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The House Selling Game

Real life is full of games such as contract bidding, gift exchanging, and national voting — a topic that I’ve previously touched upon in a few different posts about “real-life mechanics”. These real-life games are no less competitive than the board games that we play around tables, and in fact might be much more important. As I wrote in my “Burning Freeways” article on blind bidding, the winning bidder earned $800,000 more than Cal Trans expected and could have made as much as $3.5 million over costs.

In that article I also briefly touched upon how the blind bidding of house sales can be affected by just the teeniest bit of external information from a realtor. At the time I hadn’t sold a house. Now I have, and I’ve learned a lot more about the various parts of house-selling, and as usual they offer up new possibilities for the designs of These Games of Ours.

Preparing for Sale

The house-selling game actually begins months or years before you put your house on the market. That’s when you start cataloging all of the problems with your house that you might fix. That crack in the ceiling that you never cared about, that heating system that mysteriously shut off one or two times a year, that heavily weathered back door that you ignored for two decades: none of them impacted your love for your house, but they can make a big deal in a sale. And, it turns out that completely painting the outside and (especially) the inside of your house is largely expected if you’re going to make a strong case for selling it!

The reason for doing all of this fix-up work is largely emotional: when you’re talking about a sale as big as a house, the majority of potential buyers are going to make an emotional decision, with only banks and potential landlords making a fiscally focused one. So, on the one hand, you want to help everyone who walks through your house to imagine living in it — and you can do that by presenting a house that’s ready to go, offering no obstacles or problems. You offer those potential buyers hope and dreams. And, on the other hand, you want to make sure that there’s nothing about the house that will scare them — and since you have to list any defects in the property that you know about in your disclosures, that means that you really need to resolve any problematic ones, whether they’re obvious on a house tour or not. You offer these potential buyers freedom from fear.

Now here’s what I find most interesting about this for game design: though I personally play from the gut whenever I can, there’s enough foundational mathematics in eurogames that you can often carefully calculate cost and value. In fact, there are games when I’ve been forced to do so. (I don’t tend to like those games!) So one question that the house-selling game offers us for tabletop game design may simply be: how can we get players to make emotional decisions rather than rational fiscal one? Hiding valuations seems to be a good answer, and there’s an obvious way to do so: you offer hope instead. When a purchase is worth $5 to you, it’s easy to calculate that you should pay $4, but not $6. But when a purchase is worth $5, but could be worth $10 or $20 or $100 … that’s a house of a different color. Uncertain random results and set collection both offer ways to do this (and in fact Modern Art: The Card Game offers a great example, because it’s all about set collection in circumstances of uncertain value). But there are probably other answers for substituting emotions for calculation in eurogames.

The second thing that I found interesting about the house-prep game was the need for disclosures. If anything, tabletop games go the opposite direction, where players are trying to convince their opponents to buy what’s behind door #2, even when they know full well that it’s a donkey. But you’re not allowed to sell donkeys when you offer a house, unless you’re clear that you’re doing so. Would changing that add anything to a game design? Or would it just take away a fun little aspect of treachery in tabletop game design?

And finally, I find it interesting that the house-prep game has two goals. Obviously, you’re trying to increase the valuation of your house, and as with any sales-oriented game, putting money in usually results in getting more money back. But, you’re also implicitly increasing the number of people who will bid on your house by making it more valuable (and emotionally, more attractive), and that in turn causes the house to get bid up more. A resource-management game that marks the increase in valuation of a property in multiple ways, like this, might be quite interesting.

Determining Your Time

Houses can sell for different amounts at different times. Putting your house on the market in late November or December, for example, is a horrible idea, because everyone is too wrapped up in the holidays. In fact, in the California Bay Area, sales continue somewhat weak until you get to houses that are closing in March, which probably went on the market in late January or early February. Prices (and in particular bids over asking price) then pick up. And even though there aren’t as many buyers around at the start of the year, what’s on the market is pretty limited too — so it might be as good of a time to sell as summer, when sales are at their height.

Obviously, this all makes for an interesting game design element because there are other factors at play. Is there a reason that you need the money from a sale immediately? (Usually!) Are there other factors that make you want to sell immediately? Are there random factors that may or may not come into effect (like the possibility of an economic downturn or the extremely unlikely possibility of a catastrophic earthquake)?

It’s in those other factors that you could potentially find good design, because the best game choices are the ones where there’s no “right” answer.

Selling Your House

An old saying states that anyone who represents themselves in court has a fool for a client. I think the same is largely true in real estate. Real estate agents have an enormous store of wisdom not just about the specific (and very complex) rules and regulations involved in selling a house, but perhaps more notably about what works to maximize a selling price (or, if you’re a buyer, what works to minimize it).

Obviously, in board games, everyone is their own agent. We don’t have extras sitting around, ready to step in and help us out during situations where our own expertise is limited. But it’s certainly plausible to imagine a system where you could go to your opponents and have them help out on things that you’re not great at. This tends to show up in negotiation games a bit, as a possible element of deals, but one could imagine any sort of game where each player might have their own expertise, and other players could draw upon it: perhaps even without the agreement of the “helpful” player, but still giving them some return for their support. So if one player is a warmonger, others might get him to build machines of war; and if one player is an expert trader, others might get him to do their trading for him. (And the latter is an example of how I’ve seen this come up in existing games: in Catan the people with great ports sometimes end up doing trades for others, but it’s a very limited circumstance, and there could be more to this.)

Choosing Among Offers

Auctions in board games tend to be pretty monotonic. Except for in an excellent game like Res Publica — which is actually more negotiation and trading than auctioning — you don’t have much choice in auctions. You take the $6, not the $4.

When selling a house, there are many more factors: how much does the buyer offer; what contingencies does he place on the sale (e.g., loan, inspection, etc.); what escrow period does he offer; is his offer all-cash; does he present a heart-warming video about why he wants your house; and can you discern anything else about whether he’s likely to close that deal (and perhaps, if you care, about whether he’s likely to be a boon to the neighborhood you’re leaving).

Now it’s possible that all, or most all of those factors will line up to present the obviously best offer. But, if not: well you’ve got a ball game. Because, much as with the question of when you decide to sell your house, there isn’t a right answer. Different sellers (or game players when we abstract this out to game design) might have different priorities. You might think that money is the most important element, but most of those other options can determine whether you actually get your money or not — and a heartwarming letter could easily make a difference when looking at two like offers, perhaps even if they’re separated by 1% or 2% in value.

Waiting for Escrow

Here’s one last element that’s pretty unusual in house sales: the escrow. Even after someone has agreed to buy a house, there’s a 30-to-60 day waiting period before the sale concludes. This is in large part to give the buyers a chance to get a loan, since houses are high-priced items. But it also offers a point of failure, where a deal has been made but then falls apart, perhaps because of the failure of that loan (or because of disagreement over an inspection) but also because of totally unexpected situations.

It’s a rare game that puts a delay into any of its supply chains, though Macao offers a great example of how you can build a whole game around the concept. Knowing that you’re going to have resources, not now, but in the future, offers for some interesting planning. The ability for a deal to fall through might also be interesting … particularly if duplicitous opponents can help.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Finally, house selling can also be interesting for how it displays the sunk-cost fallacy. This is where someone spends good money to try and get back money that’s already been lost. And, unlike most of the interesting design elements in the house-selling game, this one already shows up very naturally in game designs, just because of the psyche of the human mind. Whenever a a Poker player puts more money into the pot not because of the strength of his hand, but because of what he’s already invested, that’s sunk cost.

In a house sale, it might show up as a result of the sale preparation (“I spent money preparing my house, so I’m only going to accept an offer that’s better than average”), but it might have the most interesting effect during an escrow period.

If you think the deposit someone makes on a house sale is a sunk cost, you should toss that idea out. Deposits usually go straight back to the buyer if a sale fails. (However, you could certainly make a game where a deposit is a genuine sunk cost, and then let players decide whether to abandon a purchase when it might become advantageous to do so.) However, buyers might also have genuine sunk costs if they pay for inspections, or if they do work on a house they’re buying as requirement on a bank loan. Now a cost of a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars isn’t a lot when you’re talking about sales that are usually a few hundred thousand or even a million dollars. But, psychologically, they can make a big difference.

And like everything else here, that’s hopefully another great idea for game designs.


Here’s one thing I didn’t write about escrows: the anxiety of waiting for it to close. Ours went almost a month over in accordance with a few addenda we signed, one of them for slow-downs caused by COVID-19(!).Thankfully, it finally closed about a week and a half ago, but in reference to that, here’s one last game design element I offer up: anxiety-inducing mechanics. Because some of the best games I’ve ever played, with Ticket to Ride being a prime example, had levels of tension in them that bordered on anxiety.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples