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I'm making a 2D strategy game. I want to create something unlike the current resource management type games I regularly see tagged as strategy.

My goals are:

  • To force the player to think about their decisions
  • To allow for experimentation easily and without sacrificing previous progress
  • To allow for multiple ways of solving problems presented in the game
  • To eliminate grinding simply because it won't work in whatever system I use

In effect, I want some way to limit the player and force them to make hard decisions, without using a commonly used currency or resource/crafting system, to cut down on grinding.

However, I'm actually having a little trouble implementing this sort of idea alongside the idea of progression.

My original idea was to introduce a cap on how many of each type of item a player could have at any one time. In effect, this introduces some elements of an open-ended puzzle game. However, this limits progression:

  • If the number of items the player can have increases over time, this means that each individual item's significance decreases over time. This has the effect of making decisions easier over the course of the game. Not what I want.
  • If the items get more powerful over time, then items acquired near the start of the game have no viability later on. I would like items to be at least partially viable at any stage of the game, to increase variety and make the game less linear. It turns the game into replacing old with new.
  • Only increasing the variety of items over the course of the game is a sure-fire way to lose players early if they believe they are not making progress.

My implementation is workable, but simply not good enough for my personal standards and goals.

Is there a better way to let limits, choice and progression go hand in hand?

I use the word "item" here not just to refer to items in game, but other things such as spells, moves, buildings, etc. that a player could acquire and use in the game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @EnderShadow8 as nick012000 pointed out, many games also implement progression like this with roughly stronger options as you go, but different enough they have their niches even the older items are still useful. You can also potentially make the weaker items synergize with some of the stronger items so that particular weak item might make more sense for your build than a generally stronger item. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 3:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Pretty much every strategy game has some sort of resource system. This could be building/crafting resources (wood, iron, etc.), unit resources (number of builders), time as a resource (things take time to build) or space as a resource (each building requires some physical space to build and you have a limited space on the map to build or there are downsides to spreading your base out too much). Usually it's some combination of these. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 10:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ "My original idea was to introduce a cap " And thus, available slots until you reach the cap just became a resource your players have to manage. Everything is a resource, and players have to create strategies as soon as you limit their resources. \$\endgroup\$
    – Polygnome
    May 25 at 13:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Besides "crafting", another common pattern is to choose a "hand" or 'deck" or "stack" of resources up front. A key part of this pattern is that you have "deck building" and "deck use" phases of game play. \$\endgroup\$
    – MSalters
    May 25 at 13:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Meaningful choices require a resource cap, period. That resource could be funds, slots, time, whatever. If you want to be forgiving about trial and error, then give the player a generous refund mechanic. They spend some time and get their other resources back if they sacrifice units or something. \$\endgroup\$
    – Harabeck
    May 27 at 13:43
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No

You can not limit a player other than through resources. This is due to the fact that in game design, everything that is limiting to a player is a resource.

  • The cards on your hand in poker
  • The pieces on the board in chess
  • The cross (or circle) you can place in a game of tic tac toe
  • A jump in a platformer video game (timing and jump height)
  • Ammo in a shooter game
  • Things that the game itself calls resources, like wood, gold, etc
  • Time
  • Attention

The whole point of a game is that players decide how to spend their resources.

With that knowledge, take another look at those examples you didn't like and analyze them more deeply. For example, look at a specific resource:

  • How does it limit the player?
  • What is the game protected against by limiting the player like this?
  • What exactly did you not like about handling the resource?

Based on that information you can then develop a more fun alternative.

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Two resources many novice game designers tend to overlook are time and attention. The player can not do everything at once and can not be everywhere at once. So they need to prioritize which problems to take care of and which problems to ignore.

This is a major factor in real-time strategy, especially on a competitive level. There is a reason why the performance of competitive RTS players is often rated in "Actions Per Minute". A player with the mental and physical dexterity to perform lots of actions quickly can beat a player who is in a superior strategic position and has more access to "real" resources.

However, focusing your game on that aspect can lead to a very stressful and hectic game experience. There are players who enjoy that kind of gameplay, but it is not everyone's cup of tea. Nevertheless, there are ways to implement these aspects in a turn-based strategy game which is played at a more leisure pace.

Time as a resource can be implemented in turn-based strategy by putting a hard limit on the number of actions the player can perform each turn. So the player has to decide whether they want to spend their last action on ordering the construction of a new combat unit, to reassign their workers or assign a new research goal.

Attention as a resource can be implemented in a turn-based strategy game by giving the player an avatar in the game world. They can only perform actions within the vicinity of their avatar, and moving their avatar to another location takes one or more turns.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Note: Actions Per Minute is usually not the only limiting factor in competitive RTS games. Most of those games also have various resources players need to manage. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 10:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BernhardBarker While I am not sure how anyone could get the idea that I would imply otherwise, I rewrote that paragraph slightly. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    May 25 at 11:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ My current game feels like plan-then-execute, with both elements of turn-based strategy (planning) and real time strategy (executing). However, I want to put focus on the planning phase, while your options for turn-based games only work if the turns themselves are a unit of time. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 12:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @EnderShadow8 Well, you could put a limit on the number of commands the player is able to give during the planning phase. But it's hard to give any concrete suggestions while knowing so little about your actual game mechanics. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    May 25 at 12:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Carcigenicate: I took "focusing your game on that aspect can lead to a very stressful and hectic game experience" more to mean the crazy speeds at which Starcraft or LoL is played competitively. I would count XCOM as "a turn-based strategy game which is played at a more leisure pace" as you can sit back and ponder every single decision, nothing is time-sensitive (to be precise, XCOM is turn-time-sensitive, not player-time-sensitive). \$\endgroup\$
    – Flater
    May 26 at 11:58
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My goals are:

  1. To force the player to think about their decisions
  2. To allow for experimentation easily and without sacrificing previous progress
  3. To allow for multiple ways of solving problems presented in the game
  4. To eliminate grinding simply because it won't work in whatever system I use

None of these scream out "you can't have resources or currency". I think your goals are good, but your implementation of them is either flawed or oversimplified.

  1. To force the player to think about their decisions

Resource scarcity is one of the best tools you have to drive player decisions.

Do I go in this temple to see if there's treasure, at the risk of getting hurt? Do I spend resources or take risks rescuing these people so they can join my settlement? Do I spend my unobtainium on a few awesome weapons for a few of my soldiers, or on medium armor for all of my soldiers? Should my people face short-term starvation or take the risk of eating spoiled food?

  1. To allow for experimentation easily and without sacrificing previous progress

This really depends on the game in question.

  • Builder games tend to have a "blueprint" mode where you can design something without building it, specifically so that you can experiment with designs.
  • You could have a sandbox mode where players can test out the things they have unlocked
  • You could allow for free reimbursement (e.g. disassemble a crafted item with 100% resources returned) for a limited time
  • Your game world could include a firing range where the player gets to use all manner of weapons they don't own, but they can't take the weapons with them
  • ...
  1. To allow for multiple ways of solving problems presented in the game

I don't see how this affects whether you have currency or resources in any meaningful way.

Money don't buy happiness, and currency don't buy unobtainium if no one has unobtainium to sell. Currency buys guns and defensive armatures, but currency won't stop the bullet from hitting your unprepared soldiers.

  1. To eliminate grinding simply because it won't work in whatever system I use

Grinding is repeated manual labor. Automation is the antithesis of grinding. Let's take two factory games as an example.

Satisfactory has unlimited resources, but it has time-capped them. An iron node will always output e.g. 120 items/min, infinitely. It only costs electrical power. This also applies to coal nodes, and coal can be converted into power. Therefore, if I have coal miners, iron miners, and all the requisite machines, I can build an infinitely operating iron smelter. I never have to look at it again, and it generates iron products for me.

Factorio does things mostly the same way, but here resources are not infinite. They are plentiful before they deplete, but they eventually do deplete. Factorio has a very developed logistical system that they want you to use, so they incentivize you to eventually need resources that are further away, which gets you to use their transportation options. This is all by design to naturally drive gameplay towards the content they have created.

You can take lessons here that work for any game. Maybe the girl you saved from bears now brings you 5 breads every day, but yesterday's bread will spoil. This is an example of how you can have a resource, have a natural cap on it (5), and limit the player (refreshes every day), without needing them to grind (the girl bakes the bread for you).


If the number of items the player can have increases over time, this means that each individual item's significance decreases over time. This has the effect of making decisions easier over the course of the game.

This is only true if the resource cost of things remains a constant across the game's lifetime. Most (if not all) games tend to increase costs as time goes on.

There's also the consideration of what a player will do with a larger stack of resources. You might incentivize them to e.g. run two factories as opposed to one, therefore naturally increasing their resource usage while also doubling their gameplay.

If the items get more powerful over time, then items acquired near the start of the game have no viability later on.

This is hard to answer without specifics on your game, but there are cases where new resources supplant older resources, and cases where new resources simply add more options. If the new resources are exceedingly rarer, or they have their own set of drawbacks, then the player is urged to still use the older resources where possible, just so they don't overuse their rarer resources.

For example, crafting a dagger is the same whether you're using stone, iron, gold, or veryexpensivium. But these later resources are only found later in the game, and rarer. The player has the option to hunt for rare veryexpensivium and only craft veryexpensivium daggers to make money, or to just easily collect stone and make a ton of stone daggers.

Similarly, while a Greater Health Potion is obviously better than a Lesser Health Potion, it's significantly more expensive to craft and it has a much longer cooldown period for usage. Therefore, players are advised to still use LHPs when they only need to heal a little bit.

Simply increasing the variety of items over the course of the game is a sure-fire way to lose players early if they believe they are not making progress.

I don't quite follow. How would a progression of resource acquisition make the players believe they are not progressing? Quite the opposite, no?

This is where vertical and horizontal progression start to become relevant considerations:

  • Horizontal progression means variety. A shotgun is different from an assault rifle is different from a sniper rifle, but they all have pros and cons. Overall, they average out at the same quality.
  • Vertical progression means improvement. A laser shotgun does more damage than a regular shotgun. It may be harder to come by, but if you have it, it's the superior choice.
    • Horizontally, a laser shotgun is different from a laser assault rifle is different from a laser sniper rifle, but they all have pros and cons. Overall, they average out at the same quality.

Not all players are created equally. Some like horizontal progression more (so they are on par with experience players in terms of equipment, just not player skill), others like vertical progression more (so they feel like they are improving their equipment and becoming more powerful).

Which kind of progression you implement highly depends on the kind of game you have, and how you expect players to interact.

  • In PVP games, vertical progression deincentivizes new players, as they cannot beat experienced players. At best, you can make "ranks" so experts do not play against newcomers.
  • In single-player (or single-player-focused) games centered around expansion, vertical progression incentivizes a player to keep player, as they increase their value and amass wealth/power.
  • In games centered around short-term gameplay (think: roguelikes, sports games, fighters), vertical progression is not as important as horizontal progression. There's usually a bit of both, but predominantly more horizontal progression. I.e. you unlock new fighters rather than your fighter becoming stronger than the other available fighters.

Vertical progression is generally more incentivizing in terms of single player content, but it clashes with multiplayer content when dealing with players who started at a different time but wish to play against each other.

Horizontal progression doesn't incentivize over the long term, but it does create a replayability and creativity factor that works well for short games that are meant to be played often (as opposed to a single game that is played for a long stretch).

Overgeneralized:

  • Vertical => Singleplayer, one long savegame.
  • Horizontal => Multiplayer or short games with high replayability.

Is there a way to limit players other than a currency system or a resource system?

You've glossed over time. Now, to be clear here, I'm not referring to "microtransaction energy" systems specifically, but I am referring to a time lock. Essentially, a cooldown system.

  • Maybe your smith can only craft one item per day for you.
  • Maybe you have infinite potions, but they are toxic and you can't chug them all (cfr the Witcher).
  • Maybe you have infinite ammo in your bag, but reloading takes a long time.
  • Maybe you have infinite ammo in your gun, but it overheats.

But the main takeaway here is that it's not how you limit the player that matters. What matters is how the player can work with those limits.
All of these limits need a way to massage them. Not for players to outright bypass them, but to adjust the limit based on some actions they take.

  • Paying your smith +50% for each job makes him happier to do two jobs a day.
  • There's a clearing potion that lowers toxicity, sort of like coating your stomach, possibly at the cost of a decreased potion effect.
  • Upgrade your gun to improve loading speed (possible at the cost of e.g. smaller clips)
  • The overheating mechanic could be impacted by local weather (tropical vs arctic), or what metal the gun was made from.

The best games present you with both an obstacle, and tools to (partially) overcome that obstacle, possibly at the cost of effort to set it up. The worst games set up arbitrary limits that have no in-universe justification and create no gameplay around dealing with that limit.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Brilliant! Most of these suggestions work for my particular case, but it's a well thought out and helpful answer nonetheless. \$\endgroup\$ May 26 at 10:35
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Is there a better way to let limits, choice and progression go hand in hand?

As always in game development there is rarely a better choice, but there are often different choices with different trade offs. One technique for forcing players to make hard choices frequently used alongside progression systems is creating mutually exclusive options sometimes this is done via an intermediate currency that is usually strictly limited in quantity (e.g. skill points, upgrade ores, item slots) so that in a given point in a game you can only have enough to acquire so many.

Sometimes a you can't or don't want to limit resources strongly enough to create natural mutually exclusive options, at that point you may ultimately need a hard lockout of other options. You can have the "Flaming Sword of +1 Awesome" or the "Wicked Axe of Massive Frost" but never both; owning one inherently prevents the player from ever getting the other. This can be implement in a variety of ways may helping one NPC annoys the other, or Flaming Sword and the Frost Axe woulc cancel each other out and can't coexist.

Hard lockouts forces a very hard decision for the player if the choices are well balanced, but beware those same hard choices can also be very stressful for the player and missing out on any given option that can make them feel like their first playthrough of game is incomplete.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "but beware those same hard choices can also be very stressful for the player and missing out on any given option that can make them feel like their first playthrough of game is incomplete." Could using a roguelike style remedy this? I want choices to be stressful for the player but also make sure that they feel they are experiencing every aspect of the game. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 1:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @EnderShadow8 rogue likes(well lites at least) are known for using this quite often with boss dropping 3 items of which you can pick one. I would say it is a good way of mitigating the negative impact of tough choices, since a) you have other things to worry about like not dying b) your choices are less permanent since you'll probably die/win soon anyways. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 3:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Allowing a way to reselect your choices is also a common mitigation tactic. Respecing is quite common for skill systems these days for example. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 3:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ This could be implemented fairly intuitively as upgrade trees (which is quite common for RPGs, if not strategy games). You unlock the choice between A and B at some point and then you can pick either. Only if it's badly implemented should it make the playthrough seem "incomplete". Otherwise it just adds complexity to the game and variety between playthroughs. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 9:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BernhardBarker every decision has a tradeoff it depends how impactful the choices is and how long it stays with you. While forced choice points in upgrade trees are fairly common(XCOM comes to mind), they're also absent from many many other(AAA action stealth comes to mind). I think its quite telling that it hasn't become the standard even for relatively minor choices like skills. Mainly you start running into major risks when you gate major off things like party members or don't implement mitigation measures like respecing. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 16:53
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You could limit the number of orders the player is allowed to give in a turn/60 seconds(Not sure if your game is real time).

If you include this option, together with a currency/resource system, the twist will be that when building you also need to consider how many other units you have, and if you can control them all. And defense will often require far more options then offensive operations.

And an even more fun twist would be, if you allowed the user to use an action*, to group units together. That way you can move the the entire group with one movement. But if units are in a group, then you can ONLY move the entire group not a single unit within the group so that is the trade off. Extra bonus for having an option for creating formations in a group.

*The ability to create a group could also be limited to a specific number, or require an officer in the group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not all strategy games are war games. The other answers apply to a broader range of game genres. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 1:52
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Thinking outside of the box... the other answers are already pretty good. But you asked for other ways to limit players, and here are some unconventional ideas that might inspire you:

  1. Make players do physical things in the real world. Thus their physical limits will cause in-game limitations. You can make the things they are required to do be directly related to the role-play of the game, or they could be unrelated and silly, just for fun. Examples are all over the map, silly just for fun would include take a drink, run around the table, do a somersault, etc. If you have a time-based game, but you are required to also do 5 jumping jacks during their turn, or roll the dice three times instead of once and mathematically figure out the average or just the highest and/or lowest roll, it will mean that they are trying their best to complete the tasks quickly to not waste their time.

  2. Give the players additional responsibilities that they have to perform at different times. Again, these could be related to the role-playing of the game, but they could also be somewhat random, depending on the nature of the game. The additional responsibility could distract them from their main task and make them have to choose between the two, or else just forget or not be able to do one of them (depending on the nature of the game-play). These additional tasks could be transferred to other players through game-play, or they could be assigned at the beginning or various stages of the game.

  3. Make the game items cost real items in the real world. This doesn't have to be money, it could be other items or even services. I'm not thinking about any specific type of game here, just making a recommendation that this could be a game device.

Here's a silly example, say you use common rocks or flowers or blades of grass as game elements, if I am required on my turn or maybe on other people's turns to run outside and get a limited number of items, it limits my game-play, especially if it is decided that the items should be rare items. Or maybe Joe gets 3 blades of grass, Ann gets 1 blade of grass and 2 rocks, and Mary gets a feather on their turns. Even though there are 7 objects in total, the feather could be considered of higher value because there are the least of it. You could have mathematical rules about how much things are worth related to each other. So because there is only 1 feather, it is worth 10 times the next lowest item, which is worth 10 times the next lowest item, etc. So people would just be getting random objects and hoping to either have a bunch of something or else something really rare. Could be fun

  1. Similarly to my silly example above, you could have predetermined items in the game that are used for certain things, but the value of them could change similarly to what I mentioned above. So if there are 3 itemA, 2 itemB and 6 itemC out on the board right now, then itemB is worth 100 times what itemC is, and itemA is worth 1/10 of that. But if later someone uses up an itemA somehow, suddenly the value of itemA is equal to itemB and itemC is also worth more because itemA and itemB are now tied in value at 10 times what itemC is worth. So this is a market value idea based on scarcity and abundance of resources.
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The game Genshin Impact employs an interesting strategy with one of the available resources called Original Resin. This resource is required to obtain many desirable objects in the game.

A player can hold a maximum amount of this resource at any one time, but once it is spent, it slowly regenerates on its own (taking about a day to regenerate to maximum when fully depleted). This makes it valuable (since it is the only way to obtain many desirable items), but not scarce (since it replenishes automatically).

Those who want to put the time in can spend it daily and obtain items more quickly, while those who want to play more casually will still have some available to spend whenever they do choose to use it.

It seems like this type of resource might address some of the problems you're attempting to solve:

  • It forces a player to think about their decisions, since their access to the resource is limited on any given day
  • It allows for experimentation, because even if they make a poor decision and "waste" the resource, it will be available again for them to try the next day.
  • It eliminates grinding since the player has no control over the rate at which the resource is obtained.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Maybe it's worth noting that this resource is essentially time, which has been suggested by the currently most popular answer. The only "twist" to it is that it's allowed to accumulate it to a certain degree. (I'm not the one who downvoted (and I don't think this answer is worth a downvote).) \$\endgroup\$
    – Vaillancourt
    May 26 at 17:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ I really dislike games that force the player to wait until the next day to do whatever, that's really just a cheap gimmick. btw I didn't downvote. \$\endgroup\$ May 26 at 23:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @EnderShadow8 It's not just a gimmick. It's a mechanic to improve player retention. By giving players a daily resource, you compel them to log in daily while also preventing them from progressing too far, which makes sure they don't progress faster than you can create new content. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    May 27 at 20:30
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One way how to implement progression is to have enough variability to enable "player learning" and "player progression" instead of the game character.

Take as an example the Breath of the Wild. The character obtains all powers at the start of the game but how to use them and combine them he discovers during the game itself. This also gives the player great feeling of accomplishment (I can do that?).

Difficult part is to always offer multiple options how to approach a situation. In 2D strategy game it would mean a lot of various interactions or powers of units and structures. I can think of C&C Generals where you could break the game by using special abilities and combination of units - like soldiers with rockets shooting from a helicopter.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Two games which pull off that "progression through knowledge" concept even better and in a more obvious way are the first person puzzle games Antichamber and The Witness. Especially The Witness demonstrates that very well by gating the player with puzzles they can not solve yet. Not because the player lacks the physical abilities, but because they first need to find and solve simpler puzzles which teach them the mechanics which are required to solve the more complicated puzzle. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    May 28 at 8:39

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