Interview with Michael Keller
When you run a blog, you get to bug people with whom you want to have a conversation under the guise of an interview. Michael Keller's City Hall has really sparked my brain lately and sent me on a research path that might, maybe, result in my own economic design. For now, let's talk to Michael about his designs and economics.
Hyperbole Grant: Welcome! Just to catch everyone up, tell us who you are and provide the high level pitch for your published games.
Michael Keller: Hello, my name is Michael R. Keller. I’m a software product manager by day and have just recently realized a decade-long effort to design a game and have it published. My first game, City Hall is a city-building game built on a mechanic that combines role-selection with semi-reciprocal bidding. I also have a second game that just came out called Captains of Industry. That game was a labor of love. I’m a lover of economics and Captains is the ultimate expression of marketplace dynamics.
HG: I want to start with City Hall. I played it with you at BGG, bought it shortly after, and have since played 3 times with my group. From this game, and from what I know about Captains of Industry, you really love player driven markets. Am I correct here? Why this mechanic?
MK: You've hit the nail on the head. One of the pitfalls of many economic games is that after a few plays, you begin to “know” what everything is worth. In the real world, there is no locked, established value to things. Value is subjective and dependent entirely on what the market participants think. Take black pearls. When black pearls were first introduced to the European market, they were considered vastly inferior to white and yellow ones. However, when a French empress began wearing them, they became fashionable and skyrocketed in value. I find that arbitrary market valuation fascinating.
Bitcoin is another example. I've been aware of it for years and watched as it went from ridiculous nerd fantasy to skyrocket in “value” to the point where governments had to monitor it. It was wonderful seeing the bandwagon effect as investor celebrities hopping on board caused domino after domino of price jumps. And it was just as wonderful watching the whole house of cards collapse this year when people decided there was a hype bubble holding it up.
As an aside, I think I've just violated a regulation on mixing too many metaphors.
HG: Here at Hyperbole Games we don’t believe in restricting the markets or metaphors.
MK: Closer to home, my first job out of college was working for Citi. This was in the summer of 2007. As you can imagine, the front-row seat I had to the economic implosion caused by reckless, bonus-seeking bankers, which relied on everyone keeping the illusion going, had quite the effect on me.
In my games, I want to reward players who can either spot market opportunities or are clever enough to create them from whole cloth.
HG: Players in City Hall exchange Influence (a currency), which fuels much of the economy in the game, particularly player actions. Captains of Industry looks like a big player driven economy on steroids. Can you detail for us the points of player connection and interaction in this economy?
MK: I don’t want players to turtle up and just do their own thing.
HG: If I can interrupt, that statement alone promises many benefits to a deeply strategic game. It’s more difficult to conceive a dominant strategy if other players are involved in every step. It makes it impossible to solve the game, or be stuck with your last 5 turns on auto-pilot because of your initial choices. I find that very compelling. Sorry, continue.
MK: Both of my games force you to interact directly with other players to get what you need. But you don’t get it by force. You get it by showing that you value it more than them. But in doing so, the player you beat out receives the resources you spent. This creates what in economics is called a Pareto Efficiency in which both the winner and the loser are better off than if they had never clashed. This is because the loser receives resources which he or she considers more valuable than the goal they lost to the winner (otherwise the loser would have bid even more).
HG: One of the seemingly Quixotic ideals for many designers always seems to be the semi-cooperative game. They often end up being awkward. With a drafting game, for example, there’s the notion of counter drafting, but often times that both hurts you and your neighbor. You didn't really want the card. What I like about your system is that everyone benefits. You wouldn't put this term on the back of the box, but in a very real way it’s a semi-cooperative experience. Everyone benefits.
MK: Which is, at least in theory, what an economy is supposed to be. A set of mutually-beneficial exchanges of goods and services. All it takes to put this experience in game form is application of those economic principles to an arbitrary goal.
HG: One of the things about the invisible hand is that it balances things for you. Or does it? Can you share insights on balancing a game where the economy is so player driven? In City Hall players receive a free Influence at the end of each round, and there are incentives to take less used roles. What else?
MK: The danger in a player-driven economy is that it is very easy for an inexperienced player to drive themselves into the ground with a bad early play. Sure, they learn their mistake quickly, but there’s no way to correct for it, as doing so would require resources which they just lost to their mistake. In City Hall, I start the players off with only three influence each. Through the two methods you listed, I slowly inject influence into the player economy over the course of the game. This adds a nice, dramatic curve to the bidding, as bids escalate from 1 or 2 at the start to 10 or 15 by the end. It also means that the worst mistake you can make in the early game is bidding three more than you “should” have. And you’re guaranteed to get at least one back next round.
HG: In my most recent game (which I won!), I identified the few things I had to do in order to win and took actions to maximize my Influence. In the final round, I spent 12 and 10 Influence for two actions. It was deeply satisfying to have engineered my success by securing the capital.
MK: That’s the core of the game. The city-building is the arbitrary goal that surrounds the framework of managing your political capital.
HG: Are there any other games that you enjoy that create a player driven economy?
MK: Power Grid is one of my favorites. It’s not fully player-driven, but there is one aspect of it that really gets me. When a plant is up for auction, the value of that plant is not based solely on its inputs and outputs and the alternative plants you can try to buy. It is also based on what plants other players have already bought and how likely they are to keep those plants running and what plants they would replace them with.
This is because Power Grid exhibits a principle called derived demand. The plant’s value is derived from the value of its production, which is the money you get from selling the power minus what you will have to spend on resources each round to generate the power. The cost of those resources is a product of what plants are already being run, which resources they use, and whether those plants are likely to be retired.
This creates several positive and negative feedback loops, all of them jostling against each other to push the “value” of the plant around. The best part of this is that the plant can have actual different values to each player.
If I have three coal plants already and you have two oil and one eco (which you want to replace), the coal plant will be worth more to me than it is to you. This is because you know that if you get this new coal plant, there will be four plants devouring coal each round, causing the price to skyrocket. If I get this new coal plant, it’ll retire one of my existing ones, so coal prices won’t rise so quickly. Therefore, this plant is more valuable to me than it is to you. Especially if you suspect that I will go for an oil plant if I don’t get this one. That would make the two oil plants you already own drop in value as I’ll suddenly be buying the oil you were getting cheaply. All of which only takes two players into account! There’s so much going on in that simple plant auction.
HG: What are some of the biggest differences between the initial City Hall and the final product? I’m curious about the game’s evolution.
MK: The superstructure of the game has been there since the first playtest. The changes since then have been characterized mostly by the quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “It seems that perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.”
The city simulation in the game was previously far more robust. I’ve been a fan of a certain trademarked city simulation game since I played it on the SNES as a child. The initial inspiration for the game was thinking how to turn that single-player video game into a multiplayer board game. The first prototype of City Hall contained some mechanics from that series which did I eventually cut out of the final design.
The most impactful of these was roads. As you know, all zones are affected by their neighbors. However, the permit cards previously had roads on them which would be used to connect to each other and create transportation networks. Permits would be affected in different ways by both what they were adjacent to and what they were connected to.
Another big change was that instead of parks, there was a set of different, one-of-a-kind special buildings. These buildings represented police departments, fire departments, schools, and parks. Each of these had a different effect on their surroundings.
Both of these were removed because, while they were interesting, they weren't core to the game. Early playtests showed that the interesting part of the game was the trading of influence between players. The roads and special buildings were just complications that got in the way of that core mechanic. While there are city-building games that are built around the interplay of dozens of different buildings, this game isn't. Hopefully removing these parts brought the game closer to perfection.
HG: What’s your favorite game of late?
MK: I picked up Tragedy Looper at BGG Con. I’m a fan of both asymmetry and deduction games, so this probably qualifies as the game I’m most excited about that doesn't have my name on the box.
HG: What are you working on now?
MK: Honestly, I’m kind of burned out right now. I’m still playing games for fun, but the past three years have been cognitively, emotionally, and physically taxing. I’m just to enjoy having my two games out for a while and focus on things other than games for a year or so.
I had been working on a real-time financial game, but couldn't break through a complexity wall without sacrificing my goals for the design. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday.
HG: I hope so. City Hall is wonderful, I expect to pick up Captains of Industry sometime this year, and I’d love to see more from you. Thank you so much for your time, Michael!