Last week I started a new series of articles diving deep into various topics dealing with game design. Today’s topic continues this series with a look at designing resource systems. This article will be mostly focused on collectible games, especially trading card games. In this article I will be looking at why to include a resource system in these types of games. I will also be looking at several different types of resource systems, as well as the pros and cons of each. Let’s get started!
Re-Sources of Confusion
For those of you who have never played a trading card game before, you may not be familiar with the types of resources that I am referring to. At it’s core, a resource system allows a player to “purchase” new cards, items, upgrades, or other benefits in the game. Most games have some type of resource system, whether it’s rupees in Legend of Zelda or the more complicated resource gathering system of a game like Settlers of Catan.
In a trading card game resources are mainly used as a cost to play your cards. In general, more powerful cards tend to require more resources in order to play. These resources generally get built up over time as well, which means that more powerful cards cannot be played until later in the game. In many trading card games these systems also play a secondary role of separating cards into categories based on what kinds of resources are required to play them.
So now that we are all on the same page about what these resource systems are, lets take a look at what role these systems play in the mechanics of these games. In any game, some pieces are going to be better than others. This is unavoidable, but is especially true in a collectible game with an extremely high number of pieces. Because some cards are naturally going to be more powerful than others, it makes sense that they should also be more difficult to play. Otherwise competitive players would simply buy nothing but the best cards and put them all in the same deck, and the game would degenerate.
Resource systems prevent this from happening by limiting how and when these powerful cards can be played. True, a player could still fill their entire deck with nothing but the most powerful and impactful cards, but they would not be able to play them for many turns and would be at a severe disadvantage (if they hadn’t already lost). It also opens up by allowing more cards to be designed for different parts of the game. Some cards can help dominate the early game, but lose relevance later on. Expensive cards take several turns before they can be played, but can help control the late game.
A Board Full of Queens
To help illustrate this idea, I am going to borrow an analogy from Mark Rosewater in his article Magic Design Seminar: Looking Within. In a game of chess, players are presented with a mix of different pieces. Some of these pieces, such as the queen, are much more powerful than others, like pawns. In chess this is absolutely fine. Having many different kinds of pieces adds variety and strategy to the game because it forces players to think about each piece differently. It is also totally fair, because both players start off with the same pieces in the same positions.
Now imagine if chess was a collectible game that allowed you to make your own army. Instead of playing with pawns, rooks, and knights you could instead fill your entire board with queens. Would this make the game better? I don’t think so. I think that doing so would reduce a lot of the variety and strategy that has made chess such a popular game for the past several hundred years. Resource systems prevent players from filling their entire decks with “queens”, and force them to use a wider variety of different cards. This allows for more variety, and is good for the overall health of the game.
Greedy for Resources
Having a resource system also opens up new design space, by allowing for a larger variety of cards to get printed. Above I have two cards – pot of greed from Yu-Gi-Oh, and Tidings from Magic: The Gathering. If you only look at their abilities, Tidings is clearly the more powerful card. It draws you four cards, whereas Pot of Greed only draws you two. The ironic thing is that Pot of Greed has been banned in Yu-Gi-Oh for over a decade. Tidings, while not a bad card, is nowhere near as powerful. Why is this the case? The main reason is that Yu-Gi-Oh has no resource system for it’s spell cards, so Pot of Greed is basically free. Tidings on the other hand costs 5 total mana which helps keep this card balanced.
Because Yu-Gi-Oh does not have a resource system for its spells, cards like Tidings could never get printed because they would be considered far too powerful. This lack of resources limits what kinds of spells can be printed in Yu-Gi-Oh, and they are forced to keep making their cards more and more specific. A game with a resource system, however, has much more freedom about what kinds of cards can get made.
Tracing Back to the Re-Source
Resource systems are a vital component of any trading card game (and most other types of games as well), but there is no single best way to do these systems. Over the years different games have tried many different types of resource systems, each with their own pros and cons. In this section I am going to look at different resource systems from different trading card games and talk about some of the positive and negative aspects of these systems.
- Magic: The Gathering (The Mana System)
To begin this analysis, I thought it would be fitting to start by looking at the original trading card game resource system. Magic: The Gathering is the granddaddy of all modern trading card games, and there is no doubt that the original mana system has been extremely influential on this genre to this game. That being said, being the first does not always mean the best. The mana system was a revolutionary game mechanic, but it certainly is not without it’s flaws.
Magic: The Gathering’s primary resource is known as mana, and it is collected primarily from Land cards. There are five main types of land cards, each of which produces a different color of mana. Most cards fall into one of these five color categories, and require specific types of mana in order to be cast. You can also only play one Land per turn.
This system does a good job of covering most of the bases of what a trading card game resource system should do. It helps the game ramp up over time by allowing bigger and bigger plays, it separates cards into categories based on color, and it helps balance the game by attaching relative costs to cards based on power level.
The main issues with this system is the fact that there is a dedicated card type associated with the mana itself. Because these cards generally have no other uses besides providing resources, this can lead to a situation known as “mana screw” or “mana flood”. This is a situation when players draw either too few lands or too many, respectively, and is a big enough issue that even professional players can lose games due to problems with the mana system. This problem can be somewhat alleviated through deckbuilding, but there is no way to remove the threat of mana screw entirely.
- Pokemon (Energy)
The Pokemon Trading Card Game’s primary resource system is the energy system. In this system, Pokemon can be played for free, but they require a certain type and amount of energy in order to attack. Usually pokemon will have multiple attacks, and more energy allows for more powerful attacks.
This system is similar to the mana system, and has similar problems. The threat of getting too few/many energy cards very real, but is somewhat alleviated by the fact that Pokemon has so many ways to search your deck and find the energies that you need. A bigger problem with this system, however, is the fact that the resources attach to the pokemon cards. This means that the resources provided by energy are not permanent, and dissapear if the pokemon is destroyed. This can become an issue because it allows for severe snowballing – if a player loses a pokemon, it can be difficult for them to set up a new one in time. This can make it very difficult for that player to catch up if they are behind. This energy system also only applies to the pokemon cards themselves. Other types of cards, generally, can be played for free.
- Yu-Gi-Oh (Monsters as a resource)
Yu-Gi-Oh is different from the previous games in that it does not have a dedicated resource system in the same way as mana or energy. Yu-Gi-Oh has three main card types (monsters, spells, and traps), and only monsters really have anything resembling a resource system.
For monsters, the main limitation is that only one monster can be normal summoned per turn. In order to summon more powerful monsters, usually other monsters will be used to pay for them. Originally this mean tribute summoning (sacrificing weaker monsters to play a stronger one), but over the years Yu-Gi-Oh has expanded the amount of different ways that monsters can be summoned. What remains the same is that most of these summoning options require you to already have some monsters in order to make them work.
While I think that the idea of using monsters to pay for monsters has a lot of potential, this system has a lot of problems. Yu-Gi-Oh’s resource system is very limited because it only applies to one of three different card types, which means that many cards can simply be played for free. The monster summoning system has also been undermined over time as it has gotten easier and easier to summon powerful monsters. This lack of a comprehensive resource system has led to a number of design issues for the Yu-Gi-Oh trading card game, many of which I have already covered in my previous articles.
- Duel Masters (Also Mana)
Duel Masters, like Magic: The Gathering, was designed by Wizards of the Coast. Perhaps for this reason the resource system for the two is very similar, even down to the name. That being said, there is one major difference between the two. Unlike Magic: The Gathering, Duel Masters does not have an entire card type that is dedicated to providing resources. Instead, almost any card can be used as a resource.
Every turn, a player can choose to play one card from their hand upside down in order to have it treated as a resource card. This system helps to alleviate the issues of mana screw and mana flooding because any card can be used to create mana if necessary.
One of the main complaints with this system is that it reduces variation in games. If any card can be used as a resource you never have to worry about whether you will be able to play a card that costs four mana on turn four. Personally, however, I do not think this is that much of a downside. Not only that, but I think that a system like this creates interesting decisions.
When drawing a land card in Magic: The Gathering you really don’t have to think much about whether to play it or not (with a few exceptions). When any card can be a resource, however, it forces the player to really examine their options and decide which is more valuable. Do I want to use this card as a resource to play another, or should I save it and play it later?
Full disclosure – I might be a little biased towards this type of resource system because it is most similar to what I am using in the game I am currently designing. That being said, I chose this sort of a system because I feel that it does pretty much everything a resource system needs to do in a trading card game while allowing for interesting gameplay decisions with very few drawbacks.
- Hearthstone (….ALSO also Mana)
Hearthstone’s resource system is the last type of resource that I will be looking at today. In this system, players gain one mana crystal every turn that can be spent to pay for their cards. Mana crystals are all the same, and are gained automatically without player intervention. These crystals reach a maximum at 10, and at that point players stop gaining mana each turn.
I think that Hearthstone takes good advantage of being a digital game by handling a lot of the memory issues that could normally exist in a physical trading card game, and this is just one example. Hearthstone’s mana system allows the computer to keep track of the resources without the player getting involved, and really simplifies the process.
The main issue with this type of system is that it really only works in digital. In a physical game it could be difficult to keep track of how many crystals each player has/how many they have used that turn. There are systems that could be used in a physical game that could achieve a similar effect, however. One such system, suggested by Reddit user IgneSapien, would be to have a separate deck of ten cards which act as the mana crystals, and one card can be played from that deck each turn. This simulates the Hearthstone system, while also creating new design possibilities by having a separate resouce deck.
In addition, this resource system does absolutely nothing to separate cards into categories and relies on the computer to enforce strict deck building rules which would be much more difficult to enforce in a physical game.
The Virtue of Resourcefulness
The systems examined above are far from the only types of resource systems possible. They are simply an overview of some of the more commonly used systems out there. Other games may have a system that is a mix of two or more of the above systems, or they may have something completely different from anything I have looked at today. Unfortunately I don’t have time to look at every possibility, but I hope that I was able to cover most of the basics.
In addition, most games have some form of secondary resources in addition to their primary resource systems. Usually these secondary systems are specified by the cards, and can include things like reducing your own life total or discarding cards from your hand. It may be possible to design a game where these types of resources are your primary resource system. Imagine a game where in order to play any cards, you must lower your life total, and both players are walking the fine line between trying to take out their opponent and not using up too much of their own life. Or perhaps a game where you pay for cards by slowly getting rid of your own deck? The possibilities are endless!
Until Next Week
That is all I have for today! I hope that you enjoyed today’s look at trading card game resource systems. If you did, you can subscribe to this blog using the button on the side so that you will always know every time I post a new article. If you didn’t like it, I would really appreciate any and all constructive criticism about how I can continue to improve this blog. And join me next week, where I will be taking a look at Magic: The Gathering to figure out how to design the ultimate drafting environment. See you then!