This article first provides a game-theoretic, endogenous view of institutions and then applies the idea to identify the sources of institutional trajectories of economies development in China, Japan, and Korea. It stylises the Malthusian phase of the East Asian economies as a peasant-based economies in which small conjugal families self-managed their working times between farming on small plots—leased or owned—and handcrafting for personal consumption and markets. It then compares institutional arrangements across these economies that sustained otherwise similar economies. It characterises the varied nature of the political states of Qing China, Tokugawa Japan and Yi Korea by focusing on the way agricultural taxes were enforced. It also identifies different patterns of social norms of trust that were institutional complements to, or substitutes for, the political states. Finally, it traces the path-dependent transformations of these state-norm combinations along subsequent transitions to post-Malthusian phases of economic growth in the respective economies.