Commons: A board game

I’m overdue for a blog post and half asleep, so you get one of my half-arsed board game design posts instead of something deeper.

The idea is it’s a game about the tragedy of the commons. It works as follows (as per usual, numbers and details are essentially picked out of a hat and this has not ever been play tested so it is probably not actually fun. It may however contain the seed of a fun game):

You have a deck of 60 event cards, a large collection of resource tokens, and a starting player crown.

Resource tokens are split into the bank (an essentially unlimited collection of tokens), one pool per player, and one central pool.

Each player starts with ten tokens and the central pool starts with five per player. The crown is randomly assigned to one player to start.

Each pool will go up and down over the course of the game. If a player’s pool is ever depleted (goes down to zero or lower) that player drops out of the game. If the central pool is ever depleted, the game is over and everyone loses.

Play proceeds until there is only one player left (that player wins) or until the deck of cards runs out, at which point the person with the most tokens wins (if there is a tie they are joint winner).

Play occurs in a series of rounds:

Starting from the player with the crown and proceeding clockwise, each player draws two cards. One of them they play in front of them, the other they place face down in the middle.

Once everybody has played, add one additional face down card to the the cards in the middle, shuffle them, and the one at a time draw them and apply their effect to the central pool.

Cards are as follows:

  • 10 x Lose 1 token
  • 10 x Gain 1 token
  • 6 x Lose 2 tokens
  • 6 x Gain 2 tokens
  • 3 x Lose 3 tokens
  • 3 x Gain 3 tokens
  • 1 x Gain 5 tokens
  • 1 x Lose 5 tokens
  • 1 x If you have > 10 tokens, reset to 10, else do nothing
  • 1 x If you have < 10 tokens, reset to 10, else do nothing
  • 2 x Gain one resource token for every 5 you have, rounded up
  • 2 x Lose one resource token for every 5 you have, rounded up [Note: Yes this will kill you if you’re down to 1]
  • 3 x Given each other pool one resource token. If you don’t have enough, deal out all you have remaining starting with the common pool, then from the player with the crown going clockwise.
  • 3 x Take one resource token from each other pool.
  • 4 x Give 5 resource tokens to the pool with the fewest tokens that isn’t you [Tie break: Prefer the common pool if it’s joint. Else, prefer clockwise closest to the starting player]
  • 4 x Take 5 resource tokens from the pool with the most tokens, or as many as they have if it’s fewer than 5 [Tie break as above]

Each of these should be available in a variety of values of X, and the distribution should be such that every card is paired with one of the opposite effect. The deck should be quite heavily stacked with “Gain X / Lose X” cards, with the more complicated cards making up a bit under half the deck.

After a round has been completed, the crown moves one player clockwise and the next round begins.

Design notes

One of the interesting features of this game is that it is very hard to tell what other players are doing. You can observe the effects “Hmm your pile is suspiciously large for if you haven’t been fucking over the central pile” but you can’t actually tell who has played what card. There is a huge amount of plausible deniabilty in every move, especially with the random extra card in the center.

There’s also no way to target someone specific (there can’t be, because of the central pool needing to be able to play without choice).

Overall, the game has ended up as a sort of hilarious head on collision between the tragedy of the commons and the prisoner’s dilemma. I think I like that aspect of it.

Thanks to the other David for helping me think through some of the aspects of this.

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