Replacing explicit costs with opportunity costs in Trekking the World

Replacing explicit costs with opportunity costs in Trekking the World

Nick Bentley Nick Bentley

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Hi Advisors,

Welcome to this week's behind-the-scenes post.
Today's is about a design principle we’re applying to make our new version of Trekking the World. I’ll start with the principle and then discuss how we’re applying it. Here it is:

Favor opportunity costs over explicit costs

Players tend to feel better when making choices between “free” things to get, than when deciding whether they should pay for something.
The cost associated with making a choice between “free” options is called an opportunity cost. The options aren't actually free because to get one benefit, you have to forego getting some other benefit you would have gotten if you’d made a different choice.
An explicit cost is when you have to give something away to get something.
Opportunity costs don’t feel much like costs because you’re not giving anything tangible away to get something. 
Explicit costs, on the other hand, feel like even greater costs than they actually are, due to one of the most well-established cognitive biases among humans:
Loss Aversion: the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.
Loss Aversion is important for game designers: if you create explicit costs for resources in a game, you’ll create pain, and sometimes that pain is greater than pleasure of whatever the players get in return. This causes players both to misvalue things and sometimes feel they’re not having a good time.

Loss Aversion in Trekking the World 1st Edition

In the original version of Trekking the World, there are special “power” cards called Journey Cards. Two are available every game, and you can activate each whenever you want, by paying cards out of your hand. This one costs two cards, for example:
After we launched the game, we found many players ignored the Journey Cards, despite their strategic value, apparently due to loss aversion. 
The game has a “tight” card economy where players often feel short on cards. Consequently many feel like they can’t “afford” to activate Journey Cards.
This issue limits the game's variability, as Journey Cards are the main source of game-to-game variability.

Replacing Loss Aversion with Opportunity Costs

In the new version of Trekking the World, Journey Cards are replaced with Encounter cards (I don’t have images of these yet because we’re still doing the graphic design; apologies).
At all times, there are 4 Encounter cards available. Each represents something that can happen to you in your travels at a certain location, and each gives you a special power.
When you travel to that location, you get that card, for “free”. It’s a physical object that becomes yours, and only you can have its power. Because we humans have acquisitive instincts for physical objects, this tends to feel good.
Of course Encounter cards aren’t actually free, due to opportunity costs.

Other examples:

  • In Trekking the World 1st Edition, you have to pay cards to move on the map. In the new version, you choose from "Itineraries" with varying resources - including movement - at each turn start. This replaces explicit costs of movement with the opportunity costs of "free" options. Here's what an Itinerary looks like:
  • We added another “free thing” mechanic into the new version, called “Itinerary Tokens” These don’t have any corresponding cost mechanic in the original version. Itinerary Tokens are one of two mechanics play testers usually say is their favorite thing about the new version (the other is Encounters). But those are a topic for a different day, as this post is getting a bit long.
Please don't hesitate to share your opinions in a reply, positive or negative. I read all your replies (and reply when time permits) and it helps me understand what we're doing right and wrong.
Nick Bentley, 
President, Underdog Games Studio

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