Having “something” for players to “collect” or “gain” or “make” and then “consume” or “use” or “spend” adds “interest” to a game and can “enhance” a game’s theme. It can also quickly drive up the amount of complexity in the game. As designers, we need to understand when to add resources to a game and how to make them fit within a game’s "flow" and theme. From the most simple “infinite bank” to the most complicated “economic simulations”, knowing “how many” and “what kinds” of resources you need for the game you are working on, can be a challenging issue.
Fitting the resources into the theme has more to do with “what” the resources are “named” and “what” they are used for. When it comes to fitting them into the “flow” of a game, we are talking more about “how” the resources are produced and used turn-to-turn and “how” those things might change throughout the game. As long as things make sense to the players you should be fine. Just remember, wood should not become spaceships... (unless you are Russian)
How Many & What Kind?
The first thing to “tackle” is whether or not to even have resources in your game. It is a perfectly viable option to have a game with no resources (in the traditional sense). On the one hand, this can make things easier in many ways, but on the other hand, that would make this article short and sort of pointless. So, we will assume you do want resources in your design.
If you have a theme in mind, you probably already know what sort of resources might fit into the game. But if not, as long as you understand what mechanics will drive gameplay, you can just keep them, “nameless” as “type 1, 2, 3” and just move on to the things you need to know about each one. Here are some of the main things you should ask yourself about each resource you want to add to the game:
How will the resource be shown and tracked?
Deciding what “scale” of resources to use is also important. This is the maximum number of any one resource type in the game. The scale determines the “maximum variance” in the game or how “flexible” the resources are in terms of the quantity. The scale can also play a very large role in the production costs of the game. Having “a lot” of resources in the game becomes more than just a “thematic” issue very quickly.
- Example: If you design a 4 player game with 8 resource types and each resource has a maximum 20 per player, very quickly you have added 640 components to the game box!
There are ways to have a high “maximum variance” in the resources and not “break the bank” in production costs. This was done in the game of Risk with the “armies” resources. Each player could have a maximum army count of 146 (on the board) with only 82 army components (depending on the version of Risk you have). This is because one easy option is to add components for the resource that are worth “3” or “5” or “10” of that resource. Another way to save on production cost is to have, 1 cardboard “player aid” with 8 numbered tracks and 8 cubes per player to track the resources.
- Note: For prototyping the game, the player aid number tracking method will be helpful to cut down on the number of components, even if the “finished game” will have other components. However, this will not work for every type of resource.
From a practical sense, this is a great time to decide if a resource can even be tracked with a number line. Keep in mind some resources don’t need an “item” to represent them. Many games have resources exclusively tracked on a “number track” (no physical pieces). But for some games, just like as in Risk the resource “needs” to be physically represented across many locations on the game board. If this is the case you will need an “item” for that resource. We will talk more about this in “how resources are used” below.
How does the game “generate” or make resources available to the players?
This is not the issue of how many the game has (in the box) but more this related to how many of a resource the players have access to each turn. In Monopoly, the “money” is an “unlimited” amount from a “bank”. In many games, the resources are just “big piles” that are set out on (or near) the game board. Each pile has the total number of that resource found in the game box and all of them are “available” to the players from the start of the game. Some games scatter the resources around many locations on the game board and players need to go get them. Once these resources are “claimed” by the players they are not replenished. Other games might put all the game’s resources into a bag and draw out a number of them per turn. As players use resources they might be discarded or returned to the bag. Settlers of Catan generates resources each turn based on the players owned locations on the board and a roll of some dice (cards are given per resource generated). Two sub-questions here are; “Are the resources going to be readily available or limited?” and “Do the players need to take and action to bring the resources into the game?”
How do players get the resources?
As seen above, if the “generation” of resources “gives” the resources directly to the player this can be “automatic”. However, the players might only “get” the resources in exchange for taking a “gather or harvest” action or for just for visiting a specific location. Some resources might require other resources before they can be acquired and others might need to be “earned” by successful completion of an “in-game” task. There also might be a more normal type of “cost” to buy the resources but that might only happen during certain “phases” of the game. Much of this hinges on the game's core mechanics or the theme (or both) depending on whichever is more dominant during the design.
If resources are "limited", how the players "take turns" getting them starts to matter more. If all players "may" take 1-4 wood on their turn from the forest and there are 3 players, and if there is only 6 wood each "round" of the game, only one player "can" get the max of 4 wood each round.
For the sake of having some kind balance, the cost of getting any resource needs to equal the benefit of having or using that resource when compared to the other resources of the same cost or benefit level. This does not mean that all resources need to be the same cost or benefit. just that if the cost of a resource is higher the benefit of having it should also go up, or that the number available needs to go down...
(Balance is a big topic discussed in another article. (see my blog page)
How are resources used by the players?
Overlooking money type resources for a moment. Unless the resources are linked directly with the game's victory conditions, resources can be the driving force behind the heart of gameplay. This is not limited to how much “wood” or “stone” a player can use to build buildings, that then give other resources, that then generate victory points, as found in engine building games. This might be “strength” earned through “questing” in the form of extra dice, that empower a player to defeat the last boss and win the game outright. The “resources” and “how” they are used can be anything a player “gets” or “earns”. How these resources are used along the path to victory is up to your creativity as a designer. Each resource in a game needs a reason for being in the game, they can help tell the game's story and or help the players to “feel” like they are making progress during each section of the game. This can give the players little “wins” throughout the game and enhance the large “middle” part of gameplay. Even if the resource does not instantly equal a victory point directly, the do need to help the player to jump through the hoops to reach them in the end. Resources collection can be the “in-between” steps of the game that enhance the player's ability to earn victory points or put another way, “give them a better chance to do things that help them win”.
Another thing about "using" resources is "how" they are physically used by the players. Does the player throw them? Do they need a place on the game board? Do they take up "space" in an inventory? This is also the time to consider the phycological impact on the players of having a "physical" item rather than just a "logical" number of something. Having 20 points on a number line vs. having 20 coins they can stack. (We will call this the Scrooge McDuck effect)
How do player actions and game systems affect resources?
This has to do with “Fluctuations” in price, availability, quantity, and other such factors of the resources turn-by-turn in the game. The idea of “Supply and Demand” fits here along with just about any other economic simulation mechanic known to man. More than anything else this deals with adding “limits” to the resources or at lease random or controlled “variance” to them. The more dynamic the system the harder it is to balance or make it fair for all the players… or in some cases less fair for some players. How much of this “variance” is controlled by the game’s systems and how much the players have the control over needs to fit with the type of resource, its production method based on mechanic or theme, and the flow of the gameplay. The key in all of this is that there is always player action helping to make whatever change is happening. I have used the word “variance” enough times that it might need to be defined:
- Variance: “The fact or quality of being different, divergent, or inconsistent.”
Now because that is "stupid hard" to understand here is my own take on the word, because it is a synonym of the word variation.
- Variance: “The degree of change measured on a scale between similar items.”
This gives us something like: “The apples in a game can be worth no less than 1 coin and no more than 8 coins (1-8 coins), depending on how many are in the market.” (So the maximum variance with the apples is a cost change of 7)
If a game had an “action” the players could take over the course of a game round that could “produce” more apples for the in-game market. If this "market" was represented by a set of numbered spaces where the number represented the “price of apples at the time of purchase”. You could make a simple supply and demand mechanic. The more apples on the track that “cover up” the numbered spaces, the lower the price and the fewer apples the higher the price. (I hope that makes sense but if not this link is a picture of somthing similar from Eclipse, just think of the red cubes as apples.)
For designers, we need to know how to add random or controlled variance to the resource and when to add it within the “supply chain”. The timing of the variance changes the effect on the game. For instance making the action to produce apples in the game cost more each time it is taken will change the player motivation to “produce apples”. The change to a resource might be related to the “upkeep” time or cost. If players can only “keep” X number of any resource from round-to-round, “stockpiling” more resources is not an option. As long as the changes to a resources makes sense with the mechanics and/or theme of the game, players won’t get upset that the change is happening. When the change happens only for the sake of balancing the game, players will see right through the design and it might annoy them.
Player actions might be anything to do with resources throughout any the stage of the game. Actions to help or hinder aspects of the resource all the way from production to use and right through to being sold. Players might be able to change the amount produced, affect the selling price or just block other players from having access to the resource this turn. You as the designer just need to play test your ideas for ways to have game systems or player actions “change” aspects of resources at different times throughout the game the game.
How do resources affect end game scoring?
This is more of a second chance to think about this. When you were trying to decide how each resource in the game would be “used” that was the first chance to think about it. This second look comes after you more fully understand the changes the resources will go through during the game and also now that you know whether or not players can make those changes.
I submit the idea that the resources “controlled” by the game’s systems should have the smallest effect on end game scoring and the resources that the players “control” should have the greatest effect. Here is why:
- Example #1: The game gives each player 2 coins each turn… the player with the most coins at the end of the game wins!
Example #2: The game gives each player 2 coins each turn. The players use the coins to buy and influence the stocks of 4 in-game companies. The player with the most stocks valued the highest wins the game.
By “giving” a resource for “free” to the players and then making it a large part of the victory conditions at the end of the game makes very little sense the more “dramatic” the example.
DESIGN TIP: Use "exaggeration" when thinking about your mechanics. This can point out flaws that were small at first.
The more the player is involved in the changes to a resource (with a larger part in end game scoring) the more the player will “feel” that they were responsible for their victory.
Resources need a reason to be in the game, the more player action is involved the more the players will “own” or respond to the process of using the resources in the game. The more the random forces or game systems control things about the resource the less players will appreciate that resource being involved in winning the game. You don’t need to be an expert in economics to have fun and engaging resource systems in your game, but it helps if understand the basics! Here are some “wise” words on that topic:
“The buyer sets the price of things they need, the seller sets the price of things they want.”
“The one who says the price first loses.”
“Nothing is Free”
“The more there is, the less there is” & “The less there is, the more there is.”
“Buy low and sell high.”
“You can’t choose to do something you don’t understand.”
“There is a sucker born every day.”
“The more you want it the stupider you are about what it costs”
“Everything is worth something to the right person.”
“The one who has, the one who wants, and the one who needs are always you at different times.”
“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
“Never spend your money before you have it.”
“Greed is ugly and effective.”
“Things on sale, normally aren't.”
“If you got something for a fair price, you both lost out on that deal.”
Parting thoughts & questions
If you are not making a resource management game, don’t make players manage resources. If you want things to feel authentic, don’t have players turn stone into buildings. Realism and fun don’t always walk hand-in-hand, having things work they do in real life only makes a game less of a getaway from it. The flow of resources in your game just needs to make basic sense with the mechanics and theme, from there the fun is in having the control to do things with them. Don’t make every resource in your game have the same “feel” and the same “use” as money. Don’t forget about consumables! Resources don’t always have to make it to the end of the game, only the players do.
Here are some other questions you might ask yourself about resources as you think through the game ideas floating around in your head. Some of these were covered above… some were not:
What resources are in the game?
How limited or unlimited are resources in the game?
How are resources produced by the game and/or players?
How are the values (worth) of the resources established?
How are resources changed, refined, or altered by the players?
How are resources used or expended by players?
How are resources stored by the game and by players?
How are resources traded between players?
How much game space do resources fill?
What can players do in order to better their position in relation to a resource?
What can players do to affect the production quantity of resources?
What can be done to affect the quality of resources?
What can affect the value of resources?
What can affect the availability of resources?
What is gained or lost by using resources in the game?
What actions must players do to gain or lose resources in the game?
What effect does the lack of a resource create in the game and for the players?
When are resources produced/used/gained/lost/spent/refined/traded/stored in the game?
This is intended only as "Food for Thought". Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.
"Always remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!"