Boardgame Basics: Game Mechanics

In the last entry of this series, I discussed Theme and Setting, which addresses what I call the “fluff” of a game. It’s fluff mainly because while it’s nice to know, and it may even make the game a more immersive experience, it doesn’t directly address the nuts and bolts about how you’re actually going to play the game. These nuts and bolts, the “moving parts” of a game, are generally referred to as the game’s mechanics.

Just to give you a frame of reference, let’s go back and again use Monopoly as an example to illustrate what I mean. So, how do you play? First of all, on every turn, you roll the dice and move that many spaces. We call that a “roll and move” mechanic. You try to collect properties of the Monopoly2same color (a “set collection” mechanic), so that you can make others pay a lot of money when they land on them. You can make trades with other players (yep, you guessed it, a “trading” mechanic) and you even hold auctions for unpurchased properties (an “auction” mechanic).

In most modern boardgames, efficiency in the mechanics of the game is a hallmark of a good design. Because, for me and many other boardgaming enthusiasts, that’s where Monopoly and most other traditional family games fall down. When you have to depend on the total luck of a roll of the dice to determine your movement for a turn, you can quickly become frustrated because you never seem to get what you want. And when you get there, there are no interesting decisions to make either; you either buy the property or pay rent on it. And because the only way to end the game is to be the last one standing, games can drag on for hours with you as a player having little control over the course of how it goes.

On the other hand, I look for games that incorporate mechanics to do the following:

  • provide interesting and meaningful decisions that impact the outcome of the game
  • strike an appropriate balance between luck and skill (which I’ll talk about in the next part of this series)
  • allow for multple strategies that I can explore through repeated plays of the game
  • keep all of the players involved and interested until the end of the game
  • have a clearly-defined end and last an appropriate amount of time

With the innovation and variety of game design over the last decade or so, it would be impossible to list all of the different game mechanics out there, but I’ll leave you with a short list of some of the most commonly used ones, as well as a few examples of each:

Action Selection – Players choose from a predetermined set of available actions, which each give different abilities for that turn; Citadels, Puerto Rico, Pandemic

Area Majority – players place influence in various regions on a map board that are scored based on who has the majority in each; China, Mission: Red Planet, El Grande

Auction – players compete in an incremental bid for various resources; For Sale, Ra, Metropolys, The Princes of Florence

Cooperation – players work together to defeat the game; Pandemic, Shadows Over Camelot, Ghost Stories

Hand Management – players make the best use of a set of cards or tiles randomly dealt to them; 1960: The Making of the President, BattleLore, Race for the Galaxy

Press Your Luck – players decide how long to stay in the action, each round risking the chance for disaster; Cloud 9, Diamant, Ra

Resource Management – players must balance the use of various in-game resources to achieve goals; The Settlers of Catan, The Princes of Florence, The Pillars of the Earth

Set Collection – Players attempt to collect a set of items, either for later use or as a victory condition; Ticket to Ride, Zooloretto, Ra

Tile Laying – the placing of tiles or other game pieces to achieve a spatial advantage; Arkadia, Metropolys, Carcassonne, Blokus

Worker Placement – Players claim actions or opportunities in turn using a limited number of tokens or “workers”; Tribune, Agricola, The Pillars of the Earth, Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar

Next time, I’ll go more in depth about the role and balance of luck in boardgames

For more information and exploration of Game Mechanics, you can also check out Episode 11 and 12 of my podcast, Exploring Games.

Boardgame Basics

Part 1: An Introduction to Modern Boardgames
Part 2: Game Categories
Part 3: Theme and Setting
Part 4: Game Mechanics
Part 5: The Role of Luck in Games
Part 6: Conflict and Competition


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