The Tragedy of the Commons, or: The Comedy of the Boardgame

The “Tragedy of the Commons” is a component of economic theory first put forward in the 19th century and eventually named by Garrett Hardin. Investopedia did a better job of writing about it than I can, but to summarize it here, it’s a situation where everyone making the “rational” decision to maximize benefit from a source ends up unsustainably depleting the source.

While this concept is generally used in entry-level discussions about environmental science, the Tragedy of the Commons is a surprisingly useful tool for a game designer’s toolbox, combining both strategy and comedy into a tight, easy to understand package. Let’s look at how we can turn the Tragedy of the Commons into the Comedy of the Boardgame.

There for the Taking

In board games, the Tragedy of the Commons most frequently manifests itself in the following situation: There is an action that players can take that benefits them. However, the more people who take the action, the less beneficial that action becomes.

This is a fairly standard puzzle that combines both logic and player psychology, and the backbone of games with depleting resource pools like Agricola. You could say that almost every Euro-style game has some element that penalizes people who follow the same strategy as the other players. Where the Tragedy of the Commons differs from standard tabletop game design is that, instead of having multiple strategies that encourages players to diversify, there’s one “greedy” action that benefits players more than the others, but that punishes players if too many try to go for it. To put it in Prisoner’s Dilemma terms, it’s as if both prisoners tattling sent them to prison for 50 years.

You can further divide Tragedy of the Commons mechanics into PvP (Player versus Player) and PvE (Player versus Environment). You could think of PvP mechanics as a narrow shortcut in a car race; it might be logical to go for it, but if everyone makes the “logical” decision, the benefit of time saved goes down as everyone crams around it. PvE Tragedy mechanics involve some external force bearing down on the players; if the players don’t band together and take “selfless” actions to prevent it, it’ll result in everything from penalties for the irresponsible to the game abruptly ending with everyone’s loss.

The comedy potential here is fairly obvious. Watching people get punished for their greed has been consistently funny for hundreds of years, and it’s at its peak when everyone, thinking that they’re the exception, reaches into the pickle jar at the same time and get their hands collectively stuck. 

A Comic History of Pastoral Tragedies

It’s easier to understand a design concept if there’s concrete examples instead of just abstract thought, so let’s look at some ways the Tragedy of the Commons manifests itself in existing board game.

Incan Gold is where I got the idea for this article, and its application of the Tragedy is somehow both almost abstract in its simplicity and hilarious in its execution. Players gradually uncover more and more gems as they venture through the temple (why there’s no gold in a game called Incan Gold is beyond me); these are divided evenly among the players still in the temple, with the remainder continuing to sit on the card. In games with 5 or 6 players, quite a lot of remainder can sit around before people decide to leave. When a player leaves, they pick up all the remaining gems: The catch is that if multiple people leave, the gems are divided in the same way! There’s nothing more 

Making this system even more appealing are relic cards, which are worth a ton of points but can only be picked up by a player leaving the temple on their own. The “correct” decision of skedaddling ASAP to grab that statue is now tempered by the extreme fear of embarrassing yourself of leaving the temple, empty-handed and way too early, because one of the other players thought the same way you did.

As an example of a TotC mechanic that’s component-wide instead of set-wide, take the Cook card from Libertalia. The Cook gets to take two booty tiles instead of one, and is ranked a respectable 18 out of 30, with higher numbers getting first priority. Depending on the booty tile distribution for a certain day, it can be very tempting to play the Cook, get a huge haul, and rocket ahead in one turn. However, if other players play their own Cooks, you could waste yours entirely; you could also suffer if they take the more conservative option and play a high-ranking but risky pirate. There are several ways you could get punished for playing a Cook, but the reward is so enormous it can be worth it.

The most on-the-nose “PvE” Tragedy of the Commons mechanic is in CO2, where everyone loses if carbon pollution raises over 500 ppm. Like most Vital Lacerda games, the system is pretty complicated so it’s hard to summarize in one paragraph, but there’s essentially one single action that can actually lower carbon pollution (demolishing high-emissions power plants and replacing them with renewable energy plants) and many, many other ways to improve your standing in the game, including improving your “expertise” by sending scientists to conferences, proposing projects for plants, and so on. Essentially, if you spend too much time screwing around trying to get territory control bonuses instead of affecting meaningful change, you lose even if you had a substantial victory point lead.

Many PvE games give players who at least tried to fight the problem some kind of bonus. In Uwe Rosenberg’s Lowlands, you have the option to contribute to the construction of a dike; if not enough of the dike is built, a huge flood occurs. People who contribute to the dike avoid the worst effects of it if it breaks and get a monetary bonus if it doesn’t, so the question isn’t “do I take the selfless action of building this?”, but “is it worth the bonuses for building the dike to take attention away from building my collection of sheep?”

I Write Tragedies, Not Sins

There’s a couple of principles that can improve your use of a Tragedy of the Commons mechanic in your board game.

The first is that players’ intent should be largely hidden. The dynamic of not knowing whether the other players are going to go for the “greedy” choice and making your best guess is generally less frustrating than knowing that you’re going to have to play conservatively. The easiest way to handle this is with some kind of simultaneous action, like Incan Gold does, but with many other games it’s difficult to commit fully to either path before seeing exactly what your opponents are doing. Breaking up player turns into multiple actions, like in most worker placement games, is a fine option.

The other is that the exact “tipping point” for when a greedy action is a good idea or not should be ambiguous before you take the action – otherwise, the choice is too obvious. Returning to Lowlands, the exact strength the dike requires to withstand the oncoming flood is hidden until the upkeep phase, where players can’t alter their choices anymore. Thus, you have to make the decision whether to conservatively pitch in on building the dike or spend more time raising sheep and hoping the floods won’t be too bad this time.

Fuzziness in general is key here. The core appeal to both the comedy value and gameplay value of the TotC mechanic is that you don’t know if you can get away with being greedy until everything’s said and done, and it should come as a surprise to everyone what the actual results of their various risk-taking ventures were.

Conclusion

The Tragedy of the Commons is less talked-about that some other common board game mechanics; one reason, perhaps, is that the nitty-gritty of balancing all the options is much harder, and an unsuccesfully executed TotC mechanic can be a serious drain on the game. That said, a successfully executed TotC will generate memories in your players that they’ll carry around for their entire tabletop gaming career, so if you feel like there’s room in your game for something like this, I highly encourage you to at least try to go for it.