It’s tax day here in the United States, and that got me thinking about tax mechanics in games. It’s sort of a complement to my Christmas-y gift-giving article of some years ago. The big difference is that unlike gifts, taxes are easy to model in a game. You choose who does the taxing, you choose who they’re going to tax, you choose what they’re going to tax, and voila, you have a mechanic! But there’s a bit more than that, because you also have to decide what the goal of your mechanic is going to be and whether it’s going to be one dimensional or have some depth.
So how can you use taxes in games? Following are quite a few examples.
In this article, I’m pretty liberal with my definition of tax. If it’s about authoritatively taking something valuable from someone, without anything in recompense and/or to avoid a consequence, that’s a tax. But specific games might call it a tax, a tribute, a debt, a quota, or an offering. I’m the furthest out on a limb in this definition in the “tax-as-victory-point” section, because the players do get something in return — but as I say in that section, there’s still a variant of tax-as-victory-point that is clearly a tax.
The System Taxes
Taxes are most frequently a system-instituted cost. In the real world, the government is the institutor. And, that’s largely how they’ve worked in games too, with players being forced to pay their taxes, tributes, or debts to some uncaring game system.
Tax as Bad Luck. The simplest form of tax is just bad luck that strikes someone who lands on the wrong space, draws the wrong card, or rolls the wrong dice. They’re then forced to pay their taxes. There’s no deeper purpose to the game design, and there’s no opportunity for clever tactics. Monopoly (1933) offers an example with its Luxury Tax: you land on the space, you pay the cost.
Most games that have a more complex, less random tax system use it as part of a resource-management system.
Tax as Action Cost. Taxes sound bad: something that players must pay to avoid dire consequences. However, sometimes they’re just a themed part of a resource-management system. In Architects of the West Kingdom (2018), some actions require a “tax” to be paid as part of the action’s cost. (The tax is cost that’s played to a specific location, but more on that momentarily.)
Tax as Scarcity Cost. Taxes can also be a scarcity element: a resource that the players have to produce (and pay) in order to avoid a negative outcome. In the Year of the Dragon (2007) may be one of the best examples of the genre, because there are multiple “taxes” that have to be paid, the most explicit of which is the “Imperial Tribute”, which requires a payment of yuan. However, the game’s “Drought” is effectively a rice-tax and shows how the scarcity/tax element doesn’t have to be money. Any scarcity game equally falls into this category, including Agricola (2007) and its worker-placement brethren that have a food-tax for workers.
Tax as Timed Payments. In a resource-management system, taxes might be tactically avoidable through clever play, and thus become one of the cogs in the machinery of efficiency that each player is building. In Feudalia (2011), each player will occasionally draw a Tax Collector card into their hand, which will eat up half their resources They thus have to time the acquisition and use of their resources to minimize this cost.
Tax as Complex Resource Management System. A resource-management system can also be much more complex, incorporating many of the different elements listed here. Architects of the West Kingdom (2018) offers one such example. As noted earlier, players have to pay taxes for some actions … but then someone can go steal those taxes at a cost in Virtue, a different resource.
There are many ways to design tax systems, using either luck or resource-management elements. But another way to look at a tax mechanic is by asking the question: “What’s its purpose in the design of the game?”
Tax as Catch-up. System taxes are often used as a catch-up mechanism: they help to even the playing field, by slowing down leaders. Usually, this occurs through a tax that all the players have to pay, but with different costs based on victory level. This may be accomplished by having players pay a percentage of their money (which might be a resource, might be victory points, or might be both) as a tax. It could happen randomly: in the Empire Builder (1982) games, a tax event forces all the players to pay part of their earnings. Or, it could be a regular occurrence: in Age of Steam (2002), players have to pay a percentage of their money every turn. Dungeon Lords (2009) doesn’t just tax money: it charges a regular fee based on the size of the dungeons that players have build: still probably slowing down the leader, but creating a level of indirection that doesn’t make it feel like as much of a punishment.
Tax as Victory Point. Finally, players might also pay taxes to earn victory points from their benevolent tax collector. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, and as noted sort of goes against the idea that the taxed people don’t get any recompense. Charterstone (2017) offers an example: when players use the Cloud Port action, they ship things to the Emperor to fulfill their “quota” and earn points. Frequently, the taxes are managed as a majority-control mechanism, where the person who donates the most earns the most. However, Hab & Gut (2008) shows how this mechanic can be devilishly twisted to become a more traditional tax: players can donate money to charity every turn, but whoever ends up donating the least over the course of the game … automatically loses!
The Player Taxes
There’s another way to broadly incorporate taxes into a game system: instead of having the system tax, the players themselves could be the taxers, demanding fees, debts, and other payments.
Tax as Thematic Resource. The weakest type of player tax is probably a mechanic where a game uses a “tax” action to raise resources. In many ways, this is the mirror image of the action-cost system tax: tax as pure theming. In In the Year of the Dragon (2007) a player “tax” action raises money. While in Queendomino (2017), players can tax their tiles as part of a slightly more complex system. It’s a way to transform one resource (knights) into another resource (coins), but the “taxing” is still purely thematic. The problem, is that these actions don’t necessarily feel like taxes, because there’s no repercussion.
Tax as Take-that. An alternative methodology is for players to tax each other. Catan (1995) shows how this could still be a semi-random system: a player rolls a “7” and then gets to decide who to tax with the robber. Alternatively, it could be the result of a more purposeful card play: 7 Wonders: Cities (2012) introduces “debts”, a special action that forces other players to pay their hard-won coins to the bank. However, take-that taxes should be managed carefully: the robber in Catan and the debts in Cities are both contentious mechanics, as some players just don’t like things being taken from them. (In fact, I personally thought the debts in Cities largely spoiled the 7 Wonders game, but you have to admit, it does have repercussions, like it or not.)
Tax as Dangerous Resource. However, the best player-tax systems may be the one not where a player makes another player suffer losses, but instead where a player raises taxes and then may suffer repercussions himself! That’s the case in games like Shogun (2006), where you can raise money with taxes, but risk your peasants becoming unhappy and either refusing to fight or even revolting. Similarly, taxing in Archipelago (2012) raises a rebellion marker every time! Of all the tax systems, this is the one that feels like it’s more than just a bad-luck system, more than just a scarcity system, and more than just a resource-management system. It suggests that the heart of taxing may be someone making a choice and gaining an advantage, but taking a chance at a disadvantage too!
It turns out that there are lots of examples of taxation in board games, from system events to player choices. The thing that really makes taxes feel like taxes, though, is repercussions: be it bad luck for the taxed player or possible problems for the taxer. The heart of any good theme is figuring out what games mechanics can make that theme come alive, and it seems to be the repercussions that do so for tax systems.
Thanks to the folks on the Facebook Boardgame Group (TBG) for pointing me to most of these taxing games.
The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples