The Daily Worker Placement

Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Traitorous Mechanic, Part One: Player Elimination

by | published Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Thought Experiment #1: Identify each game by its game mechanics (as itemized on BGG):

  1. Area Majority/Influence; Map Addition; Tile Placement
  2. Action Points; Auction/Bidding; Auction: Dutch; Card Drafting; Events; Income; Take That
  3. Grid Movement; Pattern Movement; Square Grid; Static Capture
  4. Communication Limits; Memory; Push Your Luck; Team-Based Game

Answers are at the end–no peeking.

Once you’ve checked your answers, ask yourself to what extent the mechanics convey a sense of the experience of playing each game.

Thought Experiment #2: The following turns up on your social media feed:

Are you more or less interested in checking out this game based on the description and pictures? Why?

Thought Experiment #3: You are the owner of a small game publishing company. At a convention, a designer gives you the following “sell sheet”, a one-page summary of their game:

Does this sell sheet make you want to publish this game? Why or why not?

The theme running through these thought experiments, obviously, is game mechanics. Words like “bluffing” and “trick-taking” have been in common usage, even away from the gaming table, for centuries. It was only with the boom in what was then known as German games (now Euros) that other terms, like area-majority, worker-placement, and so on, were coined–but these terms remain very much “insider” references. Learning and using them has become an initiation rite.

What I’m hoping to do is make the case that, although an understanding of game mechanics is essential to game design, their overemphasis by players, designers, and publishers is ultimately strangling Tabletop from the inside. Today I’ll focus on how this semiotic confusion affects us all as players, tomorrow, I’ll look at it through the lens of game design, and on Thursday I’ll shift attention to publishers before I wrap everything up in a quaint little bow. So read on, Macduffs, and see what you think.

Every hobby has its jargon. Knitters frog their work. Peloton riders might use an HRM while riding an OD. And Lord knows I use boardgame jargon all the time (including the very term ‘game mechanic’, which often requires me to back up and explain it when I’m talking with friends outside the hobby). Tanya Pobuda, a Toronto-based MA in Professional Communications, who has done some exemplary quantitative work in measuring trends in today’s tabletop world, has this to say about the double-edged Sword of Jargon:

The noob, the newbie, the non-gamer might be barred entrance into the game and any access to its message, as Anna Anthropy wrote 2012 in Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form that games are uniquely able to hide and withhold their secrets. These messages and in-game pleasures, and discoveries can only be unlocked through a mastery of game mechanics, rules and processes. A dominant, affinity group might be the only group who has been made literate in the semiotic domain complete with in-jokes, lore, and deep knowledge of in-game mechanics (how to enjoy AND exploit them) of previous games and other popular culture references. 

This literacy, the welcome, the initiation process can dictate whether would-be players are drawn in, or simply, walk away. 

For some examples of this, here’s a thread on Reddit asking for “thoughts […] on a game, mechanic or theme that […] others don’t tend to share” in that way I see more and more that seems designed to bring on the gatekeeping and trolling. And it does. Folks weigh in about social deduction games not being games but activities, solo games being wastes of time, and so on.

The encouragement to think about games primarily in terms of their mechanics is helped along by reviewers and content creators. For instance:

I want to emphasize that I don’t have any axe to grind about this particular content-creator. They’re not doing anything wrong; in fact, their reviews are thoughtful and high-quality. I just want you to notice that the headline (including the name of the video) is entirely about the game’s mechanics, with a tiny bit of theme inserted into the post’s caption. Intentionally or not, that sends a message that most–practically all–you need to know in order to decide whether to get this game or not is its mechanics.

Now I get why this reviewer leads with this information; they are trying to serve their audience as they perceive it. Boardgamers can and do embrace or reject games based purely on their mechanics. Here’s an example from Reddit. Here’s another from BGG. To me, this is like not liking a band because they use Marshall amplifiers or only liking movies with car chase scenes (yes, I know those people are out there; that doesn’t make it right). Of course it’s good to be aware of the kind of games you like or don’t like. I just happen to believe that judging games solely by their mechanics is what philosophers would call reductionist: it says that games can and should be categorized primarily (or even only) by their systems. 

There are two main flaws in this “mechanaholic” viewpoint. First, the assumption that all players derive the same kind of fun from games. Back in February I pulled apart the “fun quotient” of games into (not kidding) fourteen separate categories. Mechanaholics tend to enjoy the puzzle-solving, optimization aspect of games: figuring out how a game ticks and then planning, building, and executing a winning strategy. To them, theme and narrative are strictly secondary. And since only mechanics matter, things like theme or inclusion are irrelevant. All of which is fine until fans of these kinds of games project their own tastes outward and proclaim that “only” these kinds of games matter.

The second reason that mechanic reductionism makes for poor judgment is that the variability of games that share the same mechanic can be as great or greater than games with completely different mechanics. For example, Xenon Profiteer, Fort, and Undaunted: Normandy are all undeniably deckbuilding games, but they play out extremely differently because in each case the mechanism is intertwined very differently with the games’ other systems in a way that makes it seem very silly (to me) to put them in the same category. So if you avoid deckbuilding games because “you don’t like deckbuilding” you’re potentially cutting yourself off from games you would otherwise enjoy because you fail to take into account the way the best designers don’t just pile one mechanic on top of another but weave them together into a cohesive whole. 

That’s “all” I have to say about how mechanaholism is a dead end for players. Tomorrow I’ll go on to talk about how an over-emphasis on mechanics is bad for game design. Join me, will you?

Answers to Thought Experiment #1: a) Carcassonne  b) Through the Ages  c) Chess  d) Codenames


  • David W.

    David is the Managing Editor of the DWP. He learned chess at the age of five and has been playing tabletop games ever since. His collection currently consists of about 600 games, which take up way too much space. His game "Odd Lots" won the inaugural TABS Game Design Contest in 2008. He is currently Managing Editor of The Daily Worker Placement. All in all he's pretty smug about his knowledge of games and game design.

Become a patron at Patreon!

2 thoughts on “The Traitorous Mechanic, Part One: Player Elimination

  1. Fraser says:

    I agree describing a game by its ‘game mechanics’ alone is by no means enough to adequately describe a game, however it is part of the mix which should also include information like theme or lack there of, length, number of players.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.