[Musings of a Game Store Owner] Intelligent Design: Mechanics (Part 1)

I started out this series by talking about the elements that make a “good game”. I brought up art, mechanics, tone (also called setting or world), emotional connection and the ability to pull it all together. I’m hoping to break each of those pillars down even further, so that we can examine them and see how each one fits into a well-designed game.

What do I mean, break down?

Well, maybe not that. 

Let’s make sure we’re talking the same language. When I started talking about game design and started interviewing people, most of those that replied assumed I was talking about 40K specifically. So I had to talk about that with each of them and try to make it clear that I intend to discuss all kinds of games, and not just table top ones.

Today, I’m talking about mechanics. What do I mean by “mechanics”?

“How do I win?” and it’s correlated question, “What do I roll/do?” are the basis for this next part of the series.

When examining a game, the above questions are both the “highest level” AND the “most basic” ideas that need to be addressed. You start with something simple, of course. Using Abalone as an example, your goal is to push six of the opponent’s marbles off the board. The rules that explain how to do that and how your opponent can try to avoid it are the mechanics.

You all know the rules… 

But mechanics are more than just “what do I do”? There are deeper, more complicated issues within mechanics. So what’s the girl whose favorite phrase is “what do I roll, again?” doing talking about them?

I’ve got a secret. I actually enjoy taking games apart and looking at why they work (or don’t), but I have managed to hide it pretty well (until now). I’m not fast at figuring things out, and I don’t have an intuitive ability to “get the picture”, so I ask my friends, pals, buddies and TheDude for advice and commentary.

Sometimes I ask those in the industry when I get stuck. As seen in this article, there are other things than “just dice” to consider when the inner workings are being fashioned. David Morgan-Mar said the following during our conversation about the article and its possible applications:

Loquacious- David, much of the article you wrote discusses mechanics that are fairly specific to board games. I noticed your mention of MtG as well. Do you feel any of your comments on design could apply to other kinds of games (such as miniatures or card games)?

DMM: Certainly. I think many of the general principles are the same.

It seems pretty likely that we can look at mechanics and find the core pillars that comprise it, much like we did with art. So, in an attempt to do that, I’m going to find out what the mechanics of a game DO– and then label those aspects so we can talk about them more fully, and even try to improve them.

First off, there’s the question: What do I DO?  Let’s call this element ACTION.

In any game, the ACTION a player takes (or doesn’t), the interaction with other players and the actual course of the game is the primary lesson. Some games are very complex in ACTION, and some are deceptively simple- but the level of complexity of ACTION does not always directly relate to complexity in design.

As shown with the example of Abalone above, what a player DOES (their ACTION) is push marbles across the board.

David talks about this at least a little about action (or lack thereof) in the article I mentioned above. Here’s an excerpt:

1. Don’t knock players out. There is very little that is more frustrating and boring than being eliminated from a game and then having to sit around for another half hour while everybody else keeps playing. It’s much better to keep everyone participating in the game until it ends.

Next is STRUCTURE– This is sometimes called “rules”.

This is HOW a player makes their action or is reacted to by another player within the confines of the game. Each game’s structure is specific to its theme, tone, purpose and goal.

Using Abalone again, the STRUCTURE is very specific; allowing only certain numbers and kinds of ACTIONS; but it is done in such a way as to allow nearly infinite choices to the player.

STRUCTURE also includes the details for resolving conflict, which seems essential in any game- whether it be against another player, or against the game itself. (Call of Cthulu, Pandemic, Castle Ravenloft are examples of “players against the game”.)

We now come to GOAL. In essence, this is “how to win”. It’s the set of circumstances or marker that has to be reached in order to meet a victory requirement. Again, using Abalone as an example, the GOAL is to push six of your opponent’s marbles off the board.

Now we need to consider all of these things together- I’ll call this intangible BALANCE. The BALANCE of a game is actually very important to consider.  Are the rules so rigid as to impede fun gameplay, or are they so open as to abuse?

When I was talking about design with the very astute SinSynn, I found that we were talking about the same things, but at different times. Synching up the conversation took some work. Once our discussion was on track, there was some great dialogue about design, mechanics and balance. (Pardon us for not using our best writing skills; we’re pretty familiar with each other and tend to cheat when we chat.)

Lo: Let’s pretend we are not talking 40K. Some other game. Maybe Sorry? Or Chess.
SinSynn: If you’re losing constantly at a game like GO…can we use Go? The chinese checker game? The one with white and black checkers- you know Go, right?
Lo: Yes.
SinSynn: If you’re losing constantly in a game with inherent balance, then it’s you. Maybe that’s not your ‘thing’.  I don’t wanna say that anyone is dumb, but everyone’s mind works differently.
Lo: So you feel Go has inherent balance?
SinSynn: It’s virtually a perfect ‘game’.
Lo: I wanna hear this. Please go on.
SinSynn: But, like chess, has that ’50/50 chance’ of one player going first that can be perceived as unbalanced…’White is OP.’ Beyond that, however, Go and chess have perfect balance. The winner will be determined via pure skill and knowledge of the game mechanics.
Lo: You’re talking mechanically, then?
SinSynn: Balance of power would be a better term. Beyond the ‘who goes first’ issue, each player has the exact same ‘army,’ so lists do not come into play. And that ‘phase of the game’ does not exist (list building/manipulation).

That’s balance.

The worst thing you’ll hafta deal with is having a plan for going first or second.

I’ve talked about the various aspects of mechanics and what makes them what they are. All of these “pillars” (if you will) can be affected by a very important dynamic; much loved (and hated) by gamers everywhere- RANDOMIZERS. 

I talked about the element of chance and the myriad aspects of the random with Porky.

Lo: I’d like to ask a few questions regarding mechanics of games, if you are up for it. Do you still have the bookmark for the D1 discussion?  I’ve lost it, and I found that entire conversation, process and concept more than fascinating. I’m still not sure I entirely followed all of it, but it was compelling and illuminating all the same. 


Porky: I have fond memories of that. It went down into the weave of the fabric, and the discussion probably still informs the way I think on some level.

Lo: Following that conversation and many of its derivative thoughts, the idea of CHANCE seems paramount to games. In the course of my daily life, I rarely encounter much that seems purely driven by chance- most things seem at least partially under my control. Why do you think we’re drawn to using random elements (other than the drive to roll fun dice)? 

Porky: I’m not sure we’re drawn to the random elements so much as we need them, to make the thing work. The random element is a catch-all feature that covers all of the multiple factors that can’t easily be accounted for otherwise – the side of bed the person got out of that morning, distracting glints off the other guy’s buffed up equipment, subtle variations in wind speed, or the shadow of a bird, an order not quite heard clearly, a moment of doubt. 

Those moments- we’ve all had them When the “dice gods hate us”, the card flip isn’t so lucky, when we “do not pass Go”.  In a well designed game, those moments are a lot of fun. In a bad game, not so much.

What makes a game bad?

In talking with BigJim of Galaxy In Flames, he had this (among other things) to say about Warhammer 40,000.

BigJim: 40K is a pure turn counter turn game that uses D6 and nearly unmodified descending probability charts for resolution. The turns are not even truly phased with in the turn system…ie move/move shoot/shoot etc. Those are just a few of the many examples of very old (as in 40-50 years old, you could even say so old they have their birth in HG Wells “Little Wars” system) mechanics. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but through the poor execution of GW’s editing of the rules it hurts more than it helps.

DaveG of Wargaming Tradecraft had the following to say about 40K:

40k has always had a rock/paper/scissors feel to me…

I’m interested in more than just 40K, though. So I asked other folks their thoughts.

Von’s comments were more about what he LIKES: Games where the mechanics support the game’s style (Mage, for instance – has a metric shitload of rules, but they lend it that sort of arcane, complex, struggle-to-master, every-spell-feels-like-an-effort feel) and don’t get in the way of it, too.

I also talked to one of the foremost authorities on games and game design I know. He’s written more than 6 different systems and played countless more. He’s exposed to new releases and has experience with some of the best “old school” games on the market.

TheDude said: Mechanics that get in the way of a group’s way to tell a story are inherently awful, but that is subjective to the tastes of the group…

All of these comments touch on balance in some way, which; while just ONE of the “pillars”, seems to be an essential component for good gameplay.

We’ve just touched on these elements- action, structure, goal and balance.

Now that we’ve got the “basics” down, we can expand and ask questions about what works and what doesn’t. Next week, we’ll have more comments from interviews; specifically about mechanics and making them new, better; or just more fun to play. Many of these comments will be 40K oriented, but I have a few surprises in store as well for you.

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