I don’t really think I planned on going with some board game history and mechanic posts for a series, but I liked how the previous one turned out, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some more mechanics in that in-depth a […]
I mentioned the topic in the Kickstarter FOMO post, but I wanted to talk more about different game mechanics that you might here people talk about when it comes to describing a board game, this will be a bit more focused definitions than the Jargon post. And I’m going to talk about what I do or don’t like about the various mechanics or games that I like or don’t like in the various mechanics.
Worker placement is a very common mechanic in board games, an in particular in Euro games. It basically means that you’re placing out a piece to do some action or get some resource back. At the end of the game you’ve built up some collection of resources, cards, money, or points. You might like worker placement games if you like games that have a lot of thinking and a whole lot less luck. The luck can come from what cards you’re able to get, but generally you can plan out what you’re going to do for the whole game early on in the game. To me this is a knock on these game, as well as that they are often themed around trading in the Mediterranean which I don’t find exciting. For one of these games, if I’m to enjoy it, the turns have to be fast, and while there doesn’t have to be a plethora of variability in it, there shouldn’t be a single option in the game that is so strong that everyone feels like they need to follow the same path. Games like Puerto Rico have a method to what should be taken when and what actions should be done when, and that isn’t fun to me. However, Charterstone does a good job of having very fast turns with the exception of a few turns that matter the most, and to me, that’s a good worker placement game. You have lots of options, but your turns go fast so that no one is sitting there wondering what to do, and if you are sitting there thinking, you know it’s a big decision.
This was one of the biggest mechanics in board games for a while with games like Dominion and Marvel Legendary leading the market. Now another mechanic is bigger and I’ll get to it in a minute. Deck Building games have everyone starting out with the same few cards in their own personal decks, then as time goes by you can purchase more cards to add to your deck customizing it so that it plays like you want it to play. In my opinion, something that is purely a deck builder, probably isn’t much of a game. Dominion, the biggest deck builder out there, has a theme that doesn’t matter to the game, and the only thing it has going for is the fact that when people know what they are doing it goes fast. There are other games that make your cards actually mean something like Xenoshyft: Onslaught, Marvel Legendary, or Clank! In! Space!. These games the cards mean more than just giving you an action, a buy, and some money, but they maintain the simplicity of the deck building for the most part.
This is a subset of a Deck Builder in some ways. Instead of building up your own deck of cards you are either separately or jointly building up a bag of tokens, cubes, dice, whatever it might be, so you are drawing randomly from that. Clank! In! Space! adds this as an addition to it’s game as you’re trying to not make too much noise so Lord Eradikus doesn’t get you. Basically it’s the same thing as a deck building mechanic, just with the other possible elements.
Roll and Write
This is the biggest one out there right now and most of you probably have heard of a game that does this from a long time ago, and that’s Yahtzee. While Yahtzee is the original, it has definitely progressed beyond that at this point. Now you might be building railway lines or you could be doing city planning, but based off of what the dice say, that gives you an idea of what to fill in. Personally, I still enjoy Yahtzee and I haven’t done anything else in this mechanic, but I am tempted to pick one up sometime soon. These sorts of games tend to be fairly simple and easy to teach so they are a good faster game that you can pull out with a lot of different levels of gamers and often with larger groups as well.
Now, I split up deck builders and bag builders, but with drafting, this can be a lot of different things. Most of the time people are going to know of card drafting, but there are games where you draft dice. What I like about drafting is that the games can range from simple games like Sagrada and Sushi Go! Party to more extensive games like Blood Rage. So it’s a mechanic in games that is pretty easy to build up to the more complex games because you have a lot of different steps along the way. With drafting, I also like the fact that it makes you make a decision. It might be obvious, like you need another eel in Sushi Go! Party otherwise you’ll lose three points, or it might be tough, because you don’t want to pass the eel to the next person getting your cards because they need the eel to score seven points, but you’re also not sure that there’s going to be another eel coming to you. Or in Blood Rage you have to determine what you want your strategy to be, do you want to get points for winning battles or maybe do you want to get troops onto the map faster, it allows you to customize your playing style.
This is a mechanic that can be overlooked a little bit because most games that have it, like Blood Rage, also give you other mechanics that are just as interesting. However, Action Points are another one of my favorite mechanics in a game because it forces you to make tough decisions again. How many points do you want to spend to move a troop into a territory to try and take it in Blood Rage, or do you want to spend points to upgrade your troops? Something might cost two points versus one point, so is it better to do a one point action twice or a two point action once? You have a limited resource that is counting down faster than you want it to, and you never feel like you have quite enough to do everything you want, so you have to make a tough decision at some point in time. Blood Rage is a game that really focuses on this, though the drafting can dictate how important that is for you.
In some ways like a deck builder, hand management could be you determining and selecting different cards to be in your hand. But it can also be determining when you might play a card from your hand that might be identical to everyone else’s hand of cards or how you diversify your hand. Two games come to mind when I think about hand management that I have and they both do it in different ways. In Not Alone as the survivors of a wreck on an alien planet, you have a certain number of places you can go, so you have to determine where you want to go to avoid the alien and hope that everyone doesn’t go to the same spot or talk to determine a strategy so that you don’t all go to the same spot. But with your identical hand, you are now debating through a lot of different options that everyone has. Or in Gloomhaven, your hand is your life, if you lose cards from your hand too fast, you might die before the scenario is done. So do you use the card for the amazing ability to help kill off the monsters faster to complete the mission or do you use more basic abilities so that you can survive longer in a scenario if the scenario isn’t going fast. Both of these games keep a good tension between using your cards or holding onto your good cards.
Area Control is another mechanic I like, it often means that if you control a certain area you get a benefit. This is another mechanic that Blood Rage uses, as you are trying to have the strongest force in an area to pillage it and gain the improvement from the area or to complete a quest that you have. There are also some games that are more focused on area control and it is if you control all the areas you can win the game. Risk, while not a great game, is an area control game. I enjoy these game generally because they encourage conflict for all players because you can’t let anyone get too powerful. While Risk is pretty lucky, games like Cry Havoc, Blood Rage or Smallworld cut down on the luck aspect while allowing the game to flow nicely and quickly through combat or through control. That can be a downside with area control games is that the combat causes the game to bog down and you end up spending all of your time on combat or on a few turns, leaving other people waiting.
Variable Player Powers
This one is and isn’t a mechanic in my opinion. I think though it is worth calling out here as there are some people who love it. Basically, variable player powers means that each persons role in the game is going to be different. While there might be a lot of overlap, everyone has something that they can do that is unique to them. In Root, each player plays a different faction of woodland creatures, and you can see in my review of it how it works generally, but they do things in a very different way from other people having very unique player powers depending on which faction you pick. Or in Smallworld, you are taking different race and power combos. Those are extreme examples of a lot of variability, but a game like Cry Havoc, everyone is basically doing the same thing, you have slightly unique player powers. It can run a fairly large range that way from completely different powers to similar roles but slightly tweaks. Another example of that lesser change is Pandemic where people can all do the same actions, but each person also has their own unique thing they can do, and you may or may not use that unique power on a given turn.
What are some mechanics you like? What are some that I’ve forgotten as I’m sure there is a number I haven’t touched on. Are there any mechanics that you’ll actively avoid?
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