on carefully constructed and well-articulated in-game economic processes.
Here I breakdown the core concepts that underpin in-game economies for strategies and explore how they exist in different games of the genre.
The building blocks of any strategy game’s economy are ‘resources’. These are the inputs that be used and transformed in order to gain variant strategic and tactical advantages. In concrete terms, these could be buildings, units, upgrades, technologies, and so on, depending on the specific game.
A fundamental dynamic of how an economy operates is how resources are collected by the player. In many real-time strategies, resources are placed in the environment as raw materials that the player must organize labor to collect.
In games such as Age of Empires and Warcraft, workers go back and forth from a raw material deposit and bring it back to a specific location. In these iterations, the physical raw material becomes an intangible resource quantity. Imagine here that a worker collects wood and when he returns to a town center, the player is rewarded with +10 lumber in the non-diegetic UI interface. From a gameplay perspective, such a system emphasizes tactical measures to harass and hamper enemy workers themselves.
In other games, such as Stronghold and Caesar III, raw materials are gathered or produced but are then brought to a physical, in-game storage facility. This has significant consequences for gameplay as it means that resources can be destroyed after collection. It additionally allows for complicated chains of production as it lays the foundation for different economic processes to exist in conjunction. In Stronghold, for example, in order to produce bread, which is necessary to feed the population, wheat farmers must bring wheat to the stockpile. Millers then collect the wheat to grind flour, which bakers then use to bake bread. The result is a dense but stimulating field of economic relations that requires more time to build up.
Turn-Based and Hybrid Strategies
In many turn-based and hybrid games, resources are accumulated by the user in accordance with ‘tiles’. In Civilization, for example, resources exist on tiles and users must build an ‘improvement’ on the tile in order for that resource to be accessed. In this style of in-game economics, the resource is not collected or exhausted but rather allows the upkeep of a specified number of units. The effect of this type of in-game economic structure is that grand strategies are oriented around territorializing, defending and attacking resource-relevant areas.
In mobile-based hybrids, such as Hexagonium, the player builds structures on tiles that automatically provide a yield on a timely basis. These resources must then be manually collected to be converted into units, upgrades or buildings.
This method of time/tile oriented economics fits well with mobile, midcore gaming as it allows players enjoy multiple, short play sessions on a given day.
As said earlier, resources are the building blocks of a game’s economy. How the player is able to use them to construct a city, civilization, or war party is the grand tower itself. As such, very careful thought must go into understanding how the economy will behave in-game and how it will develop.
Specifically, when organizing the overall structure of a game’s economy, the two most important values to build toward are replayability and diverse gameplay strategies. These, in turn, are largely the result of the successfully implemented concepts of balance, vectors of probability and scarcity.
Balance means that the game has been tested well enough to sketch a system of value for each possible action and entity. Once this has been done, the price (the cost of resources expended) for each entity or action must match the value it provides. In real life, this matching of value and price is a matter of theory. In a game, however, the developer has the power to fine tune and dictate such dynamics. Doing this successfully prevents the massing of particular units or overpowering one specific strategy due to an imperfect market.
Vectors of Probability
Vectors of probability mean that players are able to understand the likely range of outcomes of a decision. This doesn’t mean that everything should be cookie-cutter progressions but instead that players are able to conceptualize the scheme of the game, if only in a rough way. This allows a dimension of economic strategy that is intentional — not simply reactionary and experientially arbitrary. It also forces players to adjust their economic designs as circumstances and events in-game shift their calculus of probability.
As a neoliberal economic term, scarcity refers to the fact that a number of human wants and desires is always greater than the available goods and productive capacity. One consequence of this is that economic actors — the player — must prioritize and develop certain activities. For a game, this means making sure the player can’t have everything at once. Instead, by forcing the player to maximize what he can do with limited resources from a range of choices, specific strategies emerge organically and the game attains a level of progressive pace.
The hype that surrounds new strategies often pays heavy attention to the graphics, units, and scale of the game. All of that is well and good, as they are key to the experience. However, it is all useless in the long run if the economics underpinning it are loose or unbalanced.
The standard bearers of the genre — Sid Meier’s Civilization series and Blizzard’s Starcraft and Warcraft — earned their places in the pantheon of gaming by building immensely fun, tactical and strategically diverse games founded on simple, tight and balanced economic structures.