Timing mechanisms: diminishing resources

Diminishing resources are relatively uncommon in board games, but turn out to be found quite often in card games.  Almost all card games use the number of cards left (in players’ hands or in the deck) as a timing mechanism.  Perhaps not the only timing mechanism, but an important one.

Note that there is an important difference between diminishing resources as a tactical mechanism, and their use as a timing mechanism.  Dungeons and Dragons uses diminishing resources, in the form of potions, scrolls, spells, special abilities, and hit points as tactical considerations.  They are resources that are steadily reduced, but not with the strict intent of controlling pacing.  They are reduced instead to force difficult choices.

I do not believe that these two uses are very compatible.  If a resource diminishes over the course of play, it can be used as a source of tactical consideration or pacing, but not both.  You can, of course, use multiple diminishing resources in different ways.

Primetime Adventures uses diminishing resources as some sort of timing mechanic in the form of the budget economy.  It’s not a pure timing mechanism, but it definitely points out some of the possible ways one might be put together.

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12 Responses to “Timing mechanisms: diminishing resources”

  1. Malcolm says:

    I do not believe that these two uses are very compatible. If a resource diminishes over the course of play, it can be used as a source of tactical consideration or pacing, but not both. You can, of course, use multiple diminishing resources in different ways.

    What about in chess? Losing pieces is certain a tactical consideration, but it also has a strong affect on the pacing of the game.


  2. Thomas Robertson says:


    That’s a good question. This is off the top of my head, so I’m not entirely sure about it, but it seems to me that losing a piece isn’t really a timing mechanism in chess. Losing (say) your white bishop doesn’t reliably shorten the amount of time it takes to play the game. As you point out, it does alter your tactical considerations, but it doesn’t seem to reliably indicate anything about time other than that it has passed.

    Or something like that. Maybe.


  3. Fred says:

    Tactical resources are spent as a matter of choice. Timing resources are spent whether you want to or not.

  4. That would mean that Hit Points are a timing mechanism. I do not think this is so.

  5. Thomas Robertson says:

    I don’t think so, actually. While I’m not sure I agree completely with Fred’s definition, it’s close to what I think at least. Consider the fact that you can choose not to fight another battle and still be playing the game. You could decide to go back to town or to make camp or whatever. The game doesn’t make you spend Hit Points, it allows you to spend them for a benefit.


  6. Anthony says:

    Malcolm, losing a chess piece does not effect the pacing of the game in chess. It may effect the amount of time which it takes you to consider your next move, but it doesn’t inherently alter the game in such a way that forces you to slow down or speed up. The game can take half an hour or several hours; that’s an example of a lack of pacing mechanisms.

    Fred: Agreeing with your definitions. For now. There are timing mechanics that could rely on choice, however, and mechanics that are not called on by choice that have nothing to do with timing.

    Stephan: Yes, hitpoints are a timing mechanism. FOR THE ENCOUNTER. To a limited extent, they could be a timing mechanism for the game because they determine how many combat scenes a group can go through. However, they are not a GOOD timing mechanism because they are replenishable by outside factors.

    Thomas: D&D is based around combat, like many traditional games. The fact that hitpoints limit the amount of combat scenes and the game treats non-combat scenes like extra fluff means that the availability of combat is meant to be a pacing factor. As I said, it’s not a good one. For activities outside the scope of the basic rules (such as going to town and having a good time there), the tools for pacing (and many other things) don’t work as well.

    Anything that works to limit the amount of physical time spent on a scene, forces a scene to end, alters the direction of the scene into a specific other scene, or limits the amount of scenes available can all be considered timing mechanisms, even if these activities are done in a roubabout, inefficient, or subtle manner.

  7. Thomas Robertson says:


    Hey, thanks for stopping by. I’m going to address (at least obliquely) all of your timing comments here.

    The thing that I am most interested in regarding timing mechanisms is that they not be player-controlled. Consider how a game of Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride will reliably play in the same amount of time every time you play it. You will get pretty much the same amount of stuff done in the time it takes to play a game.

    Contrast this with outlines and predetermined plots, or any other mechanism that you might be familiar with in roleplaying games, and you’ll see there’s a significant difference. Roleplaying games require experienced players for good pacing, which seems like a weak point in design. So while I agree that there is a lot that can be done with mechanics to help an experienced GM set the pace, those aren’t the sorts of mechanics I’m really interested in personally.

    You suggest that since D&D is designed around combat that hit points are a timing mechanism, and I agree. However, it has been my experience that the majority of D&D play is not based around combat. Since hit points only pace combat, and do not pace any other possible focus of play, they can not act as a pacing mechanism for the game as it is typically played. That said, I have played combat-focused games of D&D which have allowed hit points to act as an excellent pacing mechanism.


  8. Fred says:

    Right, and for that reason hit points are not a timing mechanism.

  9. Anthony says:

    Okay. I get it. I’m not sure I see the advantage in a “pure” timing mechanism that isn’t dependant on player or GM participation, though.

    For one thing, different groups use up different “time slots” in their availability in playing based on their own schedules. If your game takes too little time, it may not appeal to these players. If it takes too much time, it definitely will not. Perhaps there needs to be a control mechanism of SOME KIND so that players and/or GM could decide the actual timing.

    “Roleplaying games require experienced players for good pacing, which seems like a weak point in design.” Agreed. But I don’t think that’s the fault of player-participant timing mechanism; that’s just because they use weak timing mechanisms in general. Your example of hitpoints is an excellent indicator of that.

  10. Thomas Robertson says:


    Fair question. My interest stems from the fact that I (personally) tend to engage in many activities under variable time conditions. So maybe this week Nikki and Will can get free for two hours on Friday night. What will we do? We know we have two hours to fill. We can watch a movie. We can play two games of Settlers of Catan, we could get in three episodes of Firefly or six of Justice League Unlimited. Or we could roleplay.

    But in those two hours, we have no idea what exactly we would accomplish if we roleplayed. There’s no reliably timed thing going on for us there. I want a game that I can say, ‘Hey, we’ve got two hours. I know we really want to watch the newest episode of Avatar, and after that we’ll have just enough time to get in a session of X in the remaining hour and a half. What do you guys think?’

    The posts I liked to in the first post on games taking too long are a pretty good overview of what I’m thinking here.


  11. Anthony says:

    Maybe we could take this from another approach. Say, you have a session that must be exactly two hours long, as in your example. Exactly what sort of player-activities would you want filled in those two hours. Maybe we could come up with a list. Would this help, do you think?

    Examples: I would like one player to get in an argument with another player about their objectives within the game, all players must come half way to “level up,” there should be at least three physical conflict and three social conflict scenes, I want to see one character go through significant emotional growth – perhaps losing or gaining traits in the process.

    It seems like if we can narrow down the desired player activites as much as possible, we could come up with a more accurate timing mechanism. That is the advantage of games like Settlers of Catan – player activities are fairly uniform from game to game.

    As we’ve seen with D&D, our timing mechanism must not only encourage (and restrict) the list of player activities we do want, but also discourage other activities that don’t work with the timing mechanism.

    Does this help at all?

    I don’t have any specifc ideas or examples, for once, just suggesting another way to approach this problem.

  12. Thomas Robertson says:


    That’s a good approach. At the moment I’m still thinking theory stuff, but this looks like a pretty good way to approach things from a design standpoint.


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