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Immersive Resources

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Immersive resources
There Will Be Games

As you probably know by now, I'm a very visual person. I love great illustrations in board games, hence my series "Let me illustrate" highlighting board game artists in the industry. At the same time, a board game with an amazing look alone is not enough. The gameplay needs to be great too and the rules must not be more complicated than necessary for the weight of the game. So in this article, I want to look at how important realistic resources are to me in games.

Let's start at one end of the spectrum and work our way to the other end.

Realistic Resources

I think the most visually appealing are so-called realistic resources. These are usually resin models in a colour fitting for the resource they represent. If they're painted, then even more amazing. These are clearly very popular because there are many suppliers offering their custom resource sets for pretty much every game in our hobby. Many games now also come in deluxe versions with custom resources.

I mean, the coffee beans and sugar cubes in Seize the Bean are just wonderful to look at and play with. The game even adds a dexterity element, if you choose to play with that option. Instead of just taking a specific number of coffee beans, you can optionally use the supplied spoon to scoop up the beans and if you can ladle them all safely onto your player board, they're yours. That's really only something you can do with custom resources like that.

The problem is, of course, that these are basically plastic components. They look great, just like highly detailed miniatures do, but they're made from a material that's still going to stick around in thousands of years' time. It's a decision you have to make for yourself, but I've started to move away from plastic as much as possible.

Money

There is also money. I know that it is often not classified as a resource, but technically speaking it is. I really love when money in a game has a real, physical presence and isn't just paper or cardboard. Metal coins feel heavy in your hand and they make a satisfying clanking sound as you pay for your action. It becomes a real wrench to part with money when it has this sort of physicality. Poker chips give you a very similar feeling, of course. I'm so pleased I've got a good set that I can use for games that have money in them.

Custom Wooden Tokens

When we normally talk about resources in board games, we usually mean things such as wood, coal, iron, gold, apples, wheat or other types of goods that we know from the real world. Mind you, there are also fantasy or science-fiction kinds of resources such as mana or energy. Other than realistic resources, as mentioned above, these are sometimes represented by custom wooden tokens. There will be a grey ingot to represent iron or a brown hexagonal prism to represent wood.

Their shapes will usually be quite stylized, but often they are a really good way of representing resources in games. They don't have the detail as resin components and are usually quite light, but they still do a great job at helping you immerse yourself in the game. It doesn't feel like you're using nameless tokens. The custom shapes are usually easily recognizable and it's clear what you've got or what you're paying with.

Wooden Cubes

When we get to simple, coloured cubes, we've reached a point where I find it a lot harder to feel fully immersed in a game. I mean, the coloured cubes in Lords of Waterdeep are great and all that, but I never know which one is the priest, which one is the soldier or whatever else there is. I know that it doesn't really matter in the game, but it would be nice to really feel like you're raising an army to fulfil a quest or hiring a group of wizards to do your bidding.

In games like Terra Mystica, the white wooden cubes representing your workers are fine though. After all, the setting and thematic meanings of the components are all very confusing anyway. So you might as well just stick to abstract components that have a specific function in the game and not worry that they might be representing people.

I suppose the cubes I've mentioned so far aren't actually resources in the traditional sense, even though they are used that way in these games. However, there are plenty of games where you have grey cubes to represent iron, brown cubes for wood and so on. It's fine to keep these resources quite abstract and just focus on the gameplay. Yet, if you want a game where you can immerse yourself in the world it creates, then I would expect custom wooden tokens. Coloured cubes don't do it for me.

Cardboard (or Paper)

The last type of component that represents resources in board games is cardboard - or sometimes paper. Cardboard tokens sometimes feel like a step up from coloured cubes, but at the same time, they're not as much fun to handle. Cardboard tokens can be wonderfully illustrated and cut in different shapes, but more often than not, they're not as easy to identify across the table. Coloured cubes, even if they're small ones, are usually easier to see, provided their colours are clearly different. Picking up a bunch of coloured cubes is also a lot more fun than a stack of cardboard tokens.

So, yes, cardboard tokens are a step down from coloured cubes for me when it comes to representing resources. When it comes to money, cardboard or paper is most definitely a big no for me, except maybe really good paper money. Metal coins or poker chips are my preference here 99% of the time.

That doesn't mean cardboard and paper don't have a place in games though. Cardboard tokens are ideal for markers or similar. If you want to track which worker placement spots are blocked off until a later round in the game for example, then cardboard tokens are ideal for placing over them. They make it clear that you can't go there at the moment.

Happy Medium

I think custom wooden tokens are a great compromise between not using highly detailed resin or plastic resources and relying on cardboard chits. If a game has a good selection of wooden tokens that clearly represent the resources they stand in for, then I will be very happy.

Looking at my collection, I reckon most of my games do have custom wooden tokens in them. There are maybe only one or two that have plastic resources and a good few with cardboard counters.

What About You?

How do you feel about different types of resource components? Are you happy with cardboard chits or do you need the deluxe resin token for every game? Do you have any games with custom wooden tokens and how do you feel about them? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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n815e's Avatar
n815e replied the topic: #335434 06 Sep 2022 12:58
This is a cool topic of discussion.
I enjoy your articles.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #335435 06 Sep 2022 13:13
This is DEFINTELY an aspect of miniature wargaming. Losing that unit you spent 5 hours painting has got to have more of an emotional gut punch than if it were just a cardboard standee or chit. Same with Necromolds the tactile aspect of making your monster on the spot and the joy of crushing your foe with your little ring thing is pretty awesome. Play-doh as a resource, who knew???!? Playing Demos or whatever that VR minis game is, despite very nice graphics, just isn't the same as moving your own pieces with a bit of heft across a real cardboard field (waaaaay faster start-up time though!)..

Thematic components are great so long as they don't get in the way. I've seen games there the board clutter impedes play, even if it adds theme and tangible investment.

I feel like the ultimate expression of this is Cash n'Guns. Just pointing fingers at an opponent IN NO WAY replicates the joy of those foam weapons :P

Or that old Mousetrap game. Wait, it was a GAME, not a toy????

I saw a very upgraded version of Terraforming Mars at Dcon with plastic cities and stuff. WOW, it does sell the cities and "greenification" of the desert planet. Looked like work to manage it though.

And more to your topic, those metallic cubes in TM definitely helped sell the game initially, I don't think there was much like it at the time. Same with those irregular resin crystals (I first saw them in Ascension, I think) that now lots of games use. Someone did the work to upgrade what was a little chit and now everyone does it.
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #335436 06 Sep 2022 13:32
This is something that, frankly, I have never understood. I don't get any sense of "immersion" in a game. I've never played a game and felt any way other than "I am playing a game". I can have fun or not have fun, get excited or not get excited, but nothing has ever made me feel like "wow, this particular component makes this experience much more 'real'" which is what "immersion" seems to mean.

This is not to say I want plain white boards with just squares where the brightly colored plain cubes go. I like attractive games, and sometimes a component is cool looking, but that's the extent of it. It looks cool, it doesn't "solidify" my experience of the game. And most of the time the cool component could be swapped out and I'd barely notice.

Metal coins, the go-to for these discussions, are a mystery to me. As an American, a coin is a nuisance. Having enough to do anything with means having a lot of them, means having heavy noisy junk filling your pockets. Most people dump them in a jar and eventually dump the jar in a machine to turn it into "real" money. I can't for the life of me imagine paying extra to futz with coins in a game. I do not want the "immersive" experience of scraping together a pile of metal to pay for something, an experience I try and avoid at all other times.

You mention Lords of Waterdeep and the cubes being a problem. But what would change that into an "immersive" experience? Would returning a bunch of little statues of heroes from your player board to a board space feel like you're "really" completing quests?

Kickstarter bugs me because it's a given that any cash beyond what's needed will go towards junk like this, providing a "deluxe" version of game that often hasn't demonstrated even the necessity for a non-deluxe version of itself. I'd much rather that money go to the creators so they can create more games (or just chill, whatever) instead of a bunch of plastic junk. None of that stuff does anything for me and I wouldn't notice it not being there.
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #335437 06 Sep 2022 14:36

oliverkinne wrote: Wooden Cubes

When we get to simple, coloured cubes, we've reached a point where I find it a lot harder to feel fully immersed in a game. I mean, the coloured cubes in Lords of Waterdeep are great and all that, but I never know which one is the priest, which one is the soldier or whatever else there is. I know that it doesn't really matter in the game, but it would be nice to really feel like you're raising an army to fulfil a quest or hiring a group of wizards to do your bidding.

I am 100% with you here. The cubes in Waterdeep always bugged me, and felt like a bad corner cut in an otherwise decently immersive game.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #335438 06 Sep 2022 15:53
Spill the Beans came with real beans back in the day. Now THAT is realistic components!
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #335458 07 Sep 2022 11:26
Components that look like the thing they represent makes a game more intuitive, which can make it more immersive. Your brain doesn’t have to constantly pop in and out of that abstract place to remember that white cubes are cows and brown cubes are wood, or whatever.

They can also make teaching and learning a game much easier. I recently replaced cubes with meeples in a game because people were having a difficult time understanding that they were loading boats with workers, not with resources.
SuperflyPete's Avatar
SuperflyPete replied the topic: #335462 07 Sep 2022 12:16
I feel strongly that the more like the represented item a representation is, the better the experience will be.

To call out Legomancer’s post: Immersive doesn’t always imply that you feel you are Luke Skywalker because your figurine looks like Luke Skywalker in my mind, it means that you don’t need to mentally parse that the white cube is Luke and the Black one is Vader.

The less your brain has to process that one thing represents another, the more you can focus on strategy. One note about Sagrilarus’ post: With Lords of Waterdeep, the game is ultimately a color matching game - X cubes of Y color does Z. I don’t know if wee orange wizards (like that cheap tactical Risk game that came out a while back) would be more or less immersive since the fact that they are wizards has far less bearing on the fact that they are orange and match the orange icon on the goal card.

To me, games like Stone Age (yeah, I know, the cup stinks) and Agricola work so much better when the circles are stickered with people icons and the resources are painted wood or resin. I don’t know why they’re more immersive or easier for my brain to parse when they, like Lords of Waterdeep, are ultimately just “match X and Y to make Z”, but for some reason they work.

Now, in Puerto Rico, the fact that they used brown cubes for Taíno is something I find deeply insensitive on the part of the publisher, but the fact that the resources are just other hexagon columns doesn’t bother me because they make sense and the colors match.

With regard to miniature games and RPGs, it is without doubt that the more realistically painted and modeled the miniatures are, the more I want to play. Space Hulk 3ED would not have gotten the Rab Florence treatment if there were no toys.

I think it all comes down to how the abstract requires a secondary mental process to translate, which makes linear thinking harder. It’s like a person learning Spanish hears, “zapato” and doesn’t immediately see a shoe, but rather thinks “zapato = shoe” and then imagines a shoe. The repercussion of this may be that you aren’t as good at the game as someone whose spatial or rather translationary mind (I made that up just now) doesn’t take the extra step, and can look at the orange cube and see gold, immediately, and therefore has a better, more linear view of the game board because they see things as they are without a mental filter.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #335465 07 Sep 2022 14:12
Stone Age is a GREAT example. Who HASN'T played with those little wood sticks and stones? Plus I've seen folks HOARD those gold blocks because...well, they are GOLD, right? If it was just a yellow disc I don't think it would trigger the same avarice.

Kids games do seem to lean in this more. I think a lot of adult games either hit a wall due to the sheer variety of resources or some lasting legacy to the AH bookcase games of 'nuthin but sheets of cardboard!
mezike's Avatar
mezike replied the topic: #335468 07 Sep 2022 16:03
Back when I owned Waterdeep I bought some mini-meeple figures carved like warriors and wizards from some guy on BGG who was doing it as a sideline. They were just brilliant, and it really did feel like it was bringing some of the setting to life in having all these little wooden adventurers around the table. So much better than the cubes.

I think it must have been the animeeples for Agricola that really started this big trend, and I’ve got to say that I kind of like it. The shaped pieces in 51st State, one of my favourite games, just make it feel more fun to be picking up guns and fuel tanks rather than plain blocks. In the upcoming Eleven the tokens for fans are people holding their scarves proudly in the air, what a lovely and appropriate touch. There’s a lot of creativity out there with this stuff now and the manufacturing processes have become advanced enough to make it affordable and accessible. I’m all for it. Metal coins can fuck right off though.
SuperflyPete's Avatar
SuperflyPete replied the topic: #335471 07 Sep 2022 19:46
I’m not NOT a fan of metal coins but I think they don’t add much.

Now, the paper money in Firefly? Now that rocked.
n815e's Avatar
n815e replied the topic: #335472 07 Sep 2022 20:32
For me, it’s less important what they are and more important how they are implemented.

The aforementioned paper money from Firefly is beautiful and well made (and thematic). But in most games I can pass on paper currency and would prefer coins or counters.

I really love miniatures, but I don’t want them in everything. Counters, meeples, or standees can be just as great.

I appreciate games that have an artistic vision and have components that fit it. And games that have an eye towards components that are functionally useful to playing the game.

That tower in El Grande doesn’t just look cool, it’s perfect for hiding the cubes. The king piece stands out and is easy to handle.

The order dials for Star Wars Armada aren’t pretty, but they are easy to hold and use, they keep the information hidden and they stack so you know exactly which one is coming next.

I see “fiddly” used for games that require you to move lots of pieces, but it’s really about having to move pieces in a game where the moving of pieces was poorly considered in the physical design.

If you can combine artistic vision, identifiability and functionality into your pieces, you are doing it right.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #335473 07 Sep 2022 21:11

n815e wrote: For me, it’s less important what they are and more important how they are implemented.

The aforementioned paper money from Firefly is beautiful and well made (and thematic). But in most games I can pass on paper currency and would prefer coins or counters.

I really love miniatures, but I don’t want them in everything. Counters, meeples, or standees can be just as great.

I appreciate games that have an artistic vision and have components that fit it. And games that have an eye towards components that are functionally useful to playing the game.

That tower in El Grande doesn’t just look cool, it’s perfect for hiding the cubes. The king piece stands out and is easy to handle.

The order dials for Star Wars Armada aren’t pretty, but they are easy to hold and use, they keep the information hidden and they stack so you know exactly which one is coming next.

I see “fiddly” used for games that require you to move lots of pieces, but it’s really about having to move pieces in a game where the moving of pieces was poorly considered in the physical design.

If you can combine artistic vision, identifiability and functionality into your pieces, you are doing it right.


Yeah.
mtagge's Avatar
mtagge replied the topic: #335481 08 Sep 2022 07:03
I would think a middle ground would be discs instead of cubes with an optional sticker sheet. You get a wizard picture centered on an orange disc. That way you get the color match along with the theme match.
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #335482 08 Sep 2022 08:11
I see the argument of "immersive" meaning that the pieces connect with the rules better. I'm all for that.

For money in games, I bought a set of mini poker chips for one game -- Crisis -- because it used a money track that was just tedious and annoying. The chips are nice. But doing like some folks do and using them as money in EVERY game? Boo to that.
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #335484 08 Sep 2022 09:04
Men of Mayhem (Sons of Anarchy) had the BEST tokens:

Duffle bags of drugs.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #335485 08 Sep 2022 09:47

drewcula wrote: Men of Mayhem (Sons of Anarchy) had the BEST tokens:

Duffle bags of drugs.


That whole game had excellent visual design. The locations looked like coasters. The player screens looked like big leather wallets, the kind that you attach to your belt with a small chain. The duffle bags of drugs are cool, but not quite as cool as the gun tokens and the stacks of cash tokens.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #335486 08 Sep 2022 09:50

Legomancer wrote: I see the argument of "immersive" meaning that the pieces connect with the rules better. I'm all for that.

For money in games, I bought a set of mini poker chips for one game -- Crisis -- because it used a money track that was just tedious and annoying. The chips are nice. But doing like some folks do and using them as money in EVERY game? Boo to that.


Real poker chips have a very satisfying heft to them, but I would never use them in a game that comes with paper money, like Monopoly or Acquire.
Virabhadra's Avatar
Virabhadra replied the topic: #335491 08 Sep 2022 15:32
When we do Journey to the North Pole around the holidays, I swap out the Gift tokens players collect with red and green M&M's.
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #335498 09 Sep 2022 07:08

Virabhadra wrote: When we do Journey to the North Pole around the holidays, I swap out the Gift tokens players collect with red and green M&M's.


I rated Dreidel a 10 on BGG because you get candy. Do you get candy in Puerto Rico? No you don't. Not a 10.