Board game design, In-game economics

In-game economics: Resources

Introduction

Being unable to find anything on “using spreadsheets to balance a board-game”, I decided to dig into the subject myself. I started writing and quickly found that it spawned a whole lot of other subjects that were important to get to a final conclusion. These all loosely fell under the heading of “in-game economics”. Why not go into all of that? The result is a series of posts on the subject, of which this is the first.

Resources

More resources. I need more!
More resources. I need more!

We all have some idea of what “resources” mean in a game setting. They are the wood and stone and sheep and other “raw materials” that allow you to get to the more important stuff.

And as a first approximation that is correct. But there are many more resources in a board game. In this blog post I’d like to delve into the concept of “resources”, to get a better understanding of what they are and what they can do.

First order resources – raw materials

”I’ll give you a sheep and a wood for your two stone!”

Nowhere does the idea of resources become more clear than in a game of Catan: With some lucky dice throwing you get stuff which you can then use to build something that helps you to win the game!

Sheep, stone and wood are the raw materials in the game that make everything else possible, they are the starting point which can be used to construct or get to the bits that the game is “really” about.

Raw materials get “generated” by the game in the sense that players generally get some “for free”. This can either be a starting amount (the food you get in Agricola during setup) or there is a mechanic in the game that gives these to the player, without it “costing” the player anything (in Catan you start with production facilities in place which produce resources during the entire game).

Second order resources – what you can build

Using raw resources, many games allow you to “build” or “get” something new: A village in Catan, a cooking place in Agricola.

These “second order” resources tend to alter the game in fundamental ways. They generate further (raw) resources (a village in Catan), they open up choices that were not available before (developments in Catan) or they get you closer to the winning condition (the victory point that a village is worth).

Second order resources are sometimes required to build something that you cannot build using a first order resources, e.g. you need wood (raw or first order resource) to build a shop (second order resource), which generates money (third order resources), which you can use to bribe the magistrate (fourth order resource).

What order is a resource?

In Catan you need wood, brick, grain and sheep to build a village. And a village can generate wood, brick, grain and / or sheep. So which is the “lower order resource”?

Or if wood is a first order resource and I can use that to build a shop, which generates gold, then gold is a third order resource. But if I can also get gold through an action “mining” from the board, does that make gold a first order resource!?

The confounding metaphor

The human ability to assign meaning to things obscures what is truly happening here.

We can envision what “wood” is. It’s fairly simple stuff that comes from nature and that you can use to build things with.

We can also envision what a “village” is. It’s a complex structure with a lot of things going on internally and it could have a multitude of outputs.

But in game terms, both of these are metaphors. “Wood” is something that exists in the game, which is bound to a number of rules. A “village” likewise is a thing that exists within the game, bound to a different set of rules. One is not of higher or lower order than the other. The other is not more important than the one.

These metaphors are important to be able to use our intuition for playing a game; it makes “sense” for a village to be built using wood. But in game terms there is nothing against having a piece of wood built out of villages!

So what is a resource?

Everything is a resource
Everything is a resource

I hope that the previous paragraphs showed that a “resource” is wider (and more complex) thing than we normally think about.

So what is a resource then?

In my opinion, a resource is anything that can potentially help a player win the game

So wood, stone, villages, houses and bribed magistrates can all be resources (depending on the game of course).

This is still somewhat vague though. Is a rule a resource? How about the board?

Definition of a resource

In the previous paragraph we captured the idea of a resource fairly well, but that did not answer all questions. So let’s give a formal definition:

For better understanding we’re going to break that apart:

”…anything within the game…”: Literally anything in the game can potentially be a resource. Things outside of the game however are not considered resources. I could hit my opponent over the head to make him concede and that would win me the game, but it wouldn’t be a resource.

”…a player can use…”: A player needs to be able to somehow “control” a resource; if there is no control then it won’t help a player win the game, it’s part of the “setup”, the “world” that the game creates. In this sense the rules are not a resource, as they are given, immutable, outside of the player’s control.

”…alter the state of the game”: Something needs to change. If things stay the same then nothing happened and whatever it was you did most certainly did not get you closer to winning the game.

Examples of resources

Using our definition we can create a number of examples of things that are resources:

  • Cards allow the player to influence the game and thus are resources
  • In a worker-placement game, the workers allow you to take an action which change the state of the game. More generally actions are resources (and workers are resources that give you actions)
  • Spaces on the board are resources; selecting them (placing a worker, building something there, etc.) changes the state of the game
  • Victory points: Gather enough and you win the game. Changes don’t get more fundamental than that!
  • Turn order determines what options you have

I’m sure that with a little bit of thinking you can come up with even more examples.

Options as resources

I still have some options open
I still have some options open

There is one resource that I want to pay special attention to: The option (or the possibility to make a choice).

In a sense the option is the fundamental resource: If you don’t have an option (no choice) then you can’t influence the game!

If you have resources you can alter the state of the game. Thus a resource implies an option. Likewise, an option implies a resource.

The more options you have, the larger the range is in which you can influence the game. In this sense having additional options is strictly better than not having them (there is a caveat though: Human minds are limited and too many options can induce analysis paralysis and sub-optimal choices).

Many options makes for interesting game-play. On the other hand, having few options and having to choose the best one can make for a very tense game.

Implications for game design

What does all the above imply for the games we are creating?

First, what I hope to have gotten across is that “resources” are the fundamental building blocks of games. Using a somewhat wider definition than people might be used to, this is true even for games that are seemingly not about resources.

Second, resources are a very general concept. We tend to stick a “name” to them and then use them in ways that are consistent with that name. This makes for intuitive games, but it is far from necessary. Innovation happens we use something old in a new way. I hope that thinking in this way will help you to use resources in new ways

And finally, it’s easy to count how much wood someone has (and we regularly do so). We can however also count how many other resources players have available, even if those resources are more abstract. This can help to quantify the complexity of the game and to find the middle road between analysis paralysis and a game where you have no interesting choices.

What’s next?

This post started out as a way of looking into the “balancing” of games. I quickly realized that for that I would first need to delve into “in-game economics”, which led me to “resources” as the fundamental building block. I hope to still write the posts mentioned. Watch this space!

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know if you agree and where you think I completely missed the point!


Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

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2 Comments

  1. Wim

    Sorry Bastiaan, but I disagree with your definition of resources.
    In my opinion, some characteristics of resources are:
    – They can be spent to alter the game state. That means that victory points are usually not a resource. There are some games where you can pay victory points to get something, and then they are resources. In Evo, for example, where you can buy genes by paying VP, they are. In Race for the Galaxy, where VP just amass, they’re not.
    – They must be scarce. At least, the number at the player’s disposal, must be. This is probably obvious, but perhaps so much that people tend to overlook it.
    – And I agree with you, they give you options. You can opt whether to use that resource or not, and/or you can choose how to use it – what to spend it on. For example, in Parcheesi, one resource is your action. You have only one action, with which you can move one pawn. As long as you have only one pawn on the board, this action is hardly a resource, as you have no choice what to spend it on – you can’t even decide not to spend the action. But when you have more than one pawn on the board, you get an option.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Definitely good points!

      Victory Points are in general the “end point” of the game and cannot be “spent” further (exceptions exist of course as you mention). I included them as in some cases you need to gather a certain number to win the game (e.g. Catan), a very fundamental state change. But, they certainly are a border case!

      Resources do indeed need to be scarce. Somewhere in my list of potential blog posts is something on “scarcity”. However, I think this point is less relevant in board-games: Everything is always scarce to a certain extent. Or at least, I would find it very hard to think of anything in a board-game that is not scarce…

      And indeed, if you don’t have a choice on how to spend something it is hardly a resource. I don’t know Parcheesi, but I imagine you have influence on -where- you move your pawn? In that case “the action of moving a pawn” isn’t really the resource, but “moving your pawn” would be.

      Thanks for the feedback, much appreciate it!

      Reply

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