What’s In a Mechanic?

I’ve been thinking about game mechanics and tactics-heavy game design.  In this, I’ve consulted boardgamegeek.com which happens to have a page that sorts games by mechanics.  I disagree with them on some calls of what counts as a ‘mechanic,’ but its interesting to look at.

Here’s a link:


Some seem useless except in the most map-driven, war-game style play, which is something I’d like to get away from and enter a more streamlined, yet intense form of resolution.  So things like “Area-Movement,” and “Hex-Rails” are right out.  On the other hand, a lot of things on the list are taken for granted:  “Acting,” “Role-playing,” and even “Variable Player Powers.”

Unfortunatley every thing else is so vague and wide open that it’s of little use.  ‘Dice-Rolling’ is one mechanic.

So, I have to turn to my own imagination.  What makes a good mechanic in a board game?  How can I turn this into a good rpg mechanic?

Abstract strategy is right out.  Chess and anything like it, including more modern games like Torres take too long, and there’s too much of a disconnect.  I can handle something like rock paper sissors or a d6 roll ‘simulating’ something, but a 5 minute or more game of moving peices around is too darn much.

Card play, especially with simultaneous picking and revealing, is perhaps my favorite board game mechanic, although readers of this blog will know some of the difficulties I’ve run into.  The design hurdle here is huge: one has to come up with all the cards for everything.

Trick Taking, a subset of the above, offers opportunities for intuition and limited control, but lends itself more to a ‘parlor narration sytle game’ than anything else, and requires more than two participants for satisfactory results.

Wargames are horribly horribly overdone; D&D is a classic example of the modernized, streamlined, squad-level wargame presented as RPG.

Auctions and Bidding have potential, but auctions between two people are difficult, and I believe many current auction games suffer from lack of currency options.  What do you get for saving your currency?  The current incarnation of Shattered Vistas has this problem: the question is not ‘do I spend my points,’ but ‘how fast do I spend them?’

Action Point management has some potential.  It’s present in its most basic form: in D&D (and many other games) you basically get 2 action points, and anything costs one or two points to do.  Wushu’s at the other extreme: you have lots of actions, but only two options.  The trick here is to up the AP number, and allow for more complicated choices.  HOWEVER- I’m not sure how this can be used as a unified resoltuion mechanic.  Its definetly part of a larger conflict method.

Resource Management: All RPGs have this.  The question is how to maximize it and bring it to the foreground, and make it an active player hard choice.

Just some random, random thoughts.

3 thoughts on “What’s In a Mechanic?

  1. Rahvin says:

    I think the mechanics for what makes a good boardgame differ from what makes a good roleplaying game is only this: roleplaying rules should be flexible and adaptable to the situation.

    D&D and d20 likes to pride itself on having a “universal die mechanic” but it doesn’t. Rather, it has a lot of die mechanics that are similiar enough not to confuse you. Big difference.

    A true “universal die mechanic” is one that is flexible, and something you don’t usually find in boardgames. You use the same mechanic in a lot of situations. For example, in a superhero game Blood of Heroes, some of the powers specify that you can “use this power to make an attack”. No other mechanics. Huh? Because there’s a universal attack mechanic that can be used to resolve physical attacks, telepathic probing, psychic drains, and even changes in the weather or intimidation with words. It all uses the same mechanic, just swap out certain stats and scores. Now that’s flexibility. And not found in too many boardgames.

    The *huge* advantage in board games is that you can surround your rules and mechanics with lots of color and flavor and the players have agreed ahead of time to not step outside the bounds of the game’s setting/context, where in roleplaying there’s a big push away from setting and context within rules making them far more bland and in some cases more difficult to play and enjoy.

  2. Rahvin says:

    As for the cards, cards don’t seem like they need much more design than dice mechanics do. Granted, their advantage is that they CAN be designed with far more detail.

    My friends enjoy playing Munchkin (for some reason…) and those cards have little more than a name, a modifier, and occasionally one or two sentances to describe “bad stuff” or sometimes flavor text. Really, if you look at them, D&D’s feats and Burning Wheel’s traits take so much more design effort.

    The best cards I’ve seen for roleplaying use are those that GUIDE play, encouraging players to narrate the effects of the cards rather than coming up with what each card does ahead of time. You could theoretically have a good game by adding “SETBACK” cards that don’t have anything printed on them beyond that one word and a sentance or two in the rulebook encouraging players to use SETBACK cards to narrate unforseen complications in other players’ attempted actions. Of course, in this kind of game, you might here the words “This means war!!!” a lot…

  3. Willow says:

    Card-design needs more, in my view, because you have to design all at once.

    With a die system, it’s easy to come up with a core mechanic and then add in the “+2 under these circumstances” a bit at a time. Game balance is more important with the card-heavy, game-heavy game, because the nature of the cards and the nature of the rules are so interdependent. What do the rules do? They regulate how you play cards. What do the cards do? They regulate what happens. You can’t coherently look at the system without an idea of what both sides entail.

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