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.



Mikko said...

Interesting post. Looking at purely from theoretical point of view, you're right. But when I'm playing El Grande, it doesn't feel like an auction. The theme comes into play there: I feel like I'm fighting over control of areas, thus I'm playing an area control game.

So, let's say I like it, and figure I want to play another game like El Grande. That would be another game that feels like area control.

But you do have a good point, and I've had some trouble classifying games myself. However, if the goal is to connect games that feel the same, these kind of game mechanics work fairly well. You just need tons of them, and you can't work with a fixed set of even 43 mechanics.

On, I have currently about 100 tags describing different game mechanics, and I still come up with new tags every now and then. (Recently I tried to figure out what makes Dvonn and Chess feel like each other and came up with a game mechanic I could use to make that connection. Of course, I'm probably stretching the meaning of "game mechanic" here a lot, but it works for me.)

Yehuda said...

I had a post on Gone Gaming where I said that everygame is essentially a race game ... here:

I agree that games have certain feels to them. San Marco feels more like El Grande than Chess does. Perhaps this is like programming languages; every language can be used to progam any program, but some lend themselves more to them than others.

Or perhaps being able to ignore the mechanic would allow you to seize the strategy you need best for any game, regardless of the "mechanics".

Or perhaps theme is more integrated into the feel of any game than many people would like to believe.


ChattyDM said...

I think your reference to programming language is a fairly accurate description of my gut feeling on games.

Maybe Algorithms would also be a better equivalent to what is called 'mechanics'

However, when I compare advanced Squad Leader to Memoirs 44. I can't agree that there is no such things a 'game engine elements'

Let's just say that saying that both 'A journey through Europe' and 'Settlers of Catan'are race games is rather unsatisfying for the armchair theorist that I am...


Looking forward to read more on this.

Yehuda said...

That's because I didn't get to what ARE valid classification methods, yet. Theme is one of them; or it may be, since themes tend to blend into each other.

The Euro purist would like to say that Star Trek Monopoly is different than Powepuff Girls Monopoly, but the two games are more easily classifiable as distinct than Louis XIV and Carcassonne are.


Duncan said...

I would argue that Mechanics is a valid classification for games. However, it is useless unless applied as part of a multi-axis classification system.

I think that a common mistake is over generalization of the term "mechanic". I would start by defining at least four separate categories for game classification: Goal, Mechanics, Theme, and Style/Components.

I think that the what you have described as the mechanic of El Grande (purely from reading about the play/turn cycle) is actually the Goal. The goal is Area Control. Some of the Mechanics used to achieve that goal are Public Bidding, Secret Bidding, and Variable Turn Order. The Theme is fictional/historic. And the Style uses a Board with Cards and Tokens.

Change any one element and you have a reasonably different game. Well, except theme. It's easy to change the theme without affecting gameplay (It's Alive is a perfect example of that). However, changing the theme does change how people perceive and play the game, which can also be important.

To continue with your examples, The car auction game's goal is still to maintain control of the most auctions, while using the bidding mechanic. The theme has changed, but little else.

In the last example, you are simply replacing the scoring mechanism with artifacts, and changed the theme a little without changing the ultimate goal, which is to have control of the region (via men, or artifacts) at the end of the round.

All you have done in each example is change the theme to emphasize different aspects of the various gameplay mechanics used in the core game. You have not, however, altered, or added, any mechanics. And you have not changed the underlying goal of the game: control as many areas/auctions/artifacts as possible to score the highest.

Brett said...

Sorry Yehuda, but this is a deeply flawed argument based on an erroneous take on the definition of game mechanic - or more correctly, game mechanism. You have created a definition of "game mechanic" that serves only to support your argument. If you substitute the term "mechanism" for "mechanic" the error becomes clear.

One thing you do have right is the horrible classification system at bgg.

Your El Grande set collection example is not an example of set collection at all unless a set is defined as, "the number of artifacts in the largest collection of each type of artifact when artifacts are scored." That's quite a stretch to fit your argument.

How do you reconcile the adjacency factors inherent in an area control game with your counter examples? In your "auction game" what determines where bids may be placed?

What if you strip away the board? Area control is more than simply placing bits on areas, but without areas, it is no longer area control.

Check out Shannon Appelcline's Auction Grand Unification Theory - all your games are belong to auction.

Yehuda said...

Brett, Thanks for the link. I agree with Shannon that all games are auctions. I also still agree with myself when I said that all games are races. So there you go.

Yes, I used the colloquial definition of game mechanic from BGG. As to the set constraints of where you can bid / control / collect from, I don't think that changes my argument. A set collection game doesn't become an area control game by virtue of being limited to what sets you collect; it becomes so by changing the theme and possibly components.