In Episode 23 of the Nerdlab podcast, we will tackle a challenge many game designers have to face when they create a game. Today I am going to take a look at resource mechanics. At their heart, resources are a way of restricting a player to do whatever they want. The main challenge for me is to find a balance between restriction and freedom. I don’t want the players to play all their available spells at once. On the other hand, I don’t want to restrict them too much and still give them the opportunity to play a variety of possible combinations. Today’s episode is dedicated to finding that sweet spot in the middle. Therefore I will talk a bit about different resources in games and why we need them at all. As usual, I will also analyze some games and how they implemented the resources.

Defining Resources:

Let’s start by defining what a resource actually is. For me, a resource is the foundation of managing player actions by giving them interesting choices and limiting their possibilities at the same time.

This definition has two main parts: Interesting Choices and Limiting Possibilities.

Interesting choices for me means that players have x possibilities of which they have to choose y actions. Of cause, there will be times in which players only have one option or so, but in general, there should be interesting decisions to be made. Typically these decisions are created by different ways of generating resources and different ways of spending them.

With Limiting possibilities I mean that the number of possible actions players chose from needs to be limited. They need to be limited in order to make the game interesting. Otherwise, everyone would always play their best card or use their best unit. Or even use all their cards and all their units in one turn. Limitation is also important to reduce the amount of information a player has to process. If it is easy to rule out ⅔ of possible plays in the first few seconds of a turn that reduces decision paralyses and allows the player to focus on the important decision in the current situation. Think about Magic the Gathering. When you have 3 Mana available on turn three you typically only need to focus on spells in your hand that cost 3 or less. Sure the other cards are important for your long term strategy as well, but your focus is clearly on the cards you are able to play.

The Challenge of designing a resource system

Before we start with some examples I would like to talk a bit about the challenge when designing a resource system.

When you start working on the resource system for a new game, you need to ask yourself some basic questions: What role should this resource system have in the game? How prominent should this mechanic be in my game? Is it the main source of fun or just a supportive tool for other aspects of my game? You have to ask these questions because resource mechanics can be used for so many different purposes in games. And if your resource mechanic is too prominent although it was only supposed to play a supportive role it can easily distract your players from the fun parts of your game.

For me it is a supportive mechanic to manage the overall pacing of the game and balance the alternatives players can choose from? In my game it is used to control the different actions a player character can perform. It determines which cards can be played from the hand of player and which on-board actions can be performed. That means it is an important mechanic of the game, but it is not the main source of fun I would say. And this brings us to the main challenge with resource mechanics.  
Where exactly is the sweet spot between fun and frustration for a resource mechanic? You probably don’t want your players to feel frustrated because they never have enough resources, but, on the other hand, you need to make the resources actually matter by sometimes making them constrain player options.

I don’t have a universal answer for this question. It probably takes a lot of playtesting to find the sweet spot. During my first playtest I realized very fast that I had way to many constraints and these constraints were actually interfere with the fun part of the game. Players came up with interesting tactics and combinations of spells but they never had the resources available to actually play it in a way they wanted. As a short term solution I reduced the cost of all spells immediately by one and allowed the players to combine different spells more easily. Since then I tried to reduce the constraints produced by my resource system. But I am not sure if this was enough. I will have to find out in the next playtest session. If I still have the feeling the resource system is too much of a constraint I will probably have to rework it completely and start over again. Finding that balance is the key. For the further analyses I will describe some key aspects of resources before we dive into some spicy examples.

With regard to the key aspects I have asked myself some questions:

  • What are resource systems used for? Which tasks do they fulfil in a game?
  • What are the differences between the various resource systems and what design choices do we have as designers?

What are resource systems used for?

  • Restrictions
  • Balancing
  • Pacing
  • Separation
  • Getting access to second order resources

Characteristics of Resource Mechanics

  • Reusable vs. non-reusable Resources
  • Linear vs non-linear resource growth
  • Integration of resources into other aspects of your game

Mentioned Games:

  • Magic the Gathering
  • Aventuria
  • Hearthstone
  • Artifact
  • Pokemon
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!
  • Duelmaster
  • Battletech CCG
  • Vampire: The Eternal Struggle
  • The Universal Fighting System
  • Arkham Horror LCG

Thank you for listening and until next week use your personal resources wisely to create incredible games and of cause don’t forget to nerd like a boss.

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Music by Mathew Pablo