Salvaging Maligned Mechanics

There are a lot of bad mechanics in board games. I’d like to fix them. I first had the idea for this article a while ago, but the discussion on the most recent State of Games (Episode 67) about Guilty Pleasures inspired me to return to the subject. The State of Games crew mentioned a lot of games that are generally considered bad games, but are nevertheless enjoyable. This points to some redeeming qualities that are worth taking a second look at. I’ll start with some things that are not (according to my definition) games. First, War.

War is really just players performing the evaluation of cards without making any decisions. Players have no input on the outcome of the game. But there is tension in the leadup to the unknown (but predetermined) outcome. Finding a match and being forced to escalate is a great mechanic to increase player excitement that isn’t really used in other games. The escalation mechanic really invokes direct conflict like combat, so there are plenty of opportunities for its implementation.  One thing I’d like to see is having the cards used in the escalation contribute to the final resolution in some way. Perhaps they augment the final number, so you can increase your chances of winning by risking more cards. Or being able to choose cards from a hand would give players more control over when to initiate a war-scenario and what they risk. The nature of the base game of war seems like a good opportunity to make it a deck-builder, too. Lower cards could be worth more money, but are lost more easily, higher cards help you win, but don’t help you improve your deck at all.

Candy Land is another boardgame I don’t consider to be a true game, as players again simply perform the evaluation of the game from a predetermined state, following a predetermined course. I don’t see a lot that can be gained from the course setup. Even if you give players more choice of which cards to play, it becomes an exercise in computing which card or combination of cards gets you farther ahead. But the intent of this article isn’t complaining about Candyland. The mechanic of controlling movement through random destinations exhibits elegance in its simplicity. It adds an element of chaos with progress depending on the exact sequence played, whereas a die would approach the average relatively quickly. You also gain a mechanic almost like set collection in reverse, in which playing the same color multiple times in a row gives you the best outcome. I don’t know that the mechanic of instantly leaping to Gumdrop Mountain is particularly helpful, but it clearly leaves room for complex probability distributions. Lets see the colors used as more than just spaces, too. Why not resources? You can control production in a less random way, or use them as tradable elements, making the double colors more potentially valuable. The community of gamers tends to divide into dice versus wooden bits camps, and the color cards in Candyland can help span that gap.

Go Fish is, at its heart, a very simple deduction and hidden information game about set collection with a push your luck mechanic. You give your opponent information about what is in your hand by asking for it, and you need to track the guesses from all players to deduce who has what. Love Letter is practically a cousin of  Go Fish because it shares the simple guessing and deduction mechanics. (In fact, I’d rather play Go Fish, as it gives more opportunities to play.) The simple mix of basic mechanics makes it an excellent choice to reimplement. It could be a great secondary mechanic for collecting resources, where you demand tributes from other players. It puts a twist on a basic trading mechanic. You can utilize the set collection and push-your luck aspect to drive available actions, to make players choose taking a less powerful action or waiting for more while risking the possibility that your opponent will claim it. This puts it in a middle ground between positive and negative interaction. Interestingly, Go Fish has a slight runaway leader problem, as players eventually know what cards their opponents have. But you can address this by incorporating a way to reshuffle, or changing what happens when you lose a card or Go Fish, gaining cards to tweak the balance.

The final game I want to discuss is Apples to Apples. There have been many similar games on the market since its success. Cards Against Humanity follows nearly an identical formula, but found its niche in the market “for horrible people”. Some people love one and hate the other, or just hate all similar games on principle. I personally enjoy playing Apples to Apples with my family. One of the things the game struggles with is the rather arbitrary nature of the judging. But I think that’s because so far the mechanic has been used only in word/concept matching games. We have the opportunity to make the judging less arbitrary by adding some independent motivation for choosing cards. My initial thought was some kind of empire game, and the prompts could be actions you want to take, e.g. “Invade ____”, or “Build a city in ___.” You decide what actions you want to be available for the judge, knowing that your opponents can also influence events. Add in a reward for the judge choosing your input, and you have to balance choosing something that is worth choosing, but doesn’t give the judge too much of an advantage. More broadly, there could be a lot of opportunity for secret alliances, hidden agendas, and out-thinking your opponents. And it can translate just as easily to a more pastoral game theme, where the judge decides what resources are available, what market prices are, or what can be built. We can do more with this mechanic than just word games.

As I wrote when talking about Stealing Ideas, designers should take good ideas and reuse them. Often, these come from great implementations in very successful games. But we don’t need to be limited to just taking the best ideas from the biggest and newest games. There are a lot of ideas in old games, bad games, and games that nobody likes that are worth using. Let’s Go Fishing and find them.

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  1. #1 by bennydjazz on July 11, 2014 - 11:01 pm

    Keltis does something similar to the ideas you had for Candyland. You spend colored tiles to advance around a track with alternating colored spaces. The spaces each have resources on them, which translate in numerous ways (a la Ra) into victory points. An interesting tweak is that you have three different movable pieces to choose from each turn, which gives you more options than Candyland’s single piece.

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