Board Game Mechanics 101: An Introduction To Core Gaming Mechanics
Board game mechanics. As we play games the mechanics form the framework around which the game is played. They can make or break a game, they can make something feel stale or they can make it feel innovative and new.
“Game mechanics are constructs of rules or methods designed for interaction with the game state, thus providing gameplay.” (Wikipedia)
Well, with the UK Games Expo just a couple of days away, it is time to talk about some of the core mechanics in gaming. It is time to talk about some of the things that make the games we love, that bring them to life and turn them into more than simple cardboard. Yes, today, dear reader, we are going to look at gaming mechanics in some detail as we run down to the UKGE. It is time for our lesson – welcome to Board Game Mechanics 101: An Introduction to Core Gaming Mechanics.
In this article we are going to look at some of the best known, as well as some of the least known, board game mechanics. We are going to look at what makes them unique, as well as see a few examples of them at work. These are in alphabetical order, and not by order of importance.
Board Game Mechanics 101: An Introduction To Core Gaming Mechanics
Area Control, also known as Area Influence, is a mechanic based around the notion that physical board real estate is valuable. Usually denoted by miniatures, units, or power, Area Control is a mechanic popular in all genres and styles of games. Area Control plays a large part in several well known games, including Diplomacy and Scrabble; however, it is probably best known in Risk wherein players battle for dominance over the continents of the world.
In recent years, Area Control has become a core mechanic of both Eurogames and Ameritrash/American style games. Such notable designers include Eric M. Lang (for his games Rising Sun and Blood Rage), Jamey Stegmaier (for his game Scythe) and Klaus-Jürgen Wrede (for Carcassonne).
Auctioning and Bidding
Auctioning and bidding is a core mechanic in several games, both as a primary and secondary tool within the game, where players bid resources for other in-game bonuses. It can be used in several ways from bartering over physical goods, like in the official Monopoly rules if someone decides not to purchase a property. It could be bidding for first position like in Five Tribes where players trade cash for prominence within the game, or in Power Grid where players bid for the power stations they control. Finally, there are games with straight up bidding like in Fine Art where the whole game is an auction.
Auctioning and Bidding is a versatile mechanic, and one which works well across all kinds of games.
Card Drafting literally means to bring a card into play or into your hand, and is one of my favourite mechanics in any game. Card Drafting is where each player will be dealt a hand, they choose one card, and then they pass their hand on to the next player, receiving a new hand from a player passing them their old hand minus, of course, one card. The players will then choose another card from this new hand, before passing it on. All the while they are building their own hand. Alternatively, a player may pick a card and play it right away. Get the next hand, choose a card, and play it right away etc.
Card Drafting is a style of play popular in Collectable Card Games when players want to remove the meta from the game. It has also reached the mainstream as core parts to the card/board games 7 Wonders and Sushi Go. Finally, it is being used in other games, not based around Card Drafting but where Card Drafting plays a part, like in the “Gifts from the Gods” phase in Blood Rage.
For years and years, board games use to pitch players against each other – player vs player. Then, mechanics were introduced that allowed the game to have some say itself over the outcome of the game. Thus co-operative play was born, and players were allowed to team up with one another like they would do in any Role Playing Game like Dungeons and Dragons, only on the board instead.
There are three categories of Co-operative Play – Co-operative, Semi-Co-operative, and Partnerships. Co-operative games have all the players working towards a common goal like in the Pandemic series or in a game like Magic Maze. Semi Co-operative has the players mostly working together, with one player not working with the rest like in Dead of Winter: The Long Night or Betrayal at House on the Hill where certain players can be traitors. Finally, Partnerships see the players split into two teams pitted against each other like in Captain Sonar or Codenames.
Like quite a few mechanics in this list, Deck Building is both a mechanic and genre of game. In a Deck Building game you are looking to create a deck and manage it to either best a scenario or best another player. What Deck Building includes is finding synergy between cards, finding when is the best time to play a specific card, and how to defeat your opponent or a scenario with the cards that are in your hand.
There are several different games that include Deck Building, including a few obvious ones that are either Collectable Card Games (CCGs) or Living Card Games (LCGs). Names amongst the ranks of such Deck Building games include Magic: The Gathering, Star Wars: Destiny, and A Game of Thrones: LCG. That being said, there are other games where decks are used, can be built on and optimised within the game itself. This includes the Legendary series of Deck Building games, and in games like Gloomhaven and Mage Knight decks are built to make the most out of each player.
Dice Rolling is a somewhat broad name for a mechanic. Lots of games include dice for some reason or other. This tends to be either to add in a certain aspect of randomness (like in Top Hats and Treachery or various wargames/adventure to denote whether something hits or misses etc.) or it can be to sway a game in the means of probability. There are several key Eurogames that use dice as a mechanic, such as Catan and Castles of Burgundy; however, there are also games where Dice Rolling is the main mechanic.
Such games, where dice is a main mechanic, include the likes of the world famous Yahtzee and the board game hit sensation King of Tokyo. In such games, rolling the dice is the difference between life and death, and players are encouraged to play the odds of the game. They are allowed rerolls, and must try to get the best possible result for their individual situation.
Drawing is usually a mechanic employed for comedic purposes, and is part of a wider form of party game. Drawing, it may come as no surprise, requires players to draw things for other players to interpret. There isn’t a huge amount to say about this one other than such games include Scrawl and A Fake Artist Goes To New York.
Grid Movement is a mechanic that is almost as old as gaming itself. It has been made popular by games such as Chess in the past, but, like with a lot of board game mechanics, it has surpassed the realms of what it was into something new and improved in the modern era of gaming.
Grid Movement is no longer just something that applies to abstract strategy games. Several games used it, including the miniaturised version of Dungeons and Dragons as well as dungeon crawlers like Descent and Gloomhaven to denote how far a character should be able to move. Of course, it is still a mechanic that is used in strategy games as well, with the likes of Onitama, but its presence also surpasses that genre of games into the RPG style game market.
Grid Movement can be used to as a board game mechanic for distance purposes, or to denote movement style. Either way it is a strategic mechanic used to make the most out of how two (or more) sides interact with one another on the board.
Out of all the most game mechanics, Hand Management is one of the most common. When playing a game involving cards, Hand Management is the mechanic (and the art) of knowing what to play and when. It is knowing how to keep your hand to the right size, and what everything in your hand means for both you and your game. It is a mechanic that has prevailed in popularity, and is one of the most used across all board/card games.
Hand Management can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. These, generally speaking, however, fall into two categories. Hand management can be used for aggressive play – trying to beat your opponent as one such example within CCGs and LCGs, or it can be used to manage resources. The former one of these we have already kind of covered under Deck Building. The latter, however, is arguably the more common, being used in games like Ticket to Ride, Catan, Twilight Imperium (where your hand comprises of a unique resource of political favours) and Terraforming Mars. In these games, the cards either allow you to do things if played at certain points or act as the resources you trade in for points in the game. For instance, a route in Ticket to Ride may need three orange carriages and an engine. You so happen to have three orange carriages and an engine, so you trade them in and build your route.
A Modular Board is a board that changes every time you play. It is usually a board made up of different tiles or scenario aspects, and this can change between games to provide a unique experience every time the game is played.
The Modular Board mechanic is one of the easiest to explain, as it is essentially saying: “You see how the board is set up now? Well, next time it may not be set up that way.” It is a mechanic that can be used in either a preordained way, with the board set out to meet specific mission criteria in an RPG (like in Star Wars: Imperial Assault or in Gloomhaven) or the board may be randomised each time the game is played to add variety and replayability to the game. Such is the case with Catan and Kingdom Builder. Finally, the Tile Placement mechanic, which will be mentioned further on down this article, is a form of Modular Board, but one where the board is built as the game progresses.
Pattern Recognition is one of the most unusual mechanics in the board gaming world, and yet it dates back to well before the board game renaissance. Pattern Recognition is one of the first mechanics to be used in children’s games (Snap for instance) where the goal is to find things that are the same. Since then, however, it has moved onto image interpretation which is a far more difficult skill to refine. Games like Dixit and Mysterium haven taken it to a whole new level.
Pattern Recognition is a highly artistic mechanic. It requires one player to interpret an image one way, only to hope that other players will interpret it in the same way. This makes it a social mechanic, as well as a mechanic with a lot of scope. In my opinion, Mysterium champions the genre. It requires a player to guide other players through a series of murder mysteries by using abstract images to guide their choices within the game. It is tense and enthralling, showing how effective Pattern Recognition can be when used to its fullest potential.
Pick-Up and Deliver
Although rarely a core mechanic in its own right, the Pick-Up and Deliver style of play is often a supporting mechanic within a game. It is a game where a player needs to transport an item, location cards for instance in a game like Pandemic from one place to another, or from one player to another. Quite often it is to collect and move the core objectives of the game from one place to another, whilst racing against time, like moving trophies in Forbidden Island, or it can be to collect objectives together as a group.
The Pick-Up and Deliver mechanic often uses teams in a race against the game; however, it can be a race against one another, like in games like Multiuniversum where players aim to deliver their own criteria to specific spots around the board to collect as many of their own objective as possible.
A mechanic that is certainly not for everyone, Player Elimination is exactly what it sounds like. It is knocking a player out of the game when they have run out of a specific resource – whether that is health (King of Tokyo), Influence (Coup), or money (Monopoly). Games with Player Elimination tend to have shorter play times due to how rubbish and uninclusive it is if someone is knocked out of a three hour game (*cough*Monopoly*cough*).
In the modern board game era, Player Elimination is not a hugely popular mechanic apart from in smaller games. That being said, there are a few good uses of it available on the market. It works well with King of Tokyo as mentioned before. It also works with games like Coup and Tsuro. Miniature games also have a Player Elimination aspect, but that is the nature of the genre. Miniature games wouldn’t work without it.
Much like with Grid Movement, Point-to-Point Movement is about how a player gets around a board; however, unlike with Grid Movement the player is not confined to how far they move on a grid. Instead, the player is usually confined by a series of locations on a board or map. Point-to-Point Movement is a movement style that has become increasingly popular in games where there are different locations; however, the locations are more symbolic than literal. You are in the sewer, for instance, and in Grid Movement you may need to map the whole sewer. Instead, Point-to-Point Movement takes the idea that you are in a sewer as more of a concept. You don’t need to know your enemies are two feet in front of you, just that they are also in the sewer etc.
That was a bit of a sewer infested ramble, but the point stands. Point-to-Point Movement uses specific locations, rather than detailed breakdowns for its locations. Games that use it well include the whole Pandemic series, Concordia, and, of course, Eldritch Horror by Fantasy Flight.
Push Your Luck
Push Your Luck is usually a type of dice mechanic; however, it can be done with cards and some types of in-game resource as well. What Push Your Luck is, is a mechanic in which you roll dice, or flip a card, and you are after a specific result. What you can do is keep rolling dice or flipping card, increasing your odds of the results you want – however, if it doesn’t go right then it can leave you worse off. One of the simplest ways of thinking about Push Your Luck is like twisting or sticking in Blackjack. You either reach 21, or you go bust.
The same is the case with games like King of Tokyo, Zombie Dice, Trophy Buck, and Age of War where players can roll dice either until they run out of dice or a set number of times, to try and achieve the results they want. Taking Age of War as an example, you need set results; however, if you run out of dice before you get what you are going for then you get nothing. Alternatively, the same Push Your Luck mechanic can be used in games with cards as well. It pops up as a mechanic in Gloomhaven with rolling modifiers, where rolling modifier cards can keep going so long as the modifier is on the card.
Once again, Real Time, like with a few examples on this list, is not so much a mechanic as a full-blown genre in its own right. Real Time games are games that exist how we do. Turns are simultaneous, can be timed, and they tend to be more chaotic. Players are not allowed to contemplate their turn for ages because the whole game is live. You need to move with the flow.
Real Time games often incorporate either co-operative play or partnerships. Examples include Captain Sonar which is a submarine simulator, pitting two teams against one another in a live game of Battleships. Space Alert sees players running a spaceship and needing to fend off alien attackers to survive in deep space. Magic Maze is a chaotic abstract game in which players work together getting pawns to a specific point in an unknown map before getting them off the map again. They are all complete chaos, but that is the benefit of the Real Time game. They stop turns taking forever and force games to be played in the moment.
Route Building is kind of exactly what it sounds like. It is trying to connect point A and point B within a game. This may be the overall objective, like in Ticket to Ride, or it may be a singular route to victory like in the case of the roads in Catan.
Route Building is a popular mechanic in Eurogames in particular. It is now considered something of a classic, thanks to the number of awesome and highly rated games that use it. It is a mechanic that helps build up a game, as well as a mechanic that can hold a game by itself. Other notable examples include Power Grid, Terra Mystica, and Tsuro, spanning genres and game shelves across the world.
Do you remember playing Happy Families as a kid, or wanting to collect a full row of houses in Monopoly? Those there are examples of set collecting. Once again, Set Collecting is a mechanic that is almost as old as gaming itself, however, it has come on a long way since those days. Now set collecting can be of all kinds of things, even though it is always the same concept – collecting a set of something.
It could be resources, it could be enemies, it could be achievements. You may need three of a kind of something, or four of a kind, or five of a kind. You may need what you have to build something, or you may be using your collections as trophies. Whatever it is you are collecting, Set Collecting is a core mechanic in quite a few board games. Key examples include collecting carriages in Ticket to Ride to build routes, or it may be collecting Draugar in Champions of Midgard to gain end-game points. Whatever it is, Set Collecting is a quintessential mechanic of the board game revolution.
One of the more creative mechanics, Story Telling is akin to roleplaying as a board game art. It is a mechanic that relies on the player to tell stories based on a few small hints, carrying on the tale, and placing the enjoyment of the game in the players’ hands.
Story Telling often requires quite a mentally intensive investment form the player as they think of the next part to the story; however, it can also result in some of the funniest gaming experiences you will ever have. Playing a game like Gloom and having to explain how your family member was “Pursued by Poodles”. Or, playing Bucket of Doom and having to tell the story of how you escaped a swarm of killer bees with just a sheet of paper. It’s a great mechanic; however, it is not for everyone. If you don’t enjoy light games that require quite the player investment then it may not be for you.
Also known as Social Deception games, Social Deduction is a party game mechanic wherein someone is hiding something from their fellow players, and everyone else has to work out who and/or what.
Social Deduction, as a genre, has helped revolutionise the party game world. It is an incredibly social (kind of in the name) gaming style as it encourages questioning, interrogating, and generally conversing. It also includes deception, deduction (also in the name), and trying to deliver a sustainable argument as to why you are not the one hiding anything. There are so many great games in this one genre of gaming, including Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, Spyfall, The Resistance, and Secret Hitler. Each has their own style, and each is worth playing.
Anyway, this is not a blog promoting one mechanic over another, apart from when it is. So let’s move on.
As well as being a British band from the mid-1990s and again in the mid-2000s, Take That is a mechanic that gives you carte blanche to be aggressive to one another. It is a confrontational style of gaming mechanic, where you are not only trying to put yourself in a better position, but you are also trying your hardest to put everyone else down. Take That is a way of reducing your opponent’s standing, whilst pushing yourself up the scoring tables.
Take That games aren’t a bad thing. They can be hugely entertaining, with entries such as Munchkin championing the mechanic. There are a lot of games that use the Take That mechanic, although none are quite so pure as the Munchkin series, that are, in turn, a huge amount of fun. Other names include Gloom, Top Hats and Treachery, Lords of Waterdeep (with the intrigue cards) and even world-famous CCGs like Magic: The Gathering. It is a basic mechanic, but it is mighty.
We kind of covered this earlier when we talked about Modular Boards; however, one mechanic that is very similar (and a subsect) of Modular Boards is Tile Placement.
Tile Placement comes in two forms. The first is the idea that a board is not fully set up at the start of the game and it is up to the players to explore it fully. This is the case with games like Carcassonne and Betrayal at House on the Hill, where it is down to players to build the game (in a way) as they play.
The other way that Tile Placement is used is to help modify a board or bring parts of a board into play. In games like Terraforming Mars, tiles are laid on Mars to show that it is indeed being terraformed. In games like Castles of Burgundy, it is down to the player to build their Burgundy estate from the ground up. To show progression tiles are placed on the estate each round with their own special abilities. It is a versatile mechanic.
At last, after almost 4000 words in one article and almost three hours of writing, we are down to the end of our list, and we end with one of my all-time favourite mechanics. Yes, let’s talk about Worker Placement.
Worker Placement is a mechanic in which the players all control small amounts of workers. Each turn they need to send those workers (whatever they may be) out onto the board to fulfill several different types of actions. Those actions vary from game to game; however, the general concept is the workers allow you to act within the game, to gather resources, and help add content or narrative to the Worker Placement game.
The results vary – so for instance, in Viticulture (a game about making wine), the workers can be sent out to purchase seeds, plant vines, harvest grapes, make grapes, and fill orders. In Lords of Waterdeep, the players are all patrons of adventurers, so they can hire thieves, mages, warriors, and clerics to go on missions and gain victory points. In Stone Age, your workers are your tribe. You need to help them grow, build huts, mine, and learn agriculture. The list goes on and on and on.
Worker Placement games are open to the world. They can be of any theme, and they can be as light or heavy as you like. They come in all shapes and sizes, and what is more they are really really fun.
Board Game Mechanics 101: An Introduction To Core Gaming Mechanics
Wow, this has been a really long article, and I thank you for bearing with this twenty-minute read if you have read the whole thing. This is by no means an extensive list of mechanics, but I just wanted to give a brief run through of a few core mechanics that we often find on our gaming table.
As I have mentioned before, I wrote this because it is the UKGE in just a couple of days time and I, for one, am super excited. It should be a great few days, so I wanted to honour the occasion with an article every day this week looking at some of the broader aspects of gaming.
After writing this though, I am now going to have a long cup of tea.
Please let me know what your favourite mechanics are in the comments below? Are there any you have strong feelings about? If so then let’s chat.