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What Makes Mechanics Tick?

With this week’s post I want to take a closer look at the systems and rules used to define the terms of play in games. These are referred to as the Mechanics of the game. Good design pedagogy should take into consideration the purpose, ease of implementation, complexity, and “fun” of each mechanic in the game.

Purpose of Mechanics

This point is straightforward: without the rules of engagement there would not be much of a game for people to play. This being said, I have played many games that had mechanics that left me feeling like I was bookkeeping instead of keeping me in the game with interesting decisions. A lot of video games could easily be board games but would be bogged down by massive amounts of calculations and bookkeeping (darn near any 4x game you play, particularly turn based ones, would fall into this category). To prevent this from being a detraction, ask yourself if the mechanic you are adding to your game is necessary to achieve your goals and to diversify your game from others in the same categories. One of the easiest ways to ensure you are filling your chosen Gap is to have a unique mix of the mechanics or ensure they are interacting with each other in a unique fashion.

Ease of Implementation

I touched on this very briefly with the 4X example above: if you or your players spend more time maintaining the mechanics of the game than actually playing the game we probably need to look at the design a bit closer. When I create a new game, I tend to add in a ton of mechanics I like then play several test games to see what is sticking to the wall and what falls off. Whatever falls off should probably be left on the cutting room floor or radically redesigned. The real wins for me here are when a mechanic fulfills its purpose and feels seamless with the game play itself. Much of the core design in a game will likely be this way.

For example, each Deckbuilding game has some version of a market or method of getting cards from the table into your deck as a core identity to the genre. The how and when (cards purchased can immediately be used, generate resources then buy, buy/generate simultaneously) are easy examples of ensuring your game has a unique feel. Are those cards set (Dominion) or random (Cryptozoic’s deckbuilders, Legendary system)? However the system is designed, it is seamless in the game play and once the players perform a turn or two they no longer think about the phases and just do them.

Games with lots of components can look flashy and provide an opportunity for incredibly visual board states to serve as an attraction to the players. There is a definite niche for this style of game. In designing games I have found this to be at odds with the ease of implementation I strive for in my games. I mention this because it is important to always consider your target market and the style of games they will enjoy. If you feel it is thematically/systematically important to have complex systems in your game ensure there is as clean a method of tracking for the players as possible.

Sanctuary Saga’s original design had a Life Deck instead of a City Health tracker. The idea was originally for the city damage taken to trigger events and the citizenry to react. This would, hopefully, have made the story and setting come more alive on the board. In reality it was a very cumbersome mechanic that also added a ton of cards to a game that is already clocking in around 950 cards across 10 scenarios. It didn’t add to the play experience and was more bookkeeping for the players. The first major revision cut this entirely and there have been not attempts to add it back in.


Again: we have touched on this in a previous section briefly. Its almost like the mechanics of a game system are incredibly tight knit, right? This is more of a PSA on ensure you are delivering on what your players want from a “weight of the game” perspective. A game’s weight generally refers to how complicated the rules, systems, and flow of play the game has. A lot of my family can play light to medium games (Settlers of Catan base set is about perfect, with occasionally dipping into something a bit heavier). Several of my play groups can do super heavy games (we have completed several games of Twilight Imperium, 3rd edition) but tend to enjoy medium-heavy titles. Due to this, my designs strive to be approachable since I want my family to experience the games with enough complexity in the strategy to engage my gamer friends.

With this design goal in mind lets see how Sanctuary Saga stacks up in the Complexity category: The flow of play is each player, in turn, plays their entire hand (or specifically doesn’t play a card/s), using the skills and resources generated, then discards all cards from their play area and habnd into their discard pile, and draws back up to a full hand size. After all players go the Narrative Area goes, then dumps a few more cards onto the table. Counters are used to track information live and as players develop cards are either added or removed from their decks and counters are added to Guild Halls and Trade Routes. Decisions are made at key times: how and when to play cards in hand, what to buy, and prioritizing which Narrative cards to eliminate first. All board state information is face up and known to all players. Since the mechanics of the game are tracking all important information live and displaying it graphically, the game system itself is very approachable. If I’m doing my job correctly as a designer, the actual how-to-beat-the-game aspect can be much more complicated. The individual guild designs are also geared towards different player competencies and styles. This allows for the weight to be partially guild driven so players who appreciate more straightforward can play with those who want a deeper decision tree.

But is it “Fun”?

This is the hardest one in my opinion. This is mostly due to how subjective the term “fun” is but is key to a games success. You want players to be engaged and invested in the game the entire time. The Marketing sector has what I think is the best method of how to design with Fun in mind: Personas. Marketing professionals use these Personas, defined as an ideal customer construct created from market research and actual past customers, to inform their marketing plan. As game designers we should be doing the exact same thing.

As you are designing your game identify your target audience. Sanctuary Saga is for those who enjoy cooperative games at a medium-to-heave weight who may also be nostalgic about 90’s JRPGs (that last one is a bonus but isn’t necessary). The final piece I will add to this one is ensure you have a bountiful supply of playtesters from your chosen Persona.

That’s all I have for you this week! Comments have been added to the site so please discuss your thoughts below and let me know if you have any specific questions. I’m always open for future blog content. :D

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