A Prelude to My Top 10 Game Mechanics

As much as I wish my life revolved entirely around board games, it doesn’t. I, like you, have a family and a day job that take up the majority of my days. Speaking of day jobs, I work as a GIS Analyst at a civil engineering firm. One of my main responsibilities is converting and displaying roadway designs for various mediums. Humor me for a minute as I make a comparison between the roadways designs I help manage and game design. If you find yourself getting bored just do what I do and start skipping ahead to the meaty stuff.

Commuting, many of us do it, but few of us probably enjoy it. Next time you get on or off the freeway take a second to take in your surroundings. You can probably categorize what you see into one of two groups. Aesthetics or design. It may not be readily apparent but not all interchanges are created equal. Some feature lush vegetation and finely landscaped medians, while others may be….lacking said features. I think we could all agree a finely landscaped interchange is superior for visual appeal, but in the end not necessary. 

On the other hand you have the design of the intersection. From personal experience I feel safe to say that hours and hours are dedicated to collecting data, analyzing the data, designing, and redesigning a roadway concept before the construction ever begins. Getting a right design is of the absolute upmost importance. Worst case scenario; it is a poor design and it causes massive delays, or worse, an increasing number or accidents, meaning it will all have to be torn out and replaced in the very near future costing the taxpayers millions of dollars. Best case scenario; the design successfully alleviates traffic issues and leaves locals both impressed and excited for future projects. 

Board games also feature two main parts. The aesthetics and the mechanics. And just like roadways designs ideally you want both. But one definitely trumps the other if forced to close between them. I personally can think of a good number of visually unappealing games that I’ve enjoyed playing based solely on their mechanics, but very few games that were enjoyed despite being mechanically lacking while graphically stunning or thematically engaging. The mechanisms of a game design are the bones, the structure, upon which the rest of the design depends. A successful game will more often than not use a familiar groundwork but tweak it to make it unique and interesting. At this point I think it might be beneficial to list off some of the most common mechanisms currently found in popular game design along with a brief explanation. 


Area Control-

This one is pretty self explanatory. There are areas on a board and you want to control them. These types of games are often highly confrontational as players compete for regional dominance. Any war game could be considered an obvious example. A household name often associated with the mechanic is the classic game of Risk.


Card Drafting-

More often than not this mechanism is used to supplement a design rather than the entire driving force behind the game. Over a number of rounds cards are dealt out, and from which players only get to select a single card before passing the remainder of their cards to the player next to them. The process is repeated until players have a full hand of cards chosen one at a time. 7 Wonders is hands down the quintessential card drafting game out there.


Deck Building-

One of the biggest markets in the hobby is collectable card games. You buy tons of cards all in an effort to create the perfect deck for taking on your buddy. Deck building games look to replicate that experience inside the confines of a single box, in a single sitting. Players will continue to add cards to their starting deck, diversifying from their opponents as they go. I the end it will be the player who best combos their cards that wins. Dominion  was not only the first deck builder, but continues to be a favorite within the hobby.


Pick-Up and Deliver-

While this mechanism might sound more like a day job than a gaming term, it is basically what it sounds like. There are things that need to be moved across the map and player fight to be the most efficient at getting them there. Some might find it tedious, but others find it exhilarating. Train games like Steam are good examples of this mechanic. 


Press Your Luck-

This is by far one of the simplest mechanism one can include in their game design. But inversely it is probably one of the most divisive, players either enjoy it or they don’t. Typically either a deck of cards or a handful of dice is involved here. Players will decide whether they will settle with what they have or continue drawing cards/rolling their dice. A classic press you luck game is none other than Yahtzee. 


Set Collection-

This is another one of those mechanisms that definitely pairs well with a couple of other mechanisms. Players will see themselves collecting cards to create sets. With these they will try to score point or perform particular actions. I would feel silly if I didn’t use Ticket to Ride as my example for this one.


Worker Placement-

Worker placement is a restrictive form of action selection. A shared board will contain a number of locations, each with an action. Players take turns placing workers out onto the board taking these actions. The kicker is that normally only one player piece is allowed at each location, creating a lot of tension between players. The most well known game in the genre is the “feed you people” game of Agricola.


There are literally dozens of mechanisms listed on BGG. Back in February I did a quick dive into a handful of the most popular ones and shared a few suggestions for people interested in exploring them further. Now I think it would be fun to work my way through my favorite 10 mechanisms, 2 a week, sharing my favorite games that highlight or make exceptional use of the given mechanisms. So standby until next week when I go over my number 10 and number 9. Until then keep playing games, all of them.