Bureaucracy: a game mechanic idea

I’m creeping toward the end of a game of Stellaris, and an incongruity hit me: why am I hiring more bureaucrats to make things in my large empire cheaper, against all reason and every historical example?

Let me explain. In Stellaris, there is a soft cap on the size of your empire: sprawl. Population, production buildings, and territory all generate sprawl. Bureaucrats increase your sprawl cap. If you go over your sprawl cap, things cost more. Ergo, bureaucrats make things cost less, which is facially absurd.

But how do you solve it? I think the answer is that maybe you don’t, or at least not entirely. You just need to measure two things: first, sprawl, which bureaucrats counteract, and second, administrative efficiency. Sprawl works like it does in Stellaris: the more empire there is, the more expensive things get, unless you have administrators to counteract the effect.

Administrative efficiency models the loss of efficiency from thicker red tape. The more administrators you have, the lower your efficiency gets, and the more things cost. Administration is less expensive than a vast kleptocracy, but still expensive compared to a smaller, leaner state.

Of course, that’s just a surface-level implementation. You might tune things so that size of empire and size of administrative state play off of each other, which would let you (imaginary game-designing reader) set a soft cap on effective empire size. Or, if you’re really into the concept that bureaucracy is at best a mixed bag, implement a kind of cost disease.

After a while, the goal of any large organization of humans becomes ‘justify this organization’s continued existence’. Bureaucracies almost never shrink over the long run, absent some outside cataclysm. They’re much more likely, instead, to grow. So, a given unit of bureaucracy is created to administer a given amount of stuff. The amount of stuff per unit bureaucracy never goes up, but the administrative cost of each unit of bureaucracy does.

Which brings us to the final form of the idea. When your empire expands, it needs bureaucrats. When you hire bureaucrats, you introduce a slowly-growing ossification into the structure of your empire. Eventually, your bureaucrats cut into your ability to do productive things, taking up more and more of your output until your empire is paralyzed by the cost of running itself, and eventually torn down by forces without.

This neatly mirrors some real-world trajectories. Depending on how you tune things (capping the penalty one bureaucrat imposes, tweaking the rate at which the penalty grows) it’s probably possible to set up an empire that can survive in a sort of semi-stasis, handicapped but not quite self-destructing. It opens the door to a wide variety of empire traits and events (moral, dutiful bureaucrats who aren’t as bad in the long run, bursts of patriotic fervor in e.g. a war temporarily reversing the downward trend, and so forth) to boot.

Anyway, I’m not working on anything in the 4X/empire-builder genre, so if you like it, take it. I’d love to play a game which leans into this idea.

1 thought on “Bureaucracy: a game mechanic idea

  1. Chris Bradshaw

    definitely an intriguing concept for earthbound 4Xs to potentially limit lategame snowballing in paradox games like CK3, EU4, Vicky, and HOI or Total War titles, but you’d think that by the Stellaris timeframe, a robust AGI for this sort of thing would be possible. A computer that can mostly do the DHHS’s job seems a lot more plausible to me than antigrav or FTL.

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