Game Mechanic Monday: Tech Trees

Game Mechanic Monday

Heralded as the progenitor of 18xx games, Francis Tresham was one of the lead innovators of board game design in the 1970s-80s. In an interview I listened to it was so abundantly clear that this, however, wasn’t really his intention. Instead, he just very much wanted to play games that were interesting to him and his friends. As a result, he produced a few games that set the groundwork for many of the games and mechanics we see throughout the entire board gaming hobby.

Today, we are talking about mechanics and one of the key mechanics that Mr. Tresham is credited with is the infamous tech tree. Before 1830, Mr. Tresham brought the world an equally groundbreaking title in Civilization. Civilization was a truly epic game for its time. With a six-hour playtime and a seven-person recommended player count, Civilization was an all-day foray into writing the stories found in history books on ancient civilizations. One of the best mechanics that was made popular by that game was the infamous Tech Tree or Tech Track as it is sometimes called.

Tech trees can be seen in a variety of popular games, tabletop, and video games alike. Anywhere you see a progression of upgrades where one level unlocks a higher level, you are witnessing a tech tree in play. Here are a few ways the Tech Tree is seen in board gaming.

One of the most thematic and approachable parallels to Tresham’s Civilization is 7 Wonders. Unlike some tech trees that inhibit further advancement if lower levels of the tree haven’t been researched, 7 Wonders does the opposite. 7 Wonders is played over three phases, called “ages”. During each of those ages, you build cards out of your hand, paying the resource cost of the card. In the second and third age, some of the buildings provide two ways to pay for the buildings, either by providing the resources or by having a particular card in your tableau from a previous age. So, in mechanical terms, the tech tree makes the later buildings more affordable when you have built an earlier building in your tableau. A simple and intuitive implementation of the mechanic.

A more recent title with an excellent tech tree implementation is Gaia Project. In Gaia Project, your efficiency, reach, and prosperity are tied to your factions technological advancement. The further you develop a particular branch, the more effective that technology becomes. The great part about Gaia Project is that all of the tech tree paths are equally good depending on the starting faction, so there is not necessarily a clear or dominant track. Because the technology tracks are literally printed on the board, this is one of the more obvious tech tree examples. However, if you were to take a picture of the tech tree after each game, you would see wildly varying advancement strategies.

And of course, there is 18xx. Yes, Tresham’s other major contributions also feature a tech tree of sorts. In 1829, being the first of the 18xx family, and then 1830, the most popular title Tresham designed, the tech track is tied to the advancement of the trains. In 18xx, companies buy trains to run between cities to make money and pay shareholders. In the beginning, “2” trains are the only type available and they can count two cities worth of revenue. After all the 2 trains have been purchased, the 3 trains become available. The interesting thing about this style of tech track is that all players are trying to manipulate the timing and opportunity of the single track—or in this case, the pile of trains. The purchasing of trains not only dictates the pace of the game through forcing phase changes within the game but it also thematically represents the advancement of train technology as the game progresses. It’s a brilliant implementation of the mechanic that is seen in very few other games.

99 Days of Blogging Challenge

I’m trying to get my blogging legs under me, so I’ve taken up the challenge to blog every day until the end of 2020. Just one of the ways I’m keeping my sanity in the midst of the dumpster fire this year has been. If you liked this content and you are interested in following along, click here to sign up and help me decide what to write on by suggesting topics and voting on content.

Blogging Schedule

  • Mechanics Monday
  • Trains Tuesday
  • Wired Wednesday
  • Top-20 Thursday
  • Freeform Friday
  • Collection Strategy Saturday
  • What I’ve Been Playing Sunday

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