A resource-efficiency game focuses on turning resources into victory points through a chain of actions. It’s a very common design style for euro games, but also one with considerable room for variety.
The recently released Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction (2016) shows the style at its simplest. You start out with worker resources. You turn those into yellow cake, which you turn into uranium, which becomes victory-point bombs. There’s a single development path for a four-link chain. The game is all in how fast you can walk that path.
The ever-popular Catan (1995) shows a different methodology. A variety of resources become roads, settlements, and cities. You can also look at this as a four-link chain: resources are necessary to create roads, which are necessary to build settlements, which in turn upgrade to cities. However, as with many more complex resource-efficiency games, there’s a feedback loop: settlements and cities can create more resources. Thus the game becomes not just about maximizing efficiency but also maximizing opportunities.
Race for the Galaxy (2007) might offer even more complexity. Rather than building through a simple chain, players are instead trying to build out a complex, interconnected tableau. They must replace their very inefficient resource creation of using the explore action with a set of interconnected cards that create resources through trading or for taking other actions.
Other popular resource-efficiency games include Agricola (2007), Puerto Rico (2002), and Oh My Goods! (2015). The category literally includes many of the top games in the industry, so it’s well worth additional consideration.
The trick with all of these resource-effiency games is that they can’t be too obvious or too easy. If you could see how to maximize resource-effiency, and if you could easily do it, then everyone would.
And you wouldn’t have a game.
So, how do you make resource efficiency an actual challenge? You figure out ways to make it tricky to maximize that efficiency. The following design patterns highlights several ways that this issue has been addressed over the years.
Players Solving Problems
Some patterns for creating interesting resource efficiency are based on the implicit design of the game.
System Mastery. The simplest design patterns is just to make certain resource-creation paths be more efficient than others. A good game player will know the best paths and a newcomer won’t. Thus, the game is all in figuring out what the best paths are.
Honestly, this isn’t a very intriguing pattern for game design. If it shows up in games, it’s usually because something’s not balanced right. There might be that one building that no one uses, or the one that everyone wants. In unsupplemented Race for the Galaxy, system mastery tells players to go for the military strategy (unless there’s too much competition because everyone has mastered the system).
System Complexity. There’s a closely related design pattern: you can make game systems so complex that it’s not obvious which method of resource advancement is the most efficient. Essentially, this is a repetition of the System Mastery pattern, but there’s more nuance: because of the complexity, far fewer players are likely to figure out the best paths.
For example, in Catan, most players know that a settlement (minimum investment: 8 resources, for two roads and the settlement) has a worse resource:VP ratio than a city (minimum investment: 5 resources for the city). It’s 8:1 vs 5:1. But they couldn’t tell you what the comparative resource:VP ratio is for drawing a development card, because they don’t know the composition of the development deck or the value of the non-VP cards: the complexity overwhelms the ability to make specific resource calculations.
Where System Mastery efficiency is often solved through cold calculations, System Complexity efficiency is instead determined by the gut.
He who best understands the game wins; it’s a simplistic answer to resource efficiency.
Players Responding to Surprises
Some patterns for creating interesting resource efficiency are based on introducing some sort of chaos into the game.
Uncertainty. It’s a very common design pattern to introduce chaos into a game through randomness (from dice rolls) or arbitrariness (from card draws). Oh My Goods! (2015) offers a good example. Every turn, some cards are randomly placed in the market. These goods represent the core resources for getting your card engine going that turn. Catan obviously offers the flip side: the uncertainty of dice rolls. You don’t know what resources you’ll have, so you don’t know how to plan for their use. (But there are, of course, lots of ways to account for that luck: by trading or even by just spreading out your odds.)
Interference. Many games offer a different pattern for uncertainty: players will be affected in some way by the non-competitive actions of other players, and they don’t know what those actions will be. Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy both use role selection for this purpose. Players don’t know what actions they’re going to get to use, because they don’t know what actions other players might call for. But,here too, you can try to improve the efficiency of your resource machinery by accounting for the possibilities. Figure out what other players will do and you can adroitly adapt yours plans; but if you guess wrong, you may waste valuable actions.
Competition. Pure competition offers a third pattern for uncertainty in resource-efficiency games: other players are getting in your way. It’s not by happenstance, but instead because they’re taking the resources that you need. Many worker-placement games, like Agricola fall into this category: you and an opponent both need a specific action to get your chain going and one of you grabs it first. Auctions and majority-control systems that generate resources are other examples of competition patterns that can be used as a building block for a resource-effiency game, though they’re not as popular among developers as they were a decade ago.
He who best rides the tides of uncertainty wins; it’s a popular answer to resource efficiency.
Players Causing and Effecting
Some pattern for creating interesting resource efficiency are based on a cause-and-effect response system.
Investment-Return. The investment-return pattern typically offers ways to short-cut the core resource-efficiency path of a game. Rather than trudging down the normal route, the players can make an investment that hopefully will see enough return before the end of the game to both pay back that investment and also to offer enough return to get them ahead of the curve.
Any engine-building game has an implicit investment-return pattern. Whenever you add a new cog to the machinery, you’re doing so in the hope of improving your resource efficiency. However, sometimes this calculation is muddled by the engine also supplying players with the victory points that they’re seeking. So for example when you build a city in Catan or when you build a new planet in Race for the Galaxy, you might be improving your engine, but you’re also gaining your end-game points. This suggests that these decisions become most interesting when this sort of investment is less efficient than a pure victory-point gain, forcing the player to decide whether to invest in the future or not.
As such, Agricola might offer a better example of the pattern: when you go to all the work to create a new family member, it’s largely in the hope that the investment will pay off with the return of extra actions. (Yeah, there are victory points there too, but they’re much smaller in comparison to the rest of the points you earn in Agricola.) And, though it’s not a pure resource-efficiency game, Dominion (2008) shows this pattern in its rawest form: do you invest in your engine when you buy new cards, or do you just grab victory points?
Risk-Reward. Finally, we come to risk-reward, a common pattern in eurogames, and one that works especially well for resource-effiency games. The idea is simple: you give the players a chance to jump ahead on the resource chain, but make sure doing so carries a risk.
A lot of modern German games avoid explicit chance, so you have to turn to a classic like Catan to see a strong example of this pattern. In Catan, you can identify a rare resource on an individual board, and then build a settlement or city on that hex, hoping to cash in, even if the space has bad odds. So, a “4” in ore might not seem great, but if ore is rare, it might give you the special opportunity to build cities when others can’t.
Risk-reward patterns don’t necessarily exist in isolation; they can find their way into a game design through many of the other mechanics laid out here. For example, you might have an opportunity to get a rare building or resource before another player, but maybe you guess wrong and your competitor gets there before you, wasting your work. Risk-Reward + Competition = Even more fun!
He who gets the best results from his actions wins; it’s a more complex answer to resource efficiency.
Resource-efficiency seems like a a simple style of game design: you create a chain that players must crawl up to win the game. However, to create a truly good resource-efficiency game requires game design patterns that shake up that simple path forward.
The patterns here might be just what are needed.