Returning to the future

After some odd thoughts about how the network growth potentials of ‘Ohana Proa could be mapped as a pseudo-futures market, i’ve been thinking about representing futures in games quite a bit lately and I’m having a really hard time of it.

The simplest way to present a future seems to be as a pair of contracts:

  1. The agreement to sell at time X for price Y
  2. The agreement to buy at time Q for price R

The two are of course reciprocals. There are more complex forms of futures, but they are just that, more complex. The basic form would have PlayerA selling a contract to PlayerB, PlayerB giving PlayerA money in return for the guaranteed market (to buy or sell). The complexity is that PlayerB has to have the money now to buy the contract, and depending on the type of the contract, will also either have to have the trade goods or the money to satisfy the contract when it comes due. The primary justification for futures is to guarantee both the pricing and the existence of the marketplace into the future against the vagaries of market dynamics. Thus a wheat producer can not only set his effective price for next year’s tonnage now, but can also guarantee that there is in fact a market to sell his wheat next year. A wheat buyer can do likewise, protecting themselves against price spikes due to bad weather and a reduced crop (for instance). But you know all this – I repeat myself, re-tracing the pattern in hope that repetition reveals something new and useful.

The challenge is to (literally?) transcribe this into a game. There must be risks sufficiently large that the inefficiencies of futures are worth it. The range of extent of the risks must also be knowable (supply may be high or low, prices may be high or low, demand may be high or low). Additionally, if a futures market is to be represented, the actual trade of futures and the tracking of futures prices as a discrete market entities, then fulfilment must be sufficiently postponed that the value of the future has the opportunity for multiple significant changes and can be reasonably traded multiple times.

This suggests a future length of between 3 and 5 rounds1. The future would be sold and there would then be 3-5 rounds of market evolutions and potential trading of a given future before it matures and is fulfilled. A good rule-of-thumb is that a game has 7-10 rounds, with each player making at least one strategically significant evolution per round. 7-10 rounds gives sufficient time for player investments to mature, carrying player commitment and value, and for game arc to develop. Given that futures must have a maturation time of 3-5 rounds and assuming that all the maturation periods will stack as densely as possible, that means a game duration of 10-15 rounds.

This of course assumes that the players start the game with positions which require the sort of risk abeyance that futures provide: another problem to resolve. But, so far so good. The remaining problems are to establish the risks and the market variance controls which can express reasonably in 10-15 rounds.

The future definition could also be simplified to :

  1. Buy goods now to be delivered at time X
  2. Sell goods now to be delivered at time Q

In essence the transaction occurs now except the fulfilment, the actual movement of goods, happens later. The pattern is similar to the mail order market model (given guaranteed delivery times) except that fulfilment is delayed by more than the postal system2. This is almost the same kettle of fish except that all the capital is required up front for the purchaser to abey the risks.

If the simplified model is combined with a loans/temporary-liquidity system 3 it becomes remarkably similar to the more classical and complex split contract/fulfilment/payment futures model.

Now for the risk system, and this is where I’m running dry.

The system needs a market with the following properties:

  1. High potential price variance
  2. Increasingly difficult to predict the longer the prediction (early-, mid- or late-game), not exponentially, but probably worse than linearly
  3. Reasonably predictable market volume demands

That last is a doozie. If I simulate supply and demand then either the supply and demand is highly unpredictable, or there is another large random factor in addition to supply and demand which affects market prices. One appealing possibility is using Lokomotive Werks’ novel dice-based market system, as it does provide a highly dynamic market with high variance supply and demand relationships4.

Positing Modern Mogul as an extrapolation of Lokomotive Werks is appealing as Lokomotive Werks is a fine game (review). Lokomotive Werks internally simulates the demand side through a combination of the number of dice rolled (which is a function of competition), the values that are rolled on those dice and the individual player’s turn order but leaves the supply side for players to construct. Somehow this needs to be split so that players can occupy both the supply and demand sides of the equation.

Demands are supplies for the next stemp in the consumption pipeline. What if there were the equivalent of two Lokomotive Werk’s tracks, one of factories for production (much like the current game) and the other with second stage demand? Thus, keeping with the train/transport themeing, one system would generate erratically growing sequences of transport demands (passenger, livestock, freight, etc), perhaps using a very similar system to Lokomotive Werks, which the players would then attempt to fulfil by representing back to the train production market as demands in some value distribution. Thus on the one hand players would attempt to gauge their position against the variations in transport demand, and by reflection from that, against the variance in production vehicle demand.

Much as I like perfect and certain information games, the use of dice (as a stand-in for any random system) seems suitable. here. The requirement is to create a high-risk difficult to predict system. A random system obviously does that and has the advantage that the range and distribution can be relatively precisely tailored. Building the system from player-interactions is likely possible but seems a difficult butterfly effect challenge and runs the risk of being fragile/crackable.

Hurm. Back-to-back Lokomotive Werk’s-like systems with a full futures market (time-based contracts to buy-and sell, plus dynamic price tracking). This needs musing on.

Harrumph. I started writing this post indending to explain how impossible it was to reasonably represent a futures market in a game and I had a stack of good solid (swiss-cheese) reasons in-hand. However, as hoped, as I assembled and articulated the reasons they built something else.

  1. A round being defined as a well bounded set of player actions and decisions sufficient to cause a significant strategic position change for each player 

  2. I’m purposefully going to ignore delivery location. 

  3. cf Container or Wealth of Nations. 

  4. This is rather cute, as Lokomotive Werks effectively implies a futures market for the trains the players build while never actually implementing any portion of that market!