Resource Systems - A Game of Shortages

I was asked by a friend to give some insights into a resource system being devised for a new game, and this led to an observation of resource systems in games in general. This article is just to make a few general observations about resource systems, how they work, and why they work.

Much of this goes back to Objective-Driven Gameplay, a design article I wrote quite a while ago. This article expands a little on how the idea of Objective-Driven design uses resource systems. If you haven’t read the older article yet, go ahead and do that now. It’s good, I promise. I’ll wait here.

All set? Then read on for more…

Resources exist in a game to provide shortages. If you can never run out of a resource, or if the resource does not limit you in some way, then it should not be included in the game. Shortages of resources create interesting decisions when you have enough resources to accomplish one goal or set of goals, but not another. Good gameplay happens when players have two or more equally attractive decisions to make, both of which have an equal-but-different merit on the road to victory. Resource shortages and limitations can create very interesting decision branches. However, there’s a caveat to this too–a shortage is only interesting when it forces decisions. When a resource shortage is a solid dead-end, it just feels depressing.

All resource systems are economies of one type or another. Either of time, of endurance, of wealth, of property, or the like. Each resource you add to a game introduces a new economy with its own rules and strategies. Any rule or model you can apply in economics can be applied in-game to your resource economy. Like most economies, resource systems can be controlled by savvy players. How much control over your resource systems you grant to the players will determine how they can leverage these resources for advantage. When designing your resources, design them in terms of economy and leverage, rather than in terms of statistics. Use conversions between multiple economies to plan the value and rarity of your resources.

Resource Management is not Bookkeeping. Many games require difficult calculations or the consideration of long chains of consequence when spending and evaluating resources. Resource management is about deciding how to leverage resources, not calculating their impact. The effects of using or acquiring a resource should be obvious to the player. This problem is especially harsh in games where money is the resource, and you can acquire 100+ dollars to spend and manage. Calculating the impact and possibilities of using $100 is exhausting, difficult, and slows the game to a crawl.

Look in unconventional places for resources. Resource systems aren’t just wood, sheep, and stone. A game is comprised of many different economies, and you can look in unconventional places to find them. Just about anything in your game can become a resource if you treat it that way.

  • Actions/Turns are almost always a resource. In a game, a ‘turn’ usually represents one unit of time resource. Due to the nature of tabletop games, it is usually hard to remove this resource. Many games break time down into a smaller set of ‘action point’ resources that can be spent bit by bit.
  • Cards in hand are a resource.  Options are the most important resource, and in most games that have them, cards represent options to be taken.
  • Time left in the game is a resource. The remaining turns in the game are a resource for players, and create an immediate opposition, as the player in the lead wants to reduce this resource, and other players want to increase it.
  • Hit points, Battle points, and special effects are all resources. The conversions into time, money, and cards are usually pretty clear for these sorts of systems, but its easy to forget that they interact with each other in many of the same ways as materials and money do.

Making good use of resources in your Game

Here are a few general tips for using resources in your game…

  • Design to create interesting shortages – Make sure players run out of resources at the critical moments that force them to make important strategic decisions.
  • Design to embrace economy – Understand how players will trade, manipulate, and leverage your resources. Design with these in mind!
  • Reduce Math – Don’t force your players to make complex calculations when deciding how to spend their resources. Design for transparency!
  • Manage game systems as resources - Your players will, so you better do the same when you design!