Spicing up your resource management

I like Euro games. I like indirect interaction, engine building and puzzly, interrelated systems. I like Victory Points and delivering cubes to get them. And there’s also resource management.

Resource management is one of those things that is in most games, but often doesn’t seem to have had much thought behind how it was implemented. However, some games have interesting, well thought out resource systems, and they really shine. Kinda like mashed potatoes at a restaurant: it’s often the forgettable, bland side dish, but sometimes, you get something creamy, buttery, savory… Hmmm, I love me some creamy resource management.

I think the biggest pitfall of resource management is that resources are interchangeable. We collect green cubes and black cubes and blue cubes, we get all of them by placing workers and use all of them for recipe fulfillment. The only thing that makes a blue cube different from a black cube is which recipe I have access to right now.

If your design is suffering from bland resource management, here are a few solutions for you to try out!

Assign each resource a specific action

If all resources are used in the same way, it’s very hard to make them feel meaningfully different. If the only difference between a Stone and a Wood is that building cards use them in different amounts, then there is no inherent difference between the two.

By comparison, look at Viscounts of the West Kingdoms: there are four actions in the game, and four resources. Writing costs Ink, Building costs Stone, Trading costs Money, and Influencing costs Gold. Each action is different, therefore each resource is different.

However, some games are too simple for this, and have one main way to convert resources into action: in that case…

Make some resources more valuable / rarer

In a game like Century, you use your spices to buy point cards, and that’s the whole game. However, the four resource types are not equal: some actions will turn lower quality cubes into higher ones, or a single higher one in many of lower values. This difference in value inherently means that having a handful of turmeric cubes will feel different from a handful of more expensive cinnamons, even if they still are only used to fulfill the same kinds of contracts.

Picture from BGG user @zgabor

Similarly, many worker placement games like Lords of Waterdeep will assign resources a different value.  You can easily see that based on how many of them you can gain from one action: 4 coins, 2 fighters, but only 1 wizard. Or Lost Ruins of Arnak, where the basic actions give 2 Tablets, 1 Arrowhead, 1 Ruby with a small cost. It doesn’t seem like much, but it makes quite a difference.

Power Grid has an open market for resources, all of them having a different rate of refill at the end of round, and a different distribution amongst the factories that consume them. While it is player driven, the market system will still tend to make Uranium and Oil safer bets, and Trash and Coal more swingy.

Picture from BGG user @tdakanalis

Sometimes, available resources are randomly revealed, and some resources are simply rarer, making them more valuable: games like Five Tribes and Rococo go in this direction. Depending on how the rest of your game functions, that might be an interesting system.

Give some resources a specific mechanism

Obviously, saying “find a cool puzzle to build your game around” is neither satisfying nor helpful, but sometimes, a simple mechanic that applies to some resources but not others is enough to open up a lot of design space. 

One of the best examples of this is Brass: Lancashire. This classic has three resources: money, coal, and iron. Money does not have anything special about it: it is earned, and kept until it’s spent. Coal and Iron, however, are associated to buildings, and when a building is emptied, its owner gains both income and points. Additionally, Coal and Iron are different in one important way: Coal must be transported from the building containing it to the city where it will be used through rails or canals, while Iron does not require this infrastructure.

Another example which we’ve grown accustomed to because of its ubiquity in gaming is Agricola’s resource trifecta: Animals must be held in a pasture or building and can reproduce; Plants can be sown so you get “income” for the next few turns; and Materials, which are earned then spent. Its thematic obviousness sorts of dulls its impact, but that is quite a mechanically interesting system.

I also want to point out that both of those examples also support a theme or core aspect of the game: for Brass, it’s the infrastructure growth, while in Agricola, it’s the idealized farmer life. Not only do these mechanisms make the game more interesting on their own and serve as starting points for other mechanical elements, but they also participate in making the game feel like a whole, rather than a pile of ill-matched mechanisms.

A few more rapidfire examples: 

  • In The Rocketeer, you have two resources: Grit and Clout. Grit is assigned to one of your three characters, while Clout is shared amongst your team;
  • In Barrage, your money is earned then spent, but your tools are only temporarily unavailable when used;
  • In Keyflower, you have resources which are on tiles and must be moved around, and skill tiles which are held behind your shield;
  • In Space Explorers, you can either pay for your cards by giving resources to the player to your left, or by discarding cards from your hand to the public market.

In conclusion, going from a “soulless cube-pusher” to a richer, more interesting experience, often relies on making each resource feel different to add a bit of oomph. Whether that’s by associating each with a specific action, by toying with value and frequency, or by adding a different mechanism to some of them, you can both make your game spicier and more thematic.

Think about some of the resource management games you’ve played recently: how did they differentiate between those resources, how did they make their system more attractive? Of course, feel free to share in the comments and like and subscribe and all that jazz!