Game Currencies

One of the wisest decisions you can make as a game designer is to adopt an inclusive attitude.  Look for interesting ways to blend ideas that seem on their surface to be disparate.  Find a trait both share.  Use that commonality as the starting point of a conversation within your game.

Let’s take currency as an example.

Money makes the world go around, or so some say. Our world is filled with overt currencies–cold hard cash and coin.  The pursuit of this cash and coin seems at least at a glance to drive almost all of human existence.

But are cash and coin the only forms currency can take?

Merriam Webster’s online dictionary gives as its first definition of currency “the money that a country uses : a specific kind of money.” When I scroll further down the page, we see a series of similar definitions “something (as coins, treasury notes, and banknotes) that is in circulation as a medium of exchange,” and “paper money in circulation,“ and “a common article for bartering.”  Okay, so those seems to support the argument that currency is restricted to cash and coin.

Wait a tic.  What about that second one again? “something (as coins, treasury notes, and banknotes) that is in circulation as a medium of exchange.”

If we remove the parenthetical statement from this definition, we have the a more expansive “something that is in circulation as a medium of exchange.”

Looking up circulation yields “passage or transmission from person to person or place to place” while looking up exchange yields “an occurrence in which people give things of similar value to each other : the act of giving or taking one thing in return for another thing”

So now we start hitting a definition useful to us game designers.  We have that currency is “something that passes from place to place as a medium of gaining another thing.”

And when this definition is fine-tuned for game design, we get “something that players spend in the game to exchange for something else in the game.”

That definition allows for a great bit more than cash and coin, doesn’t it?

Certainly, players spend cash and coin in many games. What else do they spend?

In most trading card games, each card is itself spent to gain its effect.

In most set collection games, actions are spent to gain goods.

In most athletic games, physical energy is spent to gain points.

The deckbuilding game Ascension uses two perpendicular currencies–only triangles can be spent to gain heroes and constructs while only swords can be spent to defeat monsters.

The king of varied currencies Homesteaders contains a huge variety of currencies–lumber, apples, cows, bronze, gold–and exchanging these even requires another currency; the exchange tokens!

What does this inclusive point of view do for you as a designer?  It enables you to begin a conversation within your game.  Remember than an exchange is “an occurrence in which people give things of similar value to each other.”  Make the currencies in your game a little bit hard to valuate.   Give your players tough decisions about how and when to make the best exchange.  Give your players questions like…

…is it wiser to spend 5 coins now for 6 victory points or should I invest those 5 coins in 3 apple trees which will yield 9 apples over the course of the game?

…should I spend 4 turns building that 8-point statue or 3 turns building that 4-point shop?  What will I miss out on during that extra turn?

…would it be better to feed these apples to my workers and keep them healthy or sell the apples and pay my workers more, keeping them happy?

Fill your game with a steady flow of these decisions and they will thank you for it, believe me.


How about you?  What game do you think used different currencies in the most interesting way? Which one did it worst?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.



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