Thoughts on Food Spoilage in Strategic Primer

Very early on in the current campaign of Strategic Primer, as a first check on the game-balance problem of population growth and food production reinforcing each other, I announced that food would be subject to spoilage (and thus go to waste) if not eaten or consumed promptly enough. But since that mere announcement had salutary effects, and other issues demanded my attention, I never worked out how this “spoilage” thing would work in the game. Here’s my current thought, an idea that I’ve been thinking through for the last few weeks: maybe it’s basically like radioactive decay, so that “shelf life” is a “half life.”

As I mentioned, the spoilage rule—that is, the mere fact that food may be subject to spoilage if left around too long—was announced very early in the game; I touched on it in the summary of the second turn, though it didn’t go into effect until two turns later. But even then I hadn’t worked out how long it would take for food to spoil, whether this would vary with the kind of food, and what effects spoilage would have.

Then, finally, a few weeks ago I was struck by an idea that makes the answers to these questions fall (fairly) neatly into place: If we model the process by which food spoils sort of like we do the process by which unstable atomic isotopes are transmuted into other elements, then each kind (or at least category) of food has its own rate of decay, but except for that the effects are the same.

After an initial “half-life” in which there is no spoilage, each turn, for each item of food there is a chance that it will spoil and become unusable. How large this chance is depends on how long the “half-life” is; a food item that always “keeps” for several years is vanishingly unlikely to go bad on the first day past its “use-by date,” while something that’s supposed to be used in only a few days might well spoil mere hours after the time it’s guaranteed to “keep” ends.

Spoilage can be prevented in two ways: consumption and preservation. Eating the food uses it up, of course. But more relevant is the fact that preserving food—drying, canning, pickling, fermentation, or whatever—both “resets the clock” and (in most cases) increases the “half-life” significantly. Players will have to decide for their own situations—or delegate the decision to their administrators—but in many or most cases this should be well worth the slight costs. Its main cost is that in the game-world, which at this point measures food by weight rather than nutritional value, as well as in our world, preservation necessarily produces a smaller “amount” of food than it takes as its input. And there is of course the labor required, and other resources involved (most of which are not yet tracked, if they ever will be). Additional costs may also be added in the future; after helping my family process a fairly substantial crop of apples for canning, I have the idea that even once any truly bad food items are weeded out, there may be some additional minor spoilage detected in the process of preparing them to be preserved.

If food spoils, it is no longer fit for consumption by the workers under the player’s responsibility, and is as effectively removed from the food supply as if it had been consumed. A player may still find some use for it, but whether or not the effects end there may depend on several factors. First, for this kind of food, what does “spoiling” mean? It’s conceivable that some foodstuffs might be mainly afflicted by some sort of self-limiting spoilage … but in most cases, it means some sort of of infection or infestation. And so the second factor is how the food is stored. “One bad apple can spoil the barrel” is a proverb applied metaphorically because it reflects literal physical truth, so if not caught in time (more on that in a moment) spoilage will most likely spread, and how far it can spread depends on whether it’s stored in barrels or one big pile, for example. Third, when and how is the spoilage caught? If workers aren’t proactively checking (the relevant parts of) the food supply regularly and often, it may be discovered when the food is slated to be eaten (or processed for preservation), and at that point it is likely to have spread. But if caught early, no more than one item—if that—need be lost.

And, in the worst case, effects may go beyond loss of the food items in question and further spread of the rot. Many ways that food spoils generate heat, eventually (more with some crops than others) to such a degree that it can pose a danger of fire. Others can spread beyond food to other materials, potentially weakening the building in which the crop was stored, damaging textiles, and so on. I’m sure my players will imagine scenarios to guard against that I would never have thought of.

I talked about food preservation earlier. But there’s another approach to the problem of food spoilage that merits that name but doesn’t fit what I described above: slowing the rate of spoilage. Items that are kept cool, cold, or frozen will be treated as if their “shelf life”—how long before spoilage could begin, and how long it’s likely to take half the stock to deteriorate thereafter—is longer, depending on how it is “preserved.” How well this approach can work will depend to some extent on the kind of food, but more importantly on how cold the food is kept; there is a definite limit to the possible effectiveness of some technologies, and using them well could take a paradigm shift. They also have their own costs, ranging from merely set-up costs and increased time requirements to get food from the store in the simplest cases, to whole new resources in more complicated ones. (I’m being deliberately vague there because this is an area where players should use their ingenuity to develop the solutions for their workers, or apply the labor of their scientists if they draw a blank.)

Those are my thoughts so far on how food spoilage could work in Strategic Primer. If you have anything to ask or say on the subject, I’d like to hear it.

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