Feb 17, 2014

Component Design Process - Transcript and Updates

This post is mainly a written version of my Component Design Process video. I have also posted a short update to my conclusions at the end.

My current goal is to make a game which explores the role of finance within the larger economy. My first try at that was FCOJ. Tests of that design to this point have raised a few concerns about complexity. I had another idea come to me about how to explore this subject, this time avoiding the real-time element which presented a hump for some players. This post will explore my process for designing one of the components for this new game design.

This game, just like FCOJ, has two types of players: banks and pension funds. It also has two winners at the end of the game: the richest bank and the richest pension fund.

The bankers draft investment cards, and then create a collateralized debt obligation (CDO, see this video for information on how a CDO works) using three of those investment cards. The banker will choose two out of three investments in a CDO to be face-up. This will give pension funds some, but not all, information on the makeup of the CDO. The bankers will then mark the slices (tranches) of that CDO with our new component.

The pension funds will then bid each of these slices in an Amun-Re style auction (although a player can have high bids on multiple items at the same time). After all players have passed on bidding, the slices are given to the high bidder (or returned to the bank if no bids were made for that slice.

To know how to design this component, we need to lay out exactly what functions it must serve. The component must facilitate:

  • Bidding
  • Ownership (Originating Bank)
  • Ownership (Auction Winner)
  • Identify which slice of which CDO it represents
  • Risk Rating of CDO slice by originating bank (to allow for bank with perfect information to engage in information asymmetry in selling their partially-hidden products by potentially lying about their actual risk level)
  • Payment levels for that slice

I quickly decide on using cards for this component instead of a board. While a board will give plenty of space for all of these functions, it has its own problems.

The game takes place over a number of rounds. After each round, the CDOs for that round are set aside. They will collect interest for the rest of the game, but will no longer be the primary focus of the action. Using a board means that they will use the same amount of table space for the entire game. I want to be able to move them off and reduce the space used, so using cards instead of printed board spaces makes more sense.

To meet our needs for original owner we can have a colored background to the card. To mark the auction winner, that player can leave one of his or her markers on the card (and/or move that card nearby to themselves).

To mark which CDO and slice the card represents, we can mark the top of the card. For slice, I could mark it either with a number (1-3) or possibly a letter corresponding to a relative valuation (Senior/Mezzanine/Equity or Prime/Subprime/Junk). A name is more thematically interesting than a number, but it would require the player to memorize the relationship of the levels. I'm trying to reduce the complexity of the game, so I decide to go with numbers.

To facilitate bidding, the majority of the card will have to be given over to a grid on which players can place their bidding markers. The grid would have a non-linear number progression to be interesting at higher levels of interest. Bidding 43 or 44 is not an interesting choice. I will figure out the maximum bid and minimum bids I want and then figure out some curved distribution for the rest of the spaces to take.

I considered the possibility of these being dry-erase cards in the manner of wits and wagers. If so, the bank could just write its rating directly on the card. However, I don't know the production costs involved with that, so instead I moved to the idea of a set of rating chips the bank can place on the slice.

The problem with the chips is we've now exploded the number of components. The number of chips will increase proportionally to the number of ratings levels, the number of rounds, the number of slices per CDO, and the number of banks.

The math quickly gets out of hand. If I wanted to allow 5 or 6 levels of grading, over 3 rounds, with 3 tiers, and even restricted to only two bank players, that ends up being over 100 ratings chips to make sure you can't run out of one you need. I decide to keep it to three ratings levels (safe, moderate, risky). That should give players enough choices while keeping a lid on components.

I don't want players to constantly have to add and divide the payments being received for each slice. If it was a dry-erase card, the bank could just write the interest payment directly on the card (and adjust as components of the CDO go bankrupt).

If dry-erase is too expensive, the bank could just place actual money on the card itself indicating its per-round payout. However, having yet another thing placed on the card becomes a physical logistical problem. Players would also have to remember not to touch the money actually on the card.

Now I have to check to make sure all of these things can actually fit on a standard-size playing card. Unfortunately, even assuming the rating can be off to the side of the card, the auction grid is still either going to have too few spaces or the spaces will be too small to read. It looks like I won't be able to use standard-size cards but custom tiles, which will increase the production costs for the game.


After the initial recording, I realized a couple of things that made all of this easier. First, the ratings don't need an individual chip for each rating. If I use generic star tokens, a player can then place as different numbers of tokens to indicate the different levels. This greatly reduces the component load.

In addition, I also realized that the auction grids don't need to be on the card itself. After it is auctioned off, that grid is no longer necessary for that card. Therefore what I did was to create a small board containing just the grids. The cards are then placed next to the board grids until the end of the auction. Removing the grid from the card means that everything else can fit without resorting to non-standard sizes.

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