Game Basics: Mechanics
Good Day Internet!
As promised, today we’ll take a look at the importance of mechanics in board game design. To start off, I’m going to give a more technical definition of mechanics for those who are that way inclined.
The technical definition of a game mechanic is a set of actions that form a rule. It should be clear that game mechanics should also progress gameplay in some way. For example, the rule 'roll a die' entails the actions of picking up a die, shaking it up in your hand. and tossing it on the table. The 'roll a die' rule sums up of all those actions into a single game mechanic and the result will equate to a further action/forwardness in gameplay.
'Taking turns' is also technically a game mechanic. It’s the action of ending your turn and letting someone else go as defined by a rule (progressing gameplay by allowing it to continue). If you think about it, there are many different ways to 'take turns'. Play could pass to the left, the winner of the last round could go next, players could take simultaneous turns, or play could pass to the next player by some other rule. As you can see, there is a lot of variety in even the most simple game mechanics.
If you want to dive further into simple game mechanics I highly recommend Rym DeCoster's "Mastering Game Mechanics" on Youtube (I may have slightly adapted their definition of mechanics for the purpose of this blog post).
Personally though, I think that's enough of that, so let's move on to the more general definition and discussion.
Put simply, game mechanics are your 'how'. It’s what you are allowed/required to do and when. It is also the restrictions you will put on the players as they try to achieve their goal. Those restrictions are defining what players may do and the paths they may take. In other words, it tells players what options are available to them and it's up to them to determine how to use those mechanics to achieve victory. Based on that, It should be pretty clear to see that your mechanics are going to determine whether or not your game is playable (can you play from start to finish in a reasonable amount of time?). It's also going to determine if you've made a game, or a set script because your mechanics are too restrictive or lead to one clear best path (making all other paths not worth exploring).
When starting to design your game, start with only the main mechanics, or core mechanics, required to play the game. For instance, if you were designing King of Tokyo, your core mechanic would be the press your luck dice mechanism. If you think about it, that only allows you to do 4 things: gain victory points, gain energy, gain health, or attack. In the very beginning of designing, you'd probably only have attacking and gaining victory points because that's all you need to ensure the game can be played from start to finish in a reasonable amount of time (aka playable). If we apply the same principles to your first design, you're going to have to cut down on some of the more "creative" mechanics you want to include in your game. Chances are those mechanics are too complicated, too much of a hassle, or won't work anyway (sorry amigos). This will ensure that your game is playable and will allow you to be able to work out a lot of the kinks that would be too hidden if you had everything else you wanted to include in your game. It will also give your game direction, which is very important, and allows you to build out from a solid, working base.
The last thing I want to talk about in some detail is the intricacies of simple mechanics, since their importance doesn't get as much attention as they should. They are called simple, so it's easy to assume you know how they work (I thought the same). The way I'm going to go about this is by going through an example of a basic game mechanic decision for a simple card game and then show how that would effect gameplay.
The game mechanic decision we'll look at is 'play one draw one' versus 'draw one play one'. In 'play one draw one', players already know what they want to do when it comes to their turn. They also have ample time after drawing a card at the end of their turn to determine what to do next. In 'draw one play one', that new card drawn at the start of the turn may change what they want to do and slow down gameplay. This causes actual and perceived play time to really suffer and may have a huge effect on players' enjoyment of your game. However, 'draw one play one' usually works nicely in take that games because it gives a player who has been attacked the ability to do something, anything on their turn (and perhaps even retaliate).
This example is pretty simple, but it's also something that casual playtesters (which is the majority of playtesters you'll originally play your game with) are probably not going to be able to identify and point out to you. So take it easy and take the time to figure out how to get simple mechanics to work, as well as work together, in a game before going crazy with everything else. It will help you to recognize what will work and what won't without having to play it a bunch times. This will save you time, headaches and make you a better designer.
That's it for this time. Next post, we’ll take a look at theme and mechanics together and which one you need to focus on most when you start to design your game.
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Board game designer and developer discussing the ins and outs of game design.