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Humans learn by playing. One of the toys that grows with us is blocks. As our minds build up to the task, blocks offer different challenges. At first, infants are just fascinated with the weight, manipulation, color and taste of the wooden cubes. Around 12 – 18 months, children can start stacking. This ability and interest in stacking/building is a development milestone. It is a form of play that our adult minds still comprehend and appreciate. This activity constructs a gateway into the Magic Circle.
The Magic Circle
We’re living in a golden age: never have so many humans dedicated so much time to fun & games. Defining what “fun” is and where it begins, however, is tough to nail down. Fun is not pleasure. If you’ve ever enjoyed your time with Dark Souls, Kingdom Death: Monster, or Planet Unknown Solo Mode, you understand that games can have just as many punishing moments as pleasurable ones and still be fun. To help us understand where fun lives and how to visit there, let’s use the Magic Circle:
“The magic circle is a state in which the player is bound by a make-believe barrier created by the game.” – Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens 1938
Fun exists in the Magic Circle. Outside the circle are activities without fun. When we cross the barrier mentally, we’re in a place where people experience fun. If you’ve ever gotten swept up in the excitement of an RPG adventure, or lost yourself contemplating your next turn in a board game, you’ve stepped inside the Magic Circle. But what do you need to cross the barrier? And what counts as a game?
“Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” – Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia 1978
“Voluntary attempt” captures two requirements to enter the Magic Circle: Freedom & Loss. The difference between “work” and “fun” isn’t effort; it is choice. You can’t force someone to have fun; it has to be voluntary. “Attempt” holds the second requirement – you must choose the activity knowing you might lose. A slot machine might be more fun than a gumball machine: one you can expect to lose over and over, and the other you “win” every time. Blocks are fun for children because they might fall down. Older kids need to stack the blocks higher because the risk of it collapsing is part of the fun. See Jenga.
Ellis Bartholomeus argues that Trust & Safety are integral parts of the Magic Circle. This is why roller coasters are fun and runaway trains are not. The Magic Circle is a barrier protecting what’s inside with rules, limitations, and boundaries. No one likes unexpected rule additions or changes. They are not fun – it’s a violation of trust. At Sovranti, we make rules enforced versions of online board and card games. We want players to have fun while learning new games. That requires not only getting any particular game’s look and feel correct, but a consistent user experience no matter which game you’re playing. We want to create an environment where you feel rewarded for exploration; building trust in our App is integral to that goal.
Ian Bogost, author of Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games, suggests crossing over into fun through curiosity & respect. He argues that you can not only enter the Magic Circle but expand its borders.
“Play is doing what you can with the materials that you find.” – Ian Bogost, 2016
Bogost’s philosophical argument bridges the gap between the Magic Circle and the attraction of this blog’s game mechanism: Tile Placement. Tile Placement has many forms and works well with many other mechanics from worker placement like Agricola/Caverna, to polyominoes and drafting like Isle of Cats, to pure tile placement like Kingdomino and Carcassonne. No matter what the final form, Tile placement is inherently a building game – win or lose you’ll have created something no matter how temporary.
Tile Placement easily meets all the requirements of the Magic Circle. Curiosity is part of each turn when you ask yourself: “What am I building?” or “How does this add to my build?” Visually it’s easy to gage progress which establishes trust. That sense of progress builds respect for an activity which is meaningless to the outside world. Your implementation is your choice and ultimately your build might be a gamble.
Considering modern problems, never has it been more important to take a break, get a little perspective and connect with others. We believe games and fun can build those bridges between us. If sometimes they fall down, finding the fun in building them back up again might help us all.
Rating Tile Placement as a Game Mechanic
Approachability 4: Tile Placement is a solid mechanic for both gamers & gateway gamers. The fun of building and the visual nature of progress makes an easy connection. However, differences in Spatial ability can give some players an inherent advantage.
Depth/Customization 5: Tile Placement partners well with a lot of other mechanics. Additionally, the shape of the tiles adds an entire extra level of dimensionality: squares, hexes, or polyominoes.
Utility 3: The added production cost and the inherent building nature of Tile Placement limits its utility a little, but it can be a fun solution to a lot of design challenges.
Uniqueness 2: There are more than 7k+ games listed on BGG which means it’s a mechanic you can get good at and use those skills in a lot of different games.
Next in the Game Mechanics Blog series we’ll discuss trick taking!
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.