The Daily Worker Placement

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Traitorous Mechanic: Part Three:

by | published Thursday, October 7, 2021

Over the last two days I’ve tried to present a case for how the overreliance on game mechanics–both the jargon and the concept–is a blind alley, a red herring, and probably a couple of other metaphors. Today I’ll be finishing off by examining things from the publishing point of view.

Here is where I currently see the biggest evidence and influence of mechanaholism. To save you scrolling back up to Thought Experiment #3, here again is a sell-sheet from those aspiring designers, posted to a Facebook designer group:

Clearly, they put a lot of effort and time into a professional, informative presentation according to the format which they have been told would maximize their chances of being signed by a publisher–at least, according to the hive mind of modern Tabletop designer culture.

What this format implies is that all publishers are looking for is all about mechanics, baybeeeee. The three main mechanics are headlines right below the title, and a good one-third of the page is given over to gameplay and scoring. Oh, and it’s “FAST PACED, TURN BASED, and COMPETITIVE”. I know that, because it says so in the top left corner–not because of anything emergent from the gameplay.

After some feedback from the group, which was mainly positive, they amended their sheet to this version:

Take a second to see if you can you spot the changes they made. I’ll wait.

So, they added the equivalent of a paragraph of flavour text (the players are “merchants”) which barely qualifies as thematic (no specific geographic or historical setting)–as well as adding a further paragraph about victory conditions.

(BTW, I’m sure this game is perfectly fine. But it’s not a game that interests me; I have literally dozens of other games in my collection already that have at least as interesting mechanics and gameplay but provide a much more fleshed-out and interesting game experience.)

How in the hell has this format become someone’s idea of a standard template? It probably comes down to one word: marketing. Marketing wants quick, crisp descriptor words for distracted distributors, store owners, and customers. It’s just as true for games as it is for books, music, or movies.

But think of how hard it is to sum up a truly innovative game–or your own favorite game–in a few words. The popularity of games like D&D, Mafia, Dominion, and Cards Against Humanity spread by word-of-mouth (the philosopher’s stone of marketing), with people saying, “you gotta play this”–not because of any one mechanic, but because they were fun and different.

A game with a mechanic that breaks new ground can’t be described in a soundbyte precisely because it’s only after the game becomes popular that someone coins a word or phrase that encapsulates it: CCG; worker placement; deckbuilder; roll’n’write. 

Whether publishers really want mechanics to headline a game or whether that’s what designers project onto publishers is irrelevant. If mechanics are perceived as a selling point, then that mentality begins to permeate the design process and how gamers and content creators look at games–which I hope I’ve shown by now is a road to mediocrity and ultimately, losing the audience.

In the end it all comes down to groupthink. Players who are introduced to the hobby via games where theme and narrative are thought of late in the design process–if at all–come to think of that type of game not just as the norm but The Best Of All Possible Worlds. They become designers and publishers who reinforce that norm and project it outward. These are often people who chime in with “it’s just a game” when people criticize thematic problems. 

But what about everyone else? If they’re lucky, they happen to find games (or a group of gamers) who are open to other kinds of tabletop experience. I happen to enjoy some games which are all about their mechanics–but I have to be in the mood for them. And I know they’re not for everyone.

There’s another lurking problem in the “it’s just a game” mentality, which is the implication that, since games are “just” about having fun, they are ephemeral, disposable, and aren’t worth thinking about as Art. Which in turn means we should expect nothing from them.

Of course we’ve seen this way of thinking before: in the early 20th century, when jazz was dismissed as “jungle music”, when moving pictures were minute-long novelties that would never replace “The Theatah”, when comic books were vilified as “poison for young minds”, and when rock’n’roll was supposed to be a fad that was going to disappear in a year or so. It took time for innovators to come along and realize each artform’s true potential.

But the mechanics-first “it’s just a game” mantra is an example not of suppression from the outside but gatekeeping from the inside by early adopters who want to claim the right to anoint “true believers”. This is also nothing new. 

In the Shurangama Sutra, the Buddha is quoted as saying:

This is like a man pointing a finger at the moon to show it to others who should follow the direction of the finger to look at the moon. If they look at the finger and mistake it for the moon, they lose (sight of) both the moon and the finger. Why? Because the bright moon is actually pointed at; they both lose sight of the finger and fail to distinguish between (the states of) brightness and darkness. Why? Because they mistake the finger for the bright moon and are not clear about brightness and darkness.

(Didn’t see that coming, did you?)

And as Friedemann Friese’s epic designer sandbox-folly 504 proved (to me, at least), you can smoosh mechanics together from here until doomsday and yet never produce a compelling game. Jargon-words and phrases like “rondels” and “pickup-and-deliver” are fingers pointing at the moon. The game experience, the joy of play that makes you want to play again, is the moon.

Leaning on game mechanic jargon is understandable–even useful, if you’re a designer, as long as you remember to keep looking back at the moon. But using the jargon as a gatekeeping mechanism or an excuse to dismiss the opinions of people you disagree with, well, now you’re not even pointing at the moon any more, you’re just giving someone the finger.


  • 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.

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