Pros and Cons of an Upkeep Phase

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.

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  1. #1 by Glittercats (@PlayGlittercats) on July 28, 2014 - 10:09 pm

    My main complaint about upkeep phases is that they often feel like busy work. There’s a bunch of little fiddly things you have to do, but there’s no real choices that you’re making. Agricola is a nice counterexample here — you have to decide *how* to feed your family, e.g. whether to slaughter livestock or not, so the upkeep isn’t pure busy work.

    • #2 by Oakleaf Games on July 29, 2014 - 1:20 pm

      That’s a great side of the issue that I didn’t consider. Although Agricola looks like it gives players the opportunity to decide at the last minute, successful players typically already know how they will feed their families before they reach that point. What I find interesting in this case is that it limits the extent to which players can do their accounting ahead of time because they need to do the physical conversion later, requiring more mental effort to stick to the plan. It’s still busy work by definition, but performing the conversion from mental to physical keeps the player more engaged.

  2. #3 by Dr. Wictz on July 29, 2014 - 10:20 am

    I don’t mean to nitpick too much…but is upkeep really an economic mechanic or is it an economic theme?

    • #4 by Oakleaf Games on July 29, 2014 - 2:36 pm

      Dr. Wictz, using your study of trade mechanic versus trade theme as a guide, I’ll try to consider it from multiple sides.

      In the real world, an upkeep phase would be the periodic maintenance of a functional unit. Aside from dexterity games, the functional units in games are the algorithms which are described by the rules. That seems to put it squarely in the category of mechanics. The functional units of theme are either tied to mechanics, or tend to fall into the meta-game realm.

      The closest I can get to a pure upkeep theme is something like fires in Stefan Feld’s Speicherstadt. Players can hire firemen to earn points in periodic fire events. But that is more of a generalized “upkeep” theme, rather than an “upkeep phase” theme, which brings the associated mechanics. Do you have any examples of games with an “upkeep phase” that doesn’t also include the mechanical aspects of upkeep?

      Perhaps it would be more strict to call upkeep a systems-engineering mechanic. But I think that it nearly always relates back to the economy of the game, either through the focus on infrastructure as an economic element, or through the actual loss of production in the game economy. It’s not solely an economic mechanic, but in the vast majority of cases I’d say it is.

      Where do you think it fits?

      • #5 by Dr. Wictz on July 29, 2014 - 10:26 pm

        I consider most upkeep to be a theme because its based on simulating an economic activity that does occur in real life, but is not actually happening in the game.

        People do not actually starve in Agricola, ships do not actually get in destroyed. But you create the feeling of the challenges to not starving by having to feed people throughout the game.

        For upkeep to be a true economic mechanic versus just a theme, I argue that a real occurrence has to happen where something is destroying itself outside of a fixed rate stipulated by the rules.

        For example, imagine a version of agricola where you build houses out of ice cubes. (Agricola Arctic Survival) As the game progresses the actual houses made out of ice cubes melt, depreciating the value of the house over time. if you do not replace the ice cubes (upkeep) all the cubes will melt and you no longer have a house and some of your family members will die from a lack of shelter.

        Now its much easier to build a game where there is a time element where ice cubes are represented by pieces of paper that melt after so many turns. But that is just a thematic representation of the depreciation of house game pieces built out of actual ice cubes.

  3. #6 by Alex Harkey (@GamesPrecipice) on July 31, 2014 - 2:12 am

    Comprehensive write-up Nat, very well done. I had some notes for a similar topic and I think you rocked it in this article. How about using upkeep as a mid-game goal for players to encourage a rate of progression?

    My prime example would be Le Havre which has static food requirements at the end of each round. On one hand it probably gives players a better idea of what they should be doing than just providing an open sandbox and saying “gather as many francs as possible”. It also creates a little bit of tension and some interesting decisions where a player might value the short-term influx of grabbing all the available fish versus a long-term benefit such as building another ship.

    On the other hand the end of round food requirement pushes players toward a more restricted group of profitable strategies. The requirement also doesn’t change much about the overall objective other than add an impeding obstacle.

    You hit on these ideas in your section of cons, I was just curious if you had any feelings about Le Havre and its static food-requirement-for-the-sake-of-having-a-food-requirement versus Agricola’s feed your people upkeep phase.

    • #7 by Oakleaf Games on July 31, 2014 - 12:08 pm

      Thanks, Alex. Your notes there really capture the double-edged nature. At some level, it changes from “guiding” the player to “restricting” the player. I think the ideal would be to incorporate an upkeep phase so that it feels like a natural boundary, and not an artificial one.
      I haven’t yet played Le Havre, though I’ve read through the rules (and it’s on my list to play). It strikes me as being more on the artificial side. Perhaps this is part of what Dr. Wictz was pointing out about the difference between economic theme versus economic mechanic.
      In Agricola, the behavior is such a natural part of the theme that you don’t pay much attention to the mechanical reasons for it. But underneath the farming, players are developing a system to collect points with their turns. Increasing your productive capability increases the requirements, and the mechanics dictate that you must use some of the extra turns to pay for the increased capability.
      Le Havre seems inherently different. You still have to devote some of the system resources to meeting a periodic quota, but now the quota is independent of the system. So I don’t think I’d even consider it “upkeep”. This is probably the example I needed for upkeep as an “economic theme”. Once you separate the input requirements from the system, you are dealing with it as a thematic element. Whether you consider the system to be an economy is a different question.

      On the game-design level, it seems to be in there largely to add extra motivation. The food aspect gives you something else to factor into your decisions, and opens up additional resources. Overall, Le Havre seems to be a less thematic game, anyway, but I’ll really have to try and play a game to appreciate it. If you tried to take feeding out of Agricola, you lose a lot of the tension because it is do deeply incorporated into the game. It seems like you could eliminate the food aspect from Le Havre, and end up with a simpler game and fewer resources. And in fact, I’ve been working on an idea in that same design space.

  4. #8 by isaac shalev on August 23, 2014 - 8:45 pm

    In would add that upkeep phases are useful for trimming back the sails on an engine. In Agricola, the new meeple provides two new actions, at a cost of one food. These upkeep effects help reduce the nonlinear benefits that engines often create.

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