Monday, March 03, 2008

Game Mechanics Don't Really Exist

When considering the classification of games (the subject of an upcoming post), it is immediately obvious that many classification categories inherently fail due to lack of rigidness.

For example, it is difficult to try to classify games into "luck" and "skill" based games. Regardless of where you draw any line, there will always be, either in actuality or in theory, games that straddle the line between a certain level of luck or skill. Furthermore, whatever circles you draw around a group of games are merely arbitrary classifications. Unless intending to plot games on a continuum, this yardstick of classification is inherently unhelpful. It may be useful to compare the luck versus skill ratio between two games, but not to classify all games using this ratio.

Another classification tool that Eurogamers tend to use is the "game mechanic". By game mechanic, I don't mean game components, such as dice, cards, or "running". These are good and solid components within games and very useful for classification.

What I mean by game mechanics is the idea that a game fits a certain pattern of strategic thinking. Instances of game mechanics include such terms as "area control", "auction", "set collection", and so on. You can see 43 game mechanics listed on BoardGameGeek here.

Unfortunately, few of these mechanics truly exist; the ones that do specify the game's components, such as "hex and counter" or "singing". The fact that these categories don't exist is why so many people experience frustration when trying to use these terms to categorize games.

Let's go straight into an example:

El Grande is known as the king of "area control" games; and what could be simpler? Through a series of nine rounds, you play cards (using an auction) in order to place cubes onto various regions on the board. After every three rounds, the person with the most cubes in an area scores the points for the area, second most scores a lesser amount, and so on.

This sounds well and good, except for the fact that the only reason that the game is thought of as "area control" is due to the game's theme. In fact, all conceptions about the mechanics of a game are entirely due to the wording of the game's theme.

Let's rewrite El Grande's theme: In El Grande, there are 27 cars available every three rounds at nine used car lots. The game involves a Chinese auction where players place tickets into boxes as they bid on the cars they want to acquire. After three rounds, the player with the highest bid on each set of three cars gets the best car. Whoops. Now we no longer have an "area control" game, we have an "auction" game.

How about: In El Grande, your object is to collect the most artifacts in various regions in Spain. Each time you place a cube into a region, collect an artifact from that region. If you lose a cube, you lose an artifact. At the end of three rounds, the player who has collected the most artifacts in each region gains the points of that region. Now we have a "set collection" game.

More than half of the listed BGG mechanics can similarly be derived using the exact same game components and play of El Grande. The rest can be derived using the same game play with slightly different physical components.

El Grande is no fluke. Two years ago I did the same thing in an article for the game No Thanks. You can do the same for any other game. Chess. It's an auction game, a pick up and deliver game, a route planning game, a pattern recognition game, and a tile placement game. It all depends on how you word the theme.

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