[Musings of a Game Store Owner] Intelligent Design: Mechanics (Part 2)

This week, I’m taking the basic “pillars” of mechanics and looking beyond the basics. I’m examining what works, what doesn’t, and ways to make the basics work for a more fun game.

I’m talking to a lot of folks, and I’ve gotten some great feedback.

Let’s get to it.

ACTION-Most of the folks I talked to had other things on their minds, but David Morgan-Mar’s article had a lot to say about action and how it affects a game.Most the points he makes in his article revolve around actions and how they effect the game being played.

In our conversation, he talked about how his principles could be applied to any kind of game, and I mentioned that last week. I wanted to hear more, so I asked him HOW this might work, and here’s what he had to say:

David Morgan-Mar : I think several principles carry over fairly directly. Don’t knock people out of the game, have mechanics that allow people to catch up, and so on.

Giving players difficult decisions in a card game can be helped by the fact that you usually have severely limited information. Cards in the undrawn deck and opponent’s hands are hidden, so the probability calculations are almost guaranteed to be to hard to do explicitly. The main part of the game design needs to be ensuring that the players have actual decisions to make, and that they meaningfully affect the outcome.

In a miniatures game, there’s usually no hidden information, and the complexity has to come from the multiple possibilities of what your opponents might do.

The overall principle for any game is really identifying what elements of the game give you complexity and lead to tough decisions, and then using those elements. Some types of game lead more naturally to leaning on randomness, or sheer computational complexity, or hidden information.

All of these really talk about actions, and “what a player is doing”. The premises Mr. Morgan-Mar presents are pretty sound, and I think they are definitely worth considering when contemplating game design.

When it comes to discussing STRUCTURE, there was a lot to talk about. For some, the structure of 40K is problematic, causing them to come up with new ways of playing.

The creator of Special Operations: KillZone, BigJim had the following to say about structure as he sees it currently.

Big Jim: Beyond that, what 40k needs is clearly written rules usually utilize lots and lots of diagrams within the structure of the rules. Effectively telling you how the game is supposed to be played in a very visual way.

If I had to pick my favorite example of a clearly written set of rules, I’d have to leave the Sci-fi genre. Flames of War is in my opinion the most clearly written playable in a decent amount of time wargame on the market. Heck, its heritage is based on 3rd ed 40k, but fixed the appalling parts of the system to create a unique wargame of its own. 

His illustrious partner, Brian Nero, had the following to say:

The rules, admittedly, are the weakest link. They almost must be because, as mentioned, people are not interested in the games GW assembled for the same reasons or in the same capacity that GW created them… and that’s ok. Thankfully, the rules are also the most easily amended.

So structure can be changed- and many are doing it, to the effect of a better experience at the table.  While the rules (or structure) caused problems at times, most often there was a bigger concern. In nearly every conversation I had, BALANCE was the culprit, and the place much attention was focused (at least for 40K).

I spoke to Lantz, creator of the Adeptus Mechanicus FanDex. He specifically sought to make a BALANCED option for play.

My project, a Fan-made Codex for Warhammer 40,000 that can be found at www.admechfandex.com, has been a ruleset I created for the Adeptus Mechanicus. About 2 years ago, after reading the book Titanicus by Dan Abnett, I wanted to find a fandex that mirrored Dan Abnett’s take on the AdMech. After a lot of digging I found a few AdMech fandexes, but they were all out-dated, unfinished and/or imbalanced. And none of them really captured the same feel I wanted.

A small example; I wanted a Troop choice with a 2+ armour save in this fandex. For months I tried to make it work, and I did for the most part. The glaring issue was points cost; and that issue didn’t blink. Unless you’re Grey Knights, you either get an interesting Troop or a tough-as-nails Troop; never both without paying more than 30pts per model. You look around at other codices and a 2+ save on a Troop choice just doesn’t happen, which is why I wanted it. (Coming full circle;) A goal for this project was to stretch the limits of the 40k ruleset: look at the current rules and say “No, GW’s wrong. I can do it better.” Whether this happened as often as I’d like is another story, but that’s just more of the fleeting goals talk.

Lo: Tell me a little about the point costing process, please. You mentioned earlier that a balanced ‘dex was very important to you. How did you decide whether something was overcosted or incredibly cheap?  How often did you compare your result to other existing Codexes?

Lantz: Costing is an ever-changing process. Essentially I’ll create algorithms based off of units that already exist in 5th Edition (and if I absolutely have to, older editions.) I’ll take a unit and “reverse engineer” it by comparing it to another unit with similar traits as an anchor. If there isn’t two or more units similar to what I’m making I have to wing it by using previously made algorithms based on type (walker, MC, IC, etc.) As an example, a Walker’s Strength value is not equal to Infantry’s Strength value in points cost, not by a long shot. The same goes for Armour Value between transports and tanks, the AP on a blast weapon compared to a single-shot weapon and so on. For the most part I’ve gotten everything down to the decimals for stats, wargear and special rules. Whether this is how GW does it or not, I have no idea, but it has worked for me and with this last edition I’m proud to say not a single person has complained about the cost of a unit in the fandex.

Lo: —-Again with the balanced comment. Something I’ve noticed about GW Codexes is a strong ratio of bloat to balance, but the newer codexes do seem to be getting better. Do you feel you’ve avoided the bloat (or better described as “filler”)? If yes, how did you accomplish that?

Lantz: Necrons are my favorite race in the 40k universe and I’m very pleased with the new rulebook. I’ve shared my opinions on it in excruciating detail on my blog, so I’ll just leave it at, I feel this is the first great thing GW has done in a long time. Filler doesn’t exist in the Necron codex, save maybe Flayed Ones in other’s opinions, but I feel they still have a place. I previously thought there were some “bad” units in it, but the Necron codex is a complex puzzle to be unlocked. Those who can unlock its potential like the book, those that can’t will call it a horrible codex.

As far as my fandex goes I have no idea if I’ve solved the filler-issue. I do have a lot of units, but they’re all based around roles I wanted to fill, so my hope is nothing feels like filler. The Necron codex has certainly opened my eyes wider to the ways of rules design (even though the AdMech had the controlling-enemy-vehicles rule months before the Necrons =P) and I hope I can modify the fandex further to get the kind of combo/Warmachine feel to list building that the Necron codex has. It’s a very inspiring book, though it hurts a little to speak in high regard to Matt Ward.

Here’s the best part about balance- it appears to apply to every game genre. In talking with Von, he had the following to say, specifically regarding RPGs:

Von: Mechanics that bog down play by being obtuse and hard to parse are inherently awful.  Mechanics that force a game to be played in a particular way, a way that’s faithful to the game’s source material and cultural context, are inherently good but limit the game’s appeal.  Mechanics that allow a game to be played in whatever way the group feels like playing this week are inherently good but can lead to an unfocused potboiler game without any real resonance.  It all comes down to what kind of game experience people want.  I don’t think anyone wants to be sitting there for half an hour trying to work out the rules for triggering an attack of opportunity while initiating a grapple on someone who’s in the middle of casting a spell…

This might not seem as immediately about balance, but for RPGs, finding the appropriate balance between ‘structured and faithful’ or ‘free form and unlimited’ is a tough thing to do, especially with rulesets.

TheDude talked about a very specific imbalance in White Wolf’s D10 dice pool mechanic; which is both a balance concern AND a RANDOMIZER problem.

TheDude: The skill/stat system… the die pool system is flawed and always has been… it took them three, maybe four editions to get it to work somewhat close to right… but the idea of not marrying stats to just one skill, but adapating it as needed is brilliant…

For example… I have a character with STRENGTH 2, INT 4, DEX 3, and a climbing skill of 3…

If I want to figure out the best way up a mountain, then I could roll INT+Climb (7 dice), to determine it…

If I need to just climb, I add STR+Climb (5 Dice) and hope for the best…

If I hit an obstacle in the middle of a climb and need to work around it, then I could roll DEX+Climb (6 Dice) in order to overcome it wothout going splat…

One broad skill that’s brought into finer focus as NEEDED during play… That’s REALLY elegant…

The concept is VERY sound, but the math on their die pool system is wonky and almost sabotages the beauty of the whole idea…

This conversation got him talking about RANDOMIZERS, and he has exposure to some great stuff.

The Dude: The oddest and coolest randomizer I’ve heard of comes from an indie game called “Dread”…It uses a Jenga tower to resolve actions…To accomplish an action you make a number of pulls based on the difficulty of the action…
You make the pulls and keep the tower intact, you’re fine…
The tower falls, and your character dies…
The tower is reset, thus resetting the luck for the remaining characters…

The long and in-depth talk I had with Porky about randomness, chance and precision in dice made my head spin- but it really brought about some fantastic things to consider.

Porky:   I have a post on the D6 which covers a bit of my thinking.


Put simply, associations are made with particular actions, tactile objects and symbols, and not only in gaming of course. Some of these associations may be personal and private, but others are more universal and public. A designer may be saying something about his or her own expectations when a particular randomiser is chosen, but the choice could also be sending a signal about how the game should be played, or reinforcing the image of the game, or raising the bottom line. Maybe a studio uses one method to encourage a larger player base, or to seem innovative, or more adult, or to force players to spend more.

Choice of randomiser, and whether there even is one, is a core choice in game design, for the potential that flows from it.

Lo: Given your professed affinity for a D6, what are your thoughts on precision dice and the math behind GameScience’s creations?  Further discussion on this may be found here: 


Porky: I’d clarify that while I do like the D6 in general, it won’t always be the best tool for a specific task. The suggestion seems to be that the D6 could be badly made, and that’s reasonable, just because it is so ubiquitous and casual gamers might not mind a less balanced one, or even think about it, but there are degrees of precision in D6s too, and we could make the assumption that it would be a balanced one being used.

The variation in precision that’s potentially out there is something I think every gamer should be aware of, to be able to make an informed decision. That argument about preferring less balanced dice for their skewed frequencies is a reasonable one if the players know that’s what they have. I’m very glad there’s a precision option in a producer like GameScience, because we need as full a spectrum of options as possible, and access to a high level of rigour too, to keep the spectrum as a whole honest, and not only in gaming of course.

Of course, the randomizer doesn’t have to be a die- it could be cards, or hidden tiles, or one of Jeff Rients‘ famous tables/deck of awesome. It could be something different all together, that one of you out there is dreaming up.

That’s the best part of designing new things- it’s only limited by the purpose, intent and intellect behind those working at it.

We have discussed mechanics and how it affects a game to some extent. There’s a lot more that I haven’t shown you- but I will soon.

Next week, I’ll be talking about tone, and how it effects games and what happens in them. See you then!

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