Board in the Library, Part 5

Getting Under the Hood with Game Mechanics

John Pappas /

We are pleased to publish this article, the fifth in a six-part series on board game programming in public libraries, from John Pappas, the Branch Manager at the Bensalem Branch of the Bucks County Free Library System. (Read Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six)

Untitled image courtesy Erik / calaveth on Flickr.comThis has been quite an adventure!

Let's recap a bit. We started this journey exploring modern board games in the context of our favorite childhood games. Then we examined the different types of modern board games and what makes them so unique from other mass-market and classic games. Following this we looked at the differences between thematic games (those with a strong narrative structure) and strategic games (those that reward planning ahead and tactical maneuvering) and their intersection. Then in the last article we looked at the types of interactions players have with each other and which games encourage social play. Now, in this article we are going to delve a bit deeper into the nuts and bolts of the games themselves and examine the mechanics (also referred to as mechanisms) of board games. Game mechanics are the "inner workings" of a game - the engine under the hood that moves the game along and provides an experience for the players. These can include discrete categories which are combined, altered, tweaked and (sometimes) originally created by game designers and players. Game mechanics are broader than the written rules of the game but the rules will help realize the mechanics driving the gameplay. Mechanics are also separate from the theme or premise of the game. However, some of the best games support mechanics which aid in telling a story, move the narrative along, and provide an immersive experience.

Why is this important?

Start positions image courtesy Phil Romans on FlickrThe mechanics of a game can be the best way to predict and provide pleasurable gaming experiences for library patrons. Just as a particular literary genre or narrative structure can be helpful in recommending reading material to patrons, the mechanics of a board game can help librarians recommend similar games. For example, the classic game Monopoly can be categorized by several game mechanics. The two most prominent would be "Roll and Move" and "Auction/Bidding." The "Roll and Move" mechanism is fairly simple - the active player will roll dice (or spin a spinner as in The Game of Life, or popping the Pop-A-Matic bubble in Sorry) and move a number of spaces equal to the resulting roll (or spin, or pop). Once the player lands on a new spot, they generally pick a card or receive some direction related to the location on the board. The "Auction/Bidding" mechanic is present when players bid on the properties they land on in order to win ownership. The conceptual leap I am taking is that a person who loves Monopoly may also like (or at least understand) other games with similar mechanics. For example, Formula D is a racing game which using a "Roll and Move" mechanism albeit with dice that have 4, 6, 8, 10 sides respectively so the gameplay is more variable (and in my opinion, much more fun). A Touch of Evil is a very thematic horror game where players move by rolling dice, counting the pips and then moving a number of spaces to see what happens next.

By understanding the mechanics of a game, a few carefully asked questions to a gaming patron can provide important information about which mechanics are attractive and help recommend games they may enjoy, intuitively understand, and learn quickly. The trick is that even a relatively simple game like Monopoly has several game mechanics (Roll and Move, Auction/Bidding, Set Collection, Player Elimination). All, any, or none of which may be what the patron actually enjoys.

Alhambra image courtesy spielbar.com on FlickrAsk Questions:

Before we dive into the mechanisms themselves, let's talk about the importance of asking questions when patrons are interested in borrowing, playing or selecting modern board games from a library collection. This "gamer's advisory" (which honestly deserves a post of it's own. Ask PJ Bentley to explain it to you, he knows all about it) can be as simple as providing a description of the game along with an informational sheet or flyer or as complex as unboxing a game and playing a turn or two. Going online to a site like Board Game Geek will also provide some additional information. There you will discover details about the length of play, the number of players recommended as well as the minimum age along with the theme and mechanics. The theme and an abridged description of the gameplay can also be helpful. But suppose they are still unsure about this whole board game thing and Monopoly is one of the few games they remember playing. As librarians, we can expand our patrons' awareness, understanding and experience of the wide diversity of modern board games. It can start something like this …

Patron: Hi! So the library has board games. That is so weird. What games are you lending, Monopoly?

Me: We don't have Monopoly but if you like Monopoly I can find a game similar to it. What did you like about Monopoly?

This can move in a few directions:

  • King of Tokyo image courtesy Ethan Trewhitt on FlickrIf the patron talks about the theme of Monopoly - economics, real estate, etc. You could recommend a game with a similar theme such as Panic on Wall Street, For Sale, or Alhambra. All with similar themes of finance and economics.

  • Perhaps it was the feeling of glee when eliminating other players (the "Player Elimination" mechanic) and watching them squiggle and squirm as their resources are slowly drained away. Then I would recommend King of Toyko, Bang! The Dice Game or Lifeboat. Each of these games revolve around the elimination of other players. Then I would end the reference interview and slowly back away smiling...

  • Maybe it was a different mechanics, the "Auction/Bidding" mechanic, which attracted them to Monopoly. In that case, Ra, Power Grid, or Modern Art could be potentials selections.

  • If they like collecting sets of cards ("Set Collection"), then try to suggest Coloretto or Bohnanza! In these two games the players collect sets of cards to score points.

  • Additionally questions concerning the size and experience of their group, ages, how long they would prefer to play a game, and the personality of the group (competitive, relaxed, social, etc.) with help narrow down the possibilities.

See? From the initial interest in one popular mass-market game, the patron can potentially walk away with 11 different modern board games! Each with different themes and mechanics. It is a wild world out there and it can be intimidating for the uninitiated.

The issue that you as a librarian offering advice on board games is this - while the theme of a game can be rather obvious from the game's art and the language used, the mechanics can be more subtle and difficult to differentiate. This coupled with the fact that much of the core enjoyment of a game comes from the mechanics means that librarians with a board game collection need to understand a bit more "beneath the hood" of a board game than previously examined. While there are a plethora of resources online to familiarize you with these mechanisms (Board Game Geek being the gold standard), this article will present a short list of a few of the most popular mechanics and provide you with some prime examples of each.

Let's start with my favorite...

Forbidden Island image courtesy deadmanjones on FlickrCooperative:

We examined cooperative games in an earlier article. Cooperative games allow for players of varying skill to work together towards a common goal rather than against each other. Contemporary cooperative games will generally provide a challenge, scenario, or puzzle for the group to navigate, understand, and (ideally) solve. The rules of a cooperative game will encourage collaboration, conversation, and allows players to plan and plot together to find a solution. There are a few reasons that this mechanic is very popular for new and experienced gamers alike. First, it allows for all players to work together despite any disparity in gaming knowledge or experience. It also cuts down on the time needed for rules descriptions and teaching the game. With a few experienced players, new players can pick up the basic rules and learn the game while play commences without hampering the flow of the game. The focus on planning and conservation is also conducive for allowing new players to get to know each other and "break the ice" into a new recreational medium in an approachable manner - We are all working together right?

An easy place to start and good gateway into cooperative games are three games from designer Matt Leacock: Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert, and Pandemic. In each game players take a unique character role and work together against the clock to resolve an impending disaster. Pandemic is the standard of cooperative games with several expansions to keep the game exciting. In Pandemic, players take four actions (travel between cities, treat infected populations, build a research station, or cure a disease) in order to wipe out disease epidemics which are raging worldwide. However, "Infection" cards are drawn every turn, spreading the diseases and causing chain reactions of outbreaks. Without proper planning and quick thinking, these can cause the game to end before the players can implement their strategy.

Traitor! image courtesy Phil Romans on FlickrCooperative games like Freedom: The Underground Railroad, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, and Eldritch Horror provide richer thematic elements and a more robust narrative experience but also tend to be more difficult to win, longer to set up, and have more complex rules. Some cooperative games can introduce "traitors" where one player (either hidden or brazenly in the open) work against the other players towards their own ends. In Battlestar Galactica some players are realistic robots (Cylons) secretly working against the humans in secret while the rest of the players work to discover who it is. Shadows Over Camelot has similar elements with one player acting as the traitor and, in a dramatic moment, reveals herself to the other players. The traitor element of these games is perfect for people who like more competition in their games. However, a common issue with cooperative games (like Pandemic) are that, at times, the puzzle can be deduced and solved leading to a distinct lack of challenge after a few plays. The traitor element can imbue a cooperative game with new challenges and life.

Another permutation is "All-Against-One" where (you guessed it!) everyone plays against one player. Games such as "Letters from Whitechapel," (one of my favorite games!) "The Fury of Dracula," "Last Night on Earth," and many dungeon-delving games have everyone playing against one person. These are engaging and extremely thematic games but should be reserved for groups with slightly more experience as that "one" in "all-against-one" really needs to be more experienced in order to play and provide a challenge (and to avoid unnecessary stress or tears...I may or may not have openly wept during a game of Letters from Whitechapel).

Caylus pieces image courtesy Ethan Trewhitt on FlickrReal-Time Action:

Most board games are "turned-based" with each player taking a turn to complete actions and then passing the active role to the next player in line. Thi is totally what we were all taught in kindergarten! However, the real-time action mechanic allow players to take their turns simultaneously. This leads to a more chaotic, hectic and exciting experience for players (although should be avoided with kindergarteners). Since there is no waiting for turns, players are constantly engaged by interacting with the game or other players.

A shining example of this type of mechanic in play is in Escape: The Curse of the Temple. In Escape, everyone is a member of a team of explorers trapped inside a temple. In order to win the game, the players must track how much time is left before the temple collapses, explore the temple, collect enough jewels to leave, all while dodging curses and rolling a veritable tornado of dice (dice-nado?). The tricky part is that the game is played in only ten minutes. Ten minutes with each player rolling dice, moving through the temple, exploring new rooms and collecting jewels all at the same time. Each player is equipped with five dice that can be rolled as much and as often as they like. As certain combinations of dice appear, the player can set them aside to do certain things, such as exploring a new room, placing a new tile, gathering jewels or opening a door. However, rolling cursed dice will "lock" them in place and causing them to be unrollable until they are unlocked. Compounded on top of all of this is a soundtrack which will play ambient noises and announce through the striking of a gong that the players need to drop everything and get back to the starting chamber or suffer the consequence (you lose a die!). This game is perfectly crafted to cause an intense sense of urgency and tenseness which can not be replicated in a standard "turn-based" game. While other games may be more tense or ridden with drama, none pack so much into a short amount of playing time.

Two other games utilizing the real time action mechanic come from publisher Stronghold Games -- Going, Going, Gone and Space Cadets: Dice Duel. In Going, Going, Gone! each player is bidding through the action of dropping wooden cubes into a cups which represents one of five items. Similar to a traditional auction, bids are coming in randomly from other participants rather at the same time than in turn-order. This creates a sense of urgency when bidding and is teeming with anticipatory tension as the auctioneer counts down to zero and closes the bidding. Also this game is designed by Scott Nicholson and that makes it awesome by default. Space Cadets: Dice Duel pits two starship crews against each other in real-time space combat. Teams consist of a Captain who is directing the ship and keeping an eye on the other teams movements and strategy, an Engineer who is rolling dice and allocating energy (in the form of dices) to different stations. At each of these stations, players roll dice to move the ship, employ shields, and attack the opposing team's ship. Everything happens at once with players frantically rolling dice, moving ships, and shouting orders. For a fun variant let the introverts of your group be the captains and have the extroverts roll the dice. Hijinks will ensue...

Lords of Waterdeep image courtesy Will Merydith on FlickrWorker Placement:

Worker Placement is quickly becoming a favorite of many new boardgamers. In this mechanic, players choose individual actions from a larger set of potential actions during their turn. Unlike the real-time action mechanism described above, Worker Placement is done in turn order with each players' choice of placement affecting the other player's potential options. In some games, there is a limit on the amount of times an action can be used during a round. This leads to a decision space where players jockey for position, block other players strategically, or sometimes (with a sigh) settle for a less than optimal option. This is compounded by the fact that each player has a limited pool of workers (represented by tokens, pawns, or meeples) to place on the board.

There are many dense, strategic, "thinky" examples of games which employ the Worker Placement mechanism. Caylus, Trajan, and Agricula are all classics in the genre but not particularly friendly to new and emerging gamers. Alien Frontiers, Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia and Troyes all use dice as workers which adds a level of luck (both good and bad) into the game but still may be a bit much for new-comers to the hobby. The Pillars of the Earth, Robinson Crusoe, The Manhattan Project and Lewis and Clark each add historical or literary element to the game as well (which is wonderful!). However, despite the diversity inherent in this mechanic it is best to start out with two standard gateway games which use the worker placement mechanic in a very simple fashion: Stone Age and The Lords of Waterdeep.

Friendly Bohnanza game image courtesy Julio Martinez on FlickrIn Stone Age, players each control a tribe trying to make it in an increasingly hostile and competitive prehistoric landscape. The goal of the game is to have the most successful tribe through the collection of "civilization" cards (which represent cultural milestones) and building huts (which represent the growth, physically, of your tribe). In order to gain these cultural and physical achievements, players take turns placing little cave-persons on the board in certain areas in order to gain resources which in turn are used to "purchase" cards and huts. A cave-person placed in the forest will collect wood. One in the quarry will collect stone. If you place two by the privacy hut...you magically get a third [*ahem*] worker (this could be a good conversation starter as well). Once everyone has placed their people on the board, they then go back in order, picking up their cave-persons and collecting the rewards.

Just like real estate, in Worker Placement games, the location on the board is paramount. Only one player can occupy the privacy hut (cave-persons had some very Victorian ideals apparently). The forest, quarry, and river all have limited space so it can get cramped very quickly and players need to plan where they need to go in order to get the resources necessary to buy the card they need or the hut they want. There are several other facets to this the game: players roll dice to determine how many resources they acquire from the work (it is easier to roll for wood than for gold, for example); they also can develop "tools" to increase or modify their dice rolls; and can increase their food supply through farming and agriculture. Bottom line, you will spend time placing little persons on the board in order to roll dice to get resources or benefits. You will then spend those resources or use those benefits to increase the size and enrich the culture of your tribe. It is a simple example of worker placement that can be taught quickly within a few turns and provides a nice introduction to an exciting mechanism. Which is good because after a few games of Stone Age, you may be itching for something a bit more interesting.

This is where The Lords of Waterdeep comes in. In this fantasy themed worker placement game, players assume the mantle of a Lord of Waterdeep. Each lord (and lady) comes complete with secret agendas and hidden ways of scoring points and building influence in the magical city of Waterdeep. However, the lords don't like to get their hands dirty and would prefer to situate themselves in the shadows and send their agents (your workers) into town to acquire heros - fighters, wizards, thieves, and healers - to do their work for them. These heros are basically your resources and are represented by colored cubes: orange cubes are fighters, black cubes are rogues, white cubes are clerics, and purple cubes are wizards. During each round, each player places agents onto the board in various buildings/locations in Waterdeep. Each building/location allows players to accumulate heros, take money, construct new buildings, play cards, or gain quests. To gain points in the game players must acquire quest cards (which each have a required number and type of adventurer to complete them) and then accumulate the needed adventures and gain the number of points on the card. Similar to Stone Age, players place workers on the board to gain benefits and rewards which in turn are used to complete quests and gain points. The one big difference are the Intrigue cards. Players can gain and play these cards to hamper other players efforts in completing their quests. So while Stone Age is nearly devoid of player interaction, The Lords of Waterdeep tends to thrive on it.

Ra: The Dice Game image courtesy Phil Romans on FlickrArea Control:

Do you remember Risk? It is a classic example of the Area Control mechanic. When a player has a majority of influence in a particular area on the board, they gain control of that area and whatever benefits that area on the board can provide (points, money, supplies, access to other areas, etc.). So if Bob has 10 units in Bulgaria and Sarah has 5, Bob has control over that Bulgaria and whatever Bulgarian benefits come with it. Often Area Control games will utilize a map with demarcations of districts (Tammany Hall), states (1775: Rebellion), countries (Risk) or other geographic areas (Small World). It may also not be surprising that most area control games consist of political, military and intrigue themes.

One of my favorite (and simplest) area control games pit casino goers against each other as they try to gain influence within one of six different casinos to ensure a large payout. In Las Vegas each casino has the face of a dice represented on it (1-6) and a payout of money. Each player then takes turn rolling 8 dice and and placing the one resulting dice face on the corresponding casino. So if Alea rolls three sixes, she can place all three on the casino with the six dice face in order to win the payout. Once Everyone's dice are completely used up, they are counted and the person with the most dice on a casino wins the payout. This continues through three rounds with the person with the most money at the end of the game winning. The beauty of this game is it's simplicity. With only one main mechanic, quick playing time, accessible theme and easy to learn rules, Las Vegas can be a perfect introduction to area control.

Small World is another popular representative of the Area Control mechanic and has become a go-to gateway game introducing and initiating many people into the hobby. While Las Vegas provides a very simple presentation of the mechanic, Small World provides players with a map of territories for them to conquer. However, this is complicated by a wide variety of fantasy themed races (Elves, Dwarves, Etc) and a variety of modifying characteristics. The diversity of races and characteristics both affect how the territories are scored. This creates a game that allows for a multiple plays, each practically guaranteeing a new experience. In Small World, players are presented with a map of forests, mountains, farms, and swamps - all peaceful. The world is a wide open, wonderful place. However, as players choose and distribute their fantasy races, the land becomes tight with players constantly rubbing up against adjacent territories as they try to expand their empires and score points. But nothing lasts forever, and as a race spreads itself too thin it begins to fall victim to other races trying to move into their territory. In order to continue the player can choose to have their race go into decline (toss them aside) and choose a new race/characteristic combination to begin conquering again!

Let's burn through a few other mechanisms quickly...

Origins Game Fair 2011 - Dominion image courtesy Will Merydith on FlickrDeck-building allows players to build a deck of cards from a pre-determined set through the purchasing of new cards. Almost all deck-building games have built off of the grandaddy of deck-builders -- Dominion (and its many expansions). The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, A Few Acres of Snow, and Trains all provide interesting new implementations of the mechanic, while Ascension, Thunderstone, and Star Realms pretty much stick to the formula with a few added tweaks. Set Collection is an extremely simple mechanic used in many games where the players collect sets of items (usually cards) to reach objectives or score points. Classics like Ticket to Ride and Jaipur are wonderful ways to teach this mechanics and games like Sushi Go! or Bohnanza can be taught and played very quickly. Lastly, "Pick Up and Deliver" requires players to pick up items or cargo from one part of the board and deliver it to another. This mechanic is (shockingly) easy to explain but many of the standards which utilize the mechanic can be very heavy. Games such as Steam, Age of Steam, and Railways of the World can be very lengthy to play (90-120) and difficult for new or emerging gamers. Some good entry-level games include The Great Heartland Hauling Company (where players take on the role of a Great Plains trucker), Cinque Terre (where players operate a cart selling produce to one of five coastal Italian villages) , and Merchants and Marauders (where players have the option of being a law-abiding merchant or scurvy marauder).

This is only a quick abridged list of some of the mechanics which I have found interesting in my experience promoting, moderating and organizing board game events in libraries. There are a plethora of other interesting mechanics. Board Game Geek lists 51 different mechanics to explore (which is far too many to delve into here). Take some time to click through and see if any strike your fancy! Next month I will be rounding off my 6 part series with some basics on running, organizing, moderating, and promoting a board gaming group in your library and will provide a quick 10 piece starting collection that you can put together for less than $150. See you then!

Congratulations, you have vanquished this article!

The final installment is waiting for you! If you want to interact with me on all things library, board gaming, or the intersection of the two then you can find me on TwitterGoogle+, and (barely) on Facebook. You can follow my personal blog or check out my board game reviews at Troll in the Corner.

John Pappas is the Branch Manager at the Bensalem Branch of the Bucks County Free Library System. He enjoys talking about emerging technologies, gaming, public librarianship, outreach, and zen.

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