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A Guide to Board Game Mechanics

Guide to Board Game Mechanics

When I was growing up, there was always something about board games that intrigued me, but I could never quite put my finger on why I enjoyed some so much more than others. Of course, some games I was good at, others bad, and some just ended up in arguments, or someone flipping the board into the air out of sheer frustration (usually Monopoly).

As I’ve aged, I’ve grown to appreciate the different aesthetics, design, and in-particular, the mechanics, which define gameplay and sets them apart from each other. Whether you’re a rainy day gamer or an all-out board game enthusiast, you’ll have an idea of what games you love and why. More often than not, this will be down to the board game mechanics.

I’m by no means an expert on the subject, but I’ve picked out some of the key mechanics which I’ve experienced, and the games I’ve played which I feel utilises them well.  For any casual or gateway gamers out there, hopefully this guide to board game mechanics will help you identify some new mechanics you find interesting, or perhaps even games you have enjoyed before, without realising what made them tick.

For any examples of games given below, I’d strongly urge you to follow the links and check out the fantastic Zatu Games review section, if you want to know more about them.

Player Elimination

This mechanic is all in the name; essentially you win by removing/capturing enough of your opponent’s ‘pieces’ from the game, so that they can no longer win. Hopefully, the game you are now thinking of is the example I’m about to use, which is Chess.

Chess is one of the oldest and most complicated board games around, but the winning mechanic is ironically one of the most straight-forward to grasp. The intricacies of how you utilise your pieces in order to win however, it is far from straight-forward due to the huge number of possible moves, and so with my better judgement, I will leave you in the capable hands of the internet if you want to know how to master it.

Dice-Rolling

I definitely won’t be short of examples for this mechanic. I have a love-hate relationship with dice in board games – part of me loves the ‘anything can happen’ randomness in rolling the dice, but the other part of me verges on a tantrum when hours of strategic planning goes out the window, purely because I didn’t make the dice roll I needed. However, there are few better ways of randomly determining the outcome of an event, and as such, the use of dice in board games is certainly not going away any time soon.

No doubt you’ll be aware of the huge number of family games which utilise dice rolls, but one you may or may not be aware of, is a great game called King of New York (or it’s predecessor, King of Tokyo). I absolutely love the use of dice in this game, which is basically Yahtzee with giant monsters – what’s not to like?!

Tile Placement

Tile placement usually involves you scoring points depending on what tile you play, where you place it, and how you utilise it. The tiles are often drawn at random, or are drawn as part of a hand.  The obvious example that springs to mind for demonstrating this would be Scrabble.

However, in some games, the tiles you place will make up the game board, where further points can be scored by additional actions; for example Carcassonne – an easy to learn, quick strategy game, with a surprising amount of depth for such a simple concept. If you’re more of a casual gamer, this is a great gateway game to pick up and introduce to your family and friends.  This was initially a hard sell to some friends who questioned how fun a game about castles could be.  Now whenever we see them again, I’m asked – “Can you bring ‘Castles’?”.

One day I’ll get around to telling them its actually called Carcassonne, but for now I’m just happy they enjoyed it.

Trading

Again, a fairly self-explanatory mechanic; where you are forced to trade resources with other players in order to gain what you need to win the game. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of this board game mechanic, because I begrudge equipping my opponents with the means to defeat me, and can ultimately be left frustrated to know, or discover, that I couldn’t win because I depended on a certain resource/card/etc. which was actually in the possession of my opponent the whole time. Given my example for this is Monopoly, this may explain why the board was often thrown across the other side of the room when we played it.

However, you may be aware of a very popular gateway game called Settlers of Catan, which does a far better job with trading mechanics, and (hopefully) causes a lot less frustration, so check this one out.

Action Point Allowance

I seem to be noticing more and more games utilising this mechanic than ever before. Essentially, the action point allowance system replaces traditional “moves” with greater freedom for your actions, provided you have enough points left to fulfill them. The main example I would use for this mechanic in a board game, would be Pandemic, where you have a set number of points on your turn to use for different actions, to save the world from the spread of several epidemics.  This is one of my all-time favourite co-operative games, along with the campaign based Pandemic Legacy, which is also worthy of your attention.

On a side note: those as old (and geeky) as me, may remember the original X-Com video games in the ‘90’s that made great use of the action point system, which returned in the recent spin-off game, Xenonauts, by Goldhawk Interactive. The reason I mention this, is because fans of X-Com (as well as the subsequent remakes by Firaxis) may love the tense and challenging board game version of X-Com, which is a fantastic conversion, and also makes good use of the action point system.

Area/Territory Control

In some board games, it is essential to dominate play by expanding your areas of control, in order to secure your win. The well-known example of this would be Risk, where you start off with randomly assigned territories and have to fulfill your objectives, which usually involves destroying everything in your path to increase your number of territories.  This is often achieved via a point-to-point movement system, so that you can only advance to adjacent territories.

Whilst I don’t mind a game of Risk, we still have the dreaded randomness of dice-rolling, which is used here in a big way.  The last time I played this game (many years ago), I was actually on the lucky end of the dice rolls, and ended up wiping out every opponent. However despite such a victory, I’ve not returned to the game, ever since I discovered Shogun.

If you are a fan of games involving area/territory control, then Shogun is the one for you.  It’s far more strategic with a lot more depth, and even better – no dice! Instead of determining an event randomly using dice, the game has a ‘tower’ system, where the players in conflict place their ‘troops’ into the tower, and the ones that make it out the other side cancel each other out, and the player with the majority of troops remaining wins that particular conflict. Those left in the tower, will then reappear in a later conflict. It’s a system that actually works better than I’m making it sound, so please do check out the review.

Auction/Bidding

Another mechanic I really enjoy in board games is auctions/bidding. Will you go all out and bid crazy amounts to scare off your competitors, or do you leave your opponents to their bidding wars, and hope to mop up any bargains once everything has settled down?

Usually players will be biding with money or resources which they have accrued during the game, in order to gain an immediate advantage, or obtain an item which will further their progress towards winning the overall game. Games that utilise this mechanic will often consist of auction rounds, where several auctions take place until each player has gained an item necessary to progress the game, chosen to keep what they have, or the items subject to bidding have been depleted.

Power Grid uses this mechanic very well, where players are bidding for power plants in order to enable them to power their cities, to be rewarded with additional cash. The different power plants vary in terms of the resources needed to power them, and how many cities each one can power on it’s own. Given there is a limit to how many power plants you can have, there will often be a bidding war for the larger capacity and more efficient power plants. Although a little mathsy, it’s a fantastically balanced, competitive and varied game, which I thoroughly recommend.

Worker Placement

Another fairly common board game mechanic is worker placement, where players use their workers (or tokens) to choose from a set of actions, which are usually available to all players. This often leads to competition with other players where blocking may occur, and therefore players may have wait until the next round in order to choose an action which may have already been taken by an opponent, for reasons such as turn order. Players will have a limited number of tokens, but in some games can increase their number of workers during the course of the game.

My go-to example for this mechanic would be Agricola. In this game you are trying to score the most points from building your own farm. Your tokens represent the family members of your farm, who you place down on spaces on the board, to collect the corresponding resource, or to undertake a particular action.  The tough part is you will need almost everything on the board, and may need to carefully consider at what point during the game you go to a certain space, in order to maximise the benefits for yourself, and/or inhibit your opponents.

The catch is you must also remember to feed your family members at every harvest, so if you haven’t got a decent food supply sorted out early on in the game, you’ll find yourself in trouble later.

Read 'The Ultimate Guide to Board Games' to learn more about the hobby!
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