Recently, Dice Tower: Showdown! did an episode on the “feed your people” mechanic. One of the points I found interesting was whether behavior is “feed your people” if you aren’t actually using food to feed people. The consensus seemed to be that “feeding your people” can be just a tacked on balancing mechanic, but a more generalized mechanic, an upkeep phase, be very useful if the mechanic is a specific focus and well integrated thematically.
So what is an upkeep phase? There are many types of feedback, and upkeep is a type of negative feedback. (I discussed the effects of feedback in depth a while ago.) Upkeep falls into the category of maintenance, which can involve negative ongoing effects, specific costs, or otherwise tightly linked with player actions. But one of the defining characteristics of an upkeep phase is that players suffer the negative effects at specific increments. This is important feature because it allows the negative feedback to be evaluated independently at specific times.
Feeding your family during the harvest in Agricola is one of the chief examples of an upkeep phase. This is negative feedback because you incur a food cost just for having family members (actions), and moreover the requirement increases as your family grows. And it is incremental because during the harvest every few rounds, you must pay the required food or earn negative points.
At its root, an upkeep phase is a way to balance growth; you can’t grow too fast or you won’t be able to support yourself, but you can’t avoid growth or you won’t advance. It is common in Euro-games because it is primarily an economic mechanic, and is a natural element in two of the major mechanics, infrastructure and engine building. It can represent a literal maintenance of a system, or more abstractly as a way to keep your empire, family, or town running smoothly. There are a lot of advantages to implementing this type of feedback, but several drawbacks, too. I’ve got a list, which is intended to give a broad overview but I won’t call it exhaustive. First, here are the Pros:
- Adding an upkeep phase gives a way to introduce negative feedback into a system that is easy to explain and understand, especially when it is thematically appropriate.
- The negative feedback can also guide players to stronger play by focusing on and disincentivizing bad outcomes.
- Since it occurs at distinct intervals, it can capture large scale changes over longer periods of time, instead of having to reevaluate frequently.
- Because it is evaluated separately, it reduces the complexity of computations, instead of having to track a lot of tiny details with each action.
- It can act as a guidepost, helping players track progress by establishing a pace for the game, giving periodic feedback, and providing an opportunity to compare your state with other players
- Taking a short break from the action to evaluate and perform upkeep gives players an opportunity to collect their thoughts for the next round
Next, here are the Cons:
- They are sometimes overused. “Feeding your family” and “paying your workers regularly” are very common, since they are applicable across a wide variety of themes.
- Upkeep is negative feedback, and it can give gameplay a negative feel. This is common when it punishes the player for advancing in the game, and especially true if the player starts with a deficit.
- Along with it giving the game a negative feel, it can obscure viable alternate paths by emphasizing the negative consequences.
- Having a distinct phase can break the flow of the game. Players might have to stop and evaluate their upkeep, making the entire phase feel separate.
- If the phases are scheduled, it can force everyone to conform to that schedule, which narrows gameplay somewhat, instead of letting players play at their own pace.
So there are definitely some reasons to use an upkeep phase and some things to avoid. My game New Bedford takes a lot of these into account with the whaling mechanic, in order to create something with a lot of the benefits but few of the downsides. Returning ships acts like an upkeep phase, where the more success you have in whaling, the more you have to pay. This can happen at the end of any round, during the movement phase. But the schedule isn’t fixed, and the upkeep can take place for different players at different times. So players can basically schedule their own upkeep phases. Because there is a space for it in each round, it feels more like a regular part of the game, instead of something totally separate. But at the same time, players don’t have to worry about it with every step or interrupt the game continuously.
Something that the Dice Tower Showdown episode didn’t touch on is another mechanic that is closely related to an upkeep phase, and that is the “income phase”. The ideas are closely linked, and share some of the behavior but an income phase is a more positive form. Suburbia has a very smooth upkeep phase at the end of the round. In fact, I found it to be one of the great strengths that the complexity of the game is managed so well with the Income and Reputation tracks.Suburbia is interesting in that you control your maintenance directly and indirectly through progress, and you can actually swap between income and upkeep depending on how you focus your city.
Power Grid has a “bureaucracy phase”, which is sort of a reverse upkeep. What makes it interesting is that you need money to make any move, so without generating the income you effectively grind to a halt. So even though you earn income, it is just another form of paying upkeep to keep taking turns.
Someone on the Dice Tower Showdown made the point that a good percentage (something like 7 of the top 25, better than 25%) of the top-rated games on BGG incorporate an upkeep phase. As with any mechanic, there are also games doing it badly, but this statistic shows that it is possible to effectively use an upkeep phase to balance the game and provide other benefits. And now I’ll perform my own upkeep phase on this post and pause to gather some ideas. If I’ve missed an advantage or disadvantage, leave a comment, let me know what and why.