When I first started getting into board gaming, one of the first questions I had was what mechanics are? It was a term that I heard quite frequently, and while I could probably assume its meaning from its context, I wanted to make sure that I had its purpose correct. While the purpose was reasonably easy to determine, there's a little more depth to it that it would seem.
The mechanics of a board game are the engine that drives a game forward. They are the systems in place that are used to provide the gears of the game - in combination with the theme, story, and components - to form the gameplay of a game. Mechanics are the technical aspect of the game. They are the numbers, the systems, the machine of a game. Mechanics are one of the elements of a game that many gamers choose their game based on.
The Engine of a Game
Depending on how granular you want to get, there are many different types of mechanics, offering you a range of gameplay options. When considering mechanics, you can look at something as simple as dice or card games and say that that is the mechanics of the game. But that would put poker in the same category as Magic: The Gathering, which is misleading, to say the least.
Many games also use multiple different types of mechanics, further making it difficult to say what category a game falls into. Even simple games such as King of Tokyo - mainly a dice-rolling game - has elements of card drafting and area control. If you take each implementation of mechanics that a game uses, very few games could be said to be the exact same.
Despite this, I find that there are a lot of gamers that choose their games based on the mechanics that a game uses. While liking a particular mechanic can help you find other games you’re interested in, it shouldn’t be the sole metric by which you choose your games.
Implementation of mechanics
One problem with choosing your games based explicitly on mechanic is that the implementation of a mechanic can vary from one game to the next. For instance, Age of War is a simple dice-rolling and set-collection game. This game uses die rolling to capture cards to build sets. Ticket to Ride is another game that implements set collection, but you collect sets in this game by drawing cards. I don’t know anyone that would say the two games are very similar at all, even though they use the same mechanic.
Mechanics can also differ on the way they’re implemented based on the nature of the mechanic itself. For instance, action selection is a prevalent mechanic that allows you to choose which action you take on your turn. Other than the mere act of making a choice, there isn’t much similarity between games. I don’t think anyone would say that Pandemic and Smiths of Winterforge are similar games, even though they use action selection as one of their mechanics.
The way a mechanic is implemented is often determined by its theme, which provides bounds and context for the mechanic.
Theme vs. Mechanics
Theme and mechanics are often compared as a spectrum. Games with good theming but horrible gameplay are on one end, while games with no theme - which some would call abstract games, but that isn’t necessarily true - are at the other end. The two are often more connected than this comparison would make it seem.
Theme provides context for mechanics, and its possible to have games with beautifully developed themes that have precise, fluid, intuitive mechanics that drive the game. The False Dichotemy - an article by Mark Major on The League of Gamemakers - argues that theme and mechanics - along with other elements - come together to form the context of the game. This context is what is unique among games, and is actually unique among each playthrough of the game, especially when played by different people.
Though Mark’s article is mainly discussing the development of board games, I think it is also applicable to players, too. That being said, what role does the theme have in a board game?
The purpose of a theme
There quite a few games out there that merely have a theme slapped on top of the idea for a game. These games often feel disconnected from the theme. Any theme could have been applied to the game, and it wouldn’t have changed how the game plays.
This methodology is why you see so many different versions of monopoly. While these may have minor tweaks to the way the game plays, the theme isn’t connected to the mechanics of the game.
The point of the theme is to provide a connection between the story the players are following and the game. It helps keep people engaged, supports the appeal of the game to the audience, and provides a reason for the mechanics. I believe that this last point is the one most often overlooked in many games that have great themes but don’t seem to connect to the mechanics.
Connecting the theme to the mechanics
Mechanics implemented for no other reason than that’s what the designer had in mind - in my opinion - don’t feel complete. Does that mean they are bad games? Absolutely not! But having a distinct connection between what you do and why you do it provides a more engaging experience. It takes your gameplay to the next level.
Pandemic is one of my favorite games, and I think it has a great connection between the mechanics and the theme. Especially when you add the In the Lab expansion, this game gives you a good sense of trying to fight off diseases. The actions you’re given do an exceptional job of mimicking the real world in the way you work toward curing a disease.
If you haven’t played the game before - or haven’t played it with the In the Lab expansion, here’s how the game works. Everyone can take the same actions, but the role you play gives you a specific advantage in certain areas. Using the In the Lab expansion, you change the game from collecting sets to turn in to cure the disease and instead have to develop the cure by going through the different stages of development. An absolutely fantastic connection between the actions you take and the reasons for taking those actions. I especially like the mechanic of the disease spreading, which is very similar to how it happens IRL.
Types of Mechanics
In case you’re wondering about the mechanics of the games I’ve mentioned so far, let me give you some more information on them. Please keep in mind what I said earlier that mechanics have different ways of being implemented, and there are many more mechanics in the games than what I’m going to be discussing here. I’ll offer examples of games that use each mechanic to give you an idea of how they play.
Card drafting involves drawing cards from a pool, a deck or some other repository that is shared among players. What is unique about card drafting is that you build your deck in real-time - as opposed to building your deck before you play, such as in Magic.
This mechanic is used frequently in games to help provide variety and a bit of randomness to how the game plays. You have to strategize with which cards you draft to make sure that they complement your overall strategy. Often times, you’re able to draft cards that follow another mechanic, allowing you to customize how you play through the game.
For example, in Marvel: Legendary you draft heroes from a pool that the game calls headquarters. Each hero has a different way of playing - such as drawing more cards, multiplying your attack strength, or even healing - and you draft heroes to your deck to help complement how you want your deck to play. The game is incredibly fun, and often times you go head-to-head against other players to draft the style of play you think will give you the best deck. That being said, the game is cooperative, so you have to work together to defeat the mastermind and emerge victoriously.
Area control games usually have limited areas on a map that you are competing for against different players. The reasons for controlling the areas are varied depending on the type of game you’re playing, but the general purpose is to pit you against your opponents to win the game.
Area control is a commonly used mechanic that goes back to games like Risk, but also more modern games like Smallworld. The premise of Smallworld is that you are living with other races in a world that is too small to fit everyone, leading you to fight for survival against the other races. You also have different abilities that will vary from game to game that can end up with pretty comical combinations - such as the diplomatic orcs. This game is a lot of fun and is a great example of an area control game.
Action selection - A.K.A Action-point allowance system
This one is pretty straightforward. You get to choose what you do on your turn from a set of predefined actions. Not all actions may not be available to you at any given time, but you usually have multiple choices that you can choose.
As mentioned earlier, Pandemic is a game that allows you to select various actions. The number of actions you have is quite varied, but you have to figure out if it’s better for you to move or stay in the area you’re in. Should you treat the disease(s) in your area of the board, or should you jet over to another continent to help prevent an epidemic? The game is cooperative and can be incredibly difficult to beat if you play on the harder difficulty.
This mechanic involves you collecting sets of something - usually cards - to either take other actions in the game or to award you victory points. This mechanic is generally combined with different mechanics - such as card drafting in Ticket to Ride or dice-rolling as in Age of War.
In Ticket to Ride, you draft cards from a set of five face-up cards or from a deck of face-down cards. You’re collecting rail cards of different colors to allow you to claim a route to attempt to complete route tickets to earn points. This game can be quite entertaining to play with 3+ as there’s more conflict between players when someone claims that critical route you need to complete your ticket.
Age of war uses dice-rolling to try to capture cards. You're trying to conquer multiple cards from the same clan to form sets. Each card or card set you obtain gives you victory points that can help you win the game. This one is an incredibly fun, quick game that you can usually bust out in about 15-20 minutes if you play with people that can roll and make decisions quickly. Plus, the game is also only seven dice and fourteen cards, so it is easily transportable and well worth the small cost of the game.
Mechanics are what drives a game forward. They provide the engine for the game that provides the what for the things you do in a game. A theme helps to connect the mechanics to the game by creating the why for what you do. There are a lot of mechanics out there, and many games implement them differently enough that even though games have the same mechanic, you wouldn’t say that the games are similar. If you like a particular mechanic, it can help you find other games you might want, but that shouldn’t be your only deciding factor.
Please comment below and join the conversation. Do you still have questions about mechanics? Please let me know, and I’ll try my best to answer them. Do you feel that mechanics feel the same regardless of the game? Do you think that theme and mechanics don’t rely so heavily on each other? I’d love to hear from you!
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