Death spiral in game design

Today I don’t want to talk about any game. I want to start new category on StrateGGames which will be about game design features/principles which are used in strategy games and the first one will be about death spiral.

Death spiral is problem with which you can get stuck in one place and theoretically end your run. In strategy games is used on places where you need to optimize your current buildings/army/…

A beautiful example of death spiral could be mechanics around food:

  • To produce more food, you have to have people working in farms.
  • But you won’t have people without feeding them with food.
  • And if you are significantly inefficient in the gain of food…
  • …you will start to lose food and…
  • … when you don’t have enough food then…
  • you will loose people.

In a lot of game you have to balance on start of death spiral while you playing and this could be challenging for us players.

What to do if death spiral will spin with you?

First of all you need to analyze how this death spiral works. You need to know what cause this death spiral and what do you need to optimize. Keep in mind that often it will start innocently enough and you probably won’t notice the problem as in the following example:

In Victoria 3 if you have shortage of building materials then you need to pay a lot of on buildings. But if you pay a lot of on buildings then you don’t have money. If you don’t have money then you will be in dept. If you be in debt you will pay interests so you will lose more money. If you lose a lot of money so the game ends for you.

Typical death spiral in Victoria 3.

It’s okay to “get carried away” and go through it once to the game-over state so you know exactly where things can happen and how far you can afford to spiral. Because at any time you can jump out of it and keep functioning again.

Jump out of death spiral in gaming is easy. I’m recommend to you perform big movements. In short, you need to change how you play. Somewhere you have done something wrong, somewhere you are wasting resources. You need to refocus all your attention on getting out of the spiral.

When I know what cause death spiral (shortage of buildings material) I need to stop or slow buildings. Yes this will lead to slower expansion but I have more time to reactions. After that I focus on buildings which produce building material if I could improve them. And If not then I will focus on building more building which produce building material. Then building material price decrease and death spiral is off and I could play to another challenge.

Jump out from death spiral in Victoria 3 example above.

Big temporarily painful change / change of strategy is way how you could leave death spiral in strategy games. Think about what caused the problem and fix it. It’s simple.

And you developers reading this. Make death spirals interesting. More ways to get out of them and more room for it to go as far as it can go. This can deepen the fun or increase the frustration – here it will depend on the individual player. I personally am a big fan of this challenge.

I'm Martin, the main creator of this site. I love city builders, transport, and war strategy games. So I create this site to share my love with others! Let's make Tycoon games great again!