Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Game Mechanics: The Vehicle of Board Gaming

Click above if you would rather listen than read.

In the last blog series, we discussed building better gamers and gamer communities. In this new series, we flip the focus to the fundamental elements of board games, specifically the game mechanics or mechanism. Game mechanics are the rules nuggets which control how the players interact with the game and the game’s response. Examples of mechanics include worker placement, deck building, drafting and tile placement.

Pairing game mechanics to theme is what game designers do. To understand why this is important, picture three vehicles: a go-kart, a bullet train, and a trans-dimensional portal. Each has a certain set of features and offers a different experience. You wouldn’t hop on a bullet train to pick up groceries and trans-dimensional portals don’t make for particularly exciting racing. In this analogy, the theme is the journey and sets not only distance but the obstacles and adversity. The game mechanics are the vehicles and determine how the trip feels, how long it takes, and how to address any challenges along the way.

Innovators create new mechanics which others then explore and improve. (The person who thought to add banana peels and turtle shell launchers to the go-karts was a genius.) These new mechanics can be iterated on so often and so well that they give birth to a sub-genre: collectable card games, train games, and social deduction games. Genre-defining game mechanics have four qualities to note:

Approachability – how easily someone can picture the result of their actions, how easy it is to learn, and how empowered the decisions feel.

Depth/Customization – does the mechanic allow for unique and powerful customization either by the game designers or the players. That customization can be in the form of individual pieces like the text on the Magic cards or the narrative between friends in Dungeons & Dragons.

Utility – good mechanics can find themselves applied to many situations.

Uniqueness – how different from other mechanics. Approachability is often in opposition to originality, but for the Genre-defining mechanics they aren’t mutually exclusive.

Game Mechanics & Innovation

It isn’t only game design that is improving, players gain experience with individual mechanics becoming more skilled and quicker to recognize the strategies involved. As player skill improves, expectations for new titles in those genres drives further innovation.
As the head of a digital board gaming platform, I’m focused on Approachability and Utility foremost. Game Mechanics that folks can easily fall in love with and that I can implement across multiple games. I want players to be able to intuit the rules so they can learn as they play keeping the game social. My goal is to share the love of board games with as many folks as possible despite the distance, state of the world or what technology is available.

Over the next few months, we’ll be marching through the history & evolution of game mechanics: where they come from, why that matters, where they’re going, and how they rate in Approachability, Depth, Utility, and Uniqueness. We’ll talk about which titles do these mechanics best and maybe what the future holds.

About the Author

Jason Wright – Founder, Sovranti

Jason has been leading IT development organizations for 25+ years and “enabling” his weekly game night group for 15. His wife still hasn’t found all the places he hides the board games. These two great passions collide to form Sovranti, a new online board gaming platform.

This is a repost of original blog article for a wider audience.

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