I messaged a friend the other day to say, “Every time I play Quacks of Quedlinburg I think of you!” to which he responded, “Every time I see a game on Kickstarter with weird mechanics, I think of you!” This seems entirely on-brand for both of us. As much as I love Dominion and Agricola and such, I’m immediately attracted to games with odd and innovative mechanics, like I’m attracted to odd ingredient combinations at a restaurant. “What is that?” I wonder and move closer, eyes wide like a toddler looking at a candy display. I desperately want to go to the Tokyo Game Market simply to see the wildly creative games coming out of that community. I thought I’d share some of my favorite odd mechanics I’ve encountered just this year.
Where Am I? is another hidden-role game with the information you share being contained in the placement of tiny, ceramic tea dishes on a tiny, cardboard table. (I’m planning to upgrade the table and chairs with dollhouse miniatures at some point because of the hilarious.) You play the guests at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, setting the table, choosing chairs, and sending letters to each other. On your turn, you choose a piece of the tea set—teacup, saucer, plate, cream or sugar, pot—to place in front of one of the chairs such that it will score for that chair. You could also place one of the character pieces—yours or another player’s—into one of those chairs to have it lay claim to the points. Or you could give a letter to another person to signify which character you think they’re playing. Hidden-role—fairly common mechanic. Tea set elements placed either passive-aggressively or pointedly on a table to feel out information—surprising and extraordinary.
I’ve got to apologize for this next one because it’ll be really difficult for you to find it if you’re interested. String Railway is a train game in the long and grand tradition of train games. Lay track, get points for connecting various stations, take some points from your neighbors because you’re more efficient, work around obstacles. The difference and the odd mechanic that brings me such joy is this: your tracks are pieces of string. The edge of the playing space is a giant string circle. The obstacles of mountain and river are string. The stations are small square cards that score different kinds of points when you connect them with your string. On the table, you have almost infinite ways to lay down your track, limited only by the string itself—want to make a spiral? Go for it. Wiggle back and forth to catch several stations? Totally legal. Overlap strings and mountains or thread the track into a tiny gap between other strings? That’s what makes it ridiculous and delightful and ridiculously delightful and delightfully ridiculous.
Neotraditional Ama from The Game Crafters is a real-time fishing-themed press-your-luck game with a particularly tricky timing mechanism: your breath. With a similar diving action to something like Deep Sea Adventure, you move through a deck of cards searching for particular kinds of fish using only their kanji, but the time you have to find those fish is determined entirely by how long it takes you, the player, to breathe out. Essentially, you take a deep breath and, as you slowly breathe out, you flip over cards one-by-one to signify your dive, searching for appropriate fish, and then one-by-one back into your hand to signify surfacing. If you run out of breath, you drown. The art is gorgeous, the kanji themselves a challenge for non-Japanese-speakers to complexify the search, and the breath alternately meditative and frustrating.
Speaking of simulated death, I bought Inhuman Conditions for my husband only a couple of minutes into the Shut Up and Sit Down review. Inhuman Conditions is a 5-minute interview between a human interviewer and a suspected replicant a la the film Blade Runner. The interviewer is trying to determine if the interviewee is a human mistakenly brought in, or if they’re a patient or violent robot. The box includes some official-looking bureaucratic forms for the interviewer to fill out and stamps for them to mark their determination. It’s all delightfully officious. Hidden-role games are all over the place and that’s not the odd mechanic that caught my eye. If the interviewee is a violent robot and they’re able to fool the interviewer, they get to “murder” them which is signified by taking the stamp and stamping all over the bureaucratic form angrily. The game when I got to do that was so deeply satisfying and the look on my husband’s face was hilarious. It’s a tiny part of a larger deduction game but not one I’d seen before.
After that violence, perhaps you’d like to calm down a bit, breathe deeper, but not be looking for fish and worrying about drowning, so you might consider Zen Tiles Solo. This little game is less a game and more a physical journal. It’s a tiny little box including a little wooden bar that represents a 24-hour day—the one just past, the one the day before, perhaps even a day in your memory you want to reconsider—and 20 small, wooden tiles with the name of an emotion laser-cut into it. You are meant to draw the tiles one-by-one, to notice when you might have experienced that emotion in the day past, and place the tile above or below the timeline at the appropriate time to signify whether it was a positive or negative experience. Once you’ve placed them all, you take out the last item in the box, an unique and beautiful stone. The rules say, “Treat yourself to something nice…like this beautiful pebble.” You’re meant to place it on one of the tiles where you feel you did a good job or you were particularly present in the moment. I love this mechanic—give yourself a little gift and a pat on the back, simply for doing it. Is it a game? Maybe. But gamifying my mediation time helps me to maintain my practice.
You know how so many Euro games have tracks you move your little wooden marker up to signify you’ve gotten better at the thing? Wine-making, political influence, Generic Technological Prowess, etc. What if you had to actually do the thing instead of moving up a track? Early on in the pandemic, a game called Aroma launched and I was obsessed. You’re meant to smell and identify up to 20 different essential oils and you actually smell them with your human nose. It’s not about collecting resource tokens or bidding on things to move up a track, your own sense of smell is at issue. My 13-year-old can tell the difference among the five citrus oils and, y’all, that’s so hard. Can you actually tell the difference between lemon, lime, and grapefruit? The publisher is an essential oil company which you might think is a red flag—it’s not. They hired a designer who created a modular board and four different and good ways to play the game alongside 20 cute little bottles of oil. It’s wild, y’all!
I’ve never been much of a fan of mazes, similar to my disinterest in word-searches, but Devir’s Mazescape makes my ears perk up. Or my eyes. My brain? Whatever, it’s a wild, maze-based puzzle and you should check it out. If you’ve ever played the Apple phone-based game Monument Valley, it’s kind of a physical version of that, like That Time You Killed Me is a physical version of 5D Chess with Multiverse Time Travel. The box contains seven little pamphlets, mazes of increasing complexity. You open one up like a book, keeping the “cover” parts flat on the table, then continue to unfold it in odd ways. There are slashes in the paper which mean you can fold and unfold and refold parts of the maze to connect in different ways—like a much more complicated Mad Magazine fold-here activity. It made my brain hurt the first time I opened it. And the next time. The day I realized I could refold in a different way than I had been, I literally shouted in recognition, startling my daughter. Plus, it’s pretty cheap.
What are some odd mechanics you’ve seen this year? Do you find yourself drawn to innovative or weird mechanics or put off by them? What conventions would you recommend I check out to see more like this? Let us know down in the comments!
Alice Connor has been playing board games since she could walk, and wondering about why they're so compelling since the day after that. She wrote a book called _How to Human: An Incomplete Manual for Living in a Messed-Up World_. Alice is also a certified enneagram teacher and a stellar pie-maker. She lives for challenging conversations and has a high tolerance for awkwardness. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, two kids, a dog, and no cats.