Board game design, In-game economics

In-game economics: Scarcity


You only miss something once it becomes scarce
You only miss something once it becomes scarce
In a number of previous posts I’ve been discussing “in-game economics”, using ideas from economics to gain further insight into what makes board-games “tick”.

In this post I’ll delve into the idea of “scarcity” (of in-game resources) and what this means for your games.

Quick recap: Value

In this post I wrote about the value of in-game resources. The basic idea was that the value of a resource (for more on in-game resources, please read this post) could be expressed in how much it helps a player to win the game. Especially when “winning” is based on a numerical value (e.g. “victory points”) this can give a common “currency” in which the value of all resources can be expressed.

If all resources are plentiful, this idea works marvels. But what if resources are not plentiful?

An example of scarcity

Imagine a game of Catan in which the sixes and eights are on forests, while meadows have only the 2, 12, 3s and 11s. There most likely will be a great surplus of wood, while sheep will be in very short supply.

In a “normal” game of Catan, all resources are give-or-take equally important and thus equally valuable. Sure, sometimes someone is willing to give two wood for one brick, but it’s quite rare to see someone offering three resources to get one (this is usually a sign that someone is just about to win).

When there are however almost no sheep to be had, they suddenly become much more valuable; three resources would be the minimum you could expect to trade for a single sheep.

Scarcity and options

Scarcity reduces the options that you have
Scarcity reduces the options that you have
As discussed in this post on resources, a resource is an option. It can be used to change the state of the game (hopefully in such a way to make winning more likely).

There are however no games where a single resource suffices: You always need a combination; a wood, sheep, brick and grain to build a village in Catan, while in Citadels you need a card, money and your turn (don’t get murdered!) to construct a new building.

If you’re missing one necessary resource you can’t execute your plan!

Thus, if a resource is scarce, it acts as a sort of “gatekeeper”: This is the resource you need so that you can actually execute your option of spending all the rest (which are more plentiful).

Scarcity and value

Something that is scarce becomes more valuable. I'll give you this pile of coins for your sheep!
Something that is scarce becomes more valuable. I’ll give you this pile of coins for your sheep!
We’re (still) playing Catan. You have a grain, wood and brick. You’ve got the space to build a village. How much would a sheep be worth?

The naïve approach would be to say it’s 1/4th of a victory point; a village is 1 point, it requires 4 resources which are (more-or-less) equally valuable. Sheep is one of them, so for you, right now, it’s 1/4th.

Except that if you don’t get that sheep, you can’t build your village! Instead you could build another road (which isn’t useless, but certainly not worth 1 victory point. Let’s say it’s worth 0.25 victory points instead). Or you could trade some of your resources for other ones (though you still wouldn’t be able to do anything useful with them right now). So that sheep would be the difference between building something of value 0.25 and 1. It’s therefore not unreasonable to say that (right now) the value of a sheep is 0.75 victory points to you! (This is a simplification for sure, I’m ignoring the grain that is “left” if you build a road, the fact that you might get a sheep next turn, as well as the “future value” of generating more resources through your village (for more on the last, take a look at this post on the time-value of resources)).

Thus the way to look at the value of a scarce resource is to see which options are available with and without that resource; the difference between the highest value option in both cases is the value of your resource.

Plenitude and value

If you have a hand full of wood, what would be the value of another wood?

In this case having another wood will open up very few new options. Thus, the maximum value of your options when having that extra wood or not having it is (almost) identical, meaning that the value of an additional wood is (just about) zero.

Which coincides with how we actually play games: “No thanks, I don’t need your stinkin’ wood!”

There is always scarcity in board-games

Space to expand my house is scarce!
Space to expand my house is scarce!
There is always one or more limiting resources in a board-game. Because if this was not the case you could simply go through the motions of the game, trade your non-scarce resources for victory points (or whatever it is that wins the game), as many times as you like.

When playing it therefore makes sense to look at what is now scarce, but also what you can expect to be scarce in the future. In the early game of Catan, ore is not that important (it won’t build you roads or villages). In the later game however everybody wants to build cities and ore is suddenly much more difficult to obtain!

And it’s not just the “traditional” resources that can be scarce. Being able to take another turn (reducing your turn-scarcity) can be a game winner. Or having someone grab the last space for a village means you’ll have to build lots of roads to go around (scarcity of space).

Take-aways for board-game development

In a very real sense, scarcity is the obstacle to overcome in a board-game. The player who does this most efficiently will be the winner of the game.

So how do we use this to make our games interesting?

First, plenitude is boring. If there is always enough of a resources then it might as well not have been a part of the game. Thus, every resource should get scarce at some point.

The ebb-and-flow of scarcity and plenitude can create for interesting dynamics within a game. Something might be scarce now but plentiful later; is it worthwhile to invest in getting more of it, or is it better to get a head-start on what will be in short supply in a few turns?

This dynamic can be introduced mechanically (reduce / increase the number of resources made available automatically) or it can be player driven (have them decide what to invest in). The latter makes for much easier balancing (your players will more-or-less do it for you), but the first can create very interesting tensions and require hard choices by your players on what to go for when.

Control of a scarce resource can give immense power to a player. Especially if the resource remains equally important throughout the game then this power is easy to leverage into a win. What however if it’s easy to create a controlling interest, but there is a change in how important that resource is in different phases of the game?

Feedback please!

Wisdom is scarce and the best way to increase it is by sharing ideas and opinions; let me know if you agree and where you think I completely missed the point (by leaving a comment below)!

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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  1. Olaf

    Your last comment was interesting, it makes me think: are there any games where through game play, the players can affect which resources become more relevant? In the sense that a player can affect the “required resources” to build victory points of a sort? Player 1, who happens to have a substantial interest in, say, sheep, would try to make sheep important, whereas player 2 tries to make our important. Player 3, which had a more spread-out set of resources tried for there not to be much specialisation at all…. does that make sense, very our am i just rambling?

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      That’s a very interesting idea!

      I’d envision a sort of trading emporium where you have different suppliers (players), all wanting the best price. The “buyers” however are highly corrupt and happy to change the price that their company would pay for a small “donation”.

      Make money from selling stuff => Spend money to move prices in your preferred way => Profit! 🙂

      Want to be co-designer on this? 🙂


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