Ghosts and the Machine: A Deckbuilding Mechanism about Post-Singularity Economy


For the past few weeks, Planet Money has been running a fascinating series of reports about the history of machines taking over human jobs, starting with the original Luddites who rose up in the 1700s when textile factories switched to mechanical devices. It was like a Georgian-era Detroit, as middle-class workers were suddenly displaced en masse.

Planet Money closed out the series with a debate about whether this time was different. Would the next generation find new jobs after the current phase of contraction? They pointed to the last few cycles of recession and recovery, in which the economy recovered with fewer jobs available than before. It was a really interesting series, and I encourage you to listen to the whole thing.

That got me thinking about the extreme conclusion of this trend: What do we do when billions of displaced workers with nothing to do, families to feed, and an economic system that hasn't caught up with a post-employment era of human civilization. That's a really interesting theme for a game and I have one nasty little game mechanism to model it: Let's call it "Cull Upkeep" for lack of a better term.

Cull Upkeep

First, take a standard deckbuilding game where each player begins with their standardized supply of mediocre cards. These are your mere human workers in various fields of employment. As long as they're in your deck and doing their jobs, they're okay. The only problem is that they're inefficient.

In time, players can earn new machine cards for their deck, building up a more efficient machine to acquire money. But alas, those human cards keep clogging up your hand. The natural choice is to cull those cards from your deck. Sorry, humans, but it's a new day and these machines are just way more efficient.

In a normal deckbuilder, once a card is culled from your deck, you never have to worry about it cluttering up your engine again

But here's the twist: Any cards you cull from your deck stay in a personal tableau. These are the humans leftover despite your overall economy becoming that much more efficient. Those humans must still be paid a living wage and be kept comfortable. Otherwise, you may have a refugee crisis on your hands. Those humans may depart for your neighbors' tableaus.
The only way this mechanic works is if the victory condition is more like Valley of the Kings, where culled cards are banked so they're worth points. However in this case, they have the added complication of still needing to be cared for in order to be worth anything at the end of the game.

So the overall goal of the game is to keep as many humans as comfortable as you can. The more humans you have, and the happier they are, the better you'll score at the end of the game. You're basically building a technotopia. A post-singularity civilization where humans are cared for by an omnipresent network of benevolent machines. Neat! Or scary, depending on your perspective.

Anyway, this is just a brainstorm now, but I love it when a cool radio story inspires this sort of left-field game idea.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.