The Question of The Month for October was “Where are the new game mechanisms?”.
I asked the question of a bunch of game designers, game publishers, and gamers. Here’s what they said.
Keith Carter, former game designer and member of The Hypermind Board Gamers:
There are no truly new, innovative games/mechanisms being made.
It is largely true and it is just morning mist. When mechanism is defined at a broad level like worker placement, cooperative, or auction then new mechanisms will be introduced infrequently; they could even run years apart. That tracks with my experience across pinball, war games, role playing games, family card games with a standard deck, and two person perfect information games. In each of these areas I have enjoyed gaming for a decade or two without the need for a constant stream of innovations to keep them interesting. Unless modern board games (or gamers) are critically different the pace of innovations being a problem is just morning mist.
Sen-Foong Lim, co-designer of Belfort and Train of Thought
There are definitely a lot of old games being remade (OGRE, Tammany Hall, Lost Valley, Moongha Invaders) via Kickstarter with more chrome upgrades than anything else. Some new games are just old games rethemed like Android: Netrunner.
Personally, I think many designers fall into the trap of playing catch up to whatever is hot right now. I can’t say that I’m not guilty of that either – trying to add deckbuilding or drafting to everything, for example! Deckbuilding: so hot right now!
But here’s the rub: When you shoehorn mechanics like that, it just feels forced. The best game designs, I find, develop organically and emerge from something to become what they end up being as opposed to being so constrained with some pre-conceived notion. Belfort could be accused of being a bunch of mechanics mix together in a way that just happened to work, but I think that’s a kind of reductionist view of it. A good game is also synergistic in that the sum of its parts – mechanics and components – is less than the sum of the game experience as a whole. Seasons is another current game that seems to be a mish-mash of several tried and true mechanics tied together with a novel timer, but again, in a way that is synergistic. The mechanics just work together.
As to your question about the feeling that there are no truly new, innovative games / mechanisms being made, I would suggest that instead of real revolutions, currently we’re seeing evolutions – refinement and mastery of the mechanics that have become staples. So games like Troyes taking worker placement and adding the random element of dice, or even our game Train of Thought adding a cerebral twist to the classic Password-type guessing game.
But rest assured that there are new and innovative mechanics in recent games. They just may be small ones such as the splaying mechanic in Innovation or Nightfall’s chaining system – Not world changers, yet, but significant in some ways.
Jay and I are always trying to create that elusive “new mechanic” and who knows? One day, we just might succeed – and you guys will be the first to hear about it!
Michael Mindes, founder/publisher – Tasty Minstrel Games
New is an interesting question. New mechanisms and uses occur all of the time, which are mainly new tweaks or methods to utilize current major mechanics. New major mechanics rarely come about. The most notable recent example is deck building.
Daniel Solis, designer of Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple and Belle of The Ball
Thing is, new game mechanics aren’t hard to make, making *good* mechanics is hard regardless of originality. New and good? *phew*.
Stephen Avery, co-designer of Nothing Personal
Redundant mechanisms and themes have always occurred in the game market. It is very common to adopt a similar mechanism and refine, tweak or put a new spin on it. Only once in a great while does a new ‘discovery’ occur and even then it is often derivative of something related. For instance the card drafting and deck building mechanism in Dominion was first found in MTG sideboards for tournament play. I do think there has been less impetus to really push the envelope in game design. I am not calling games art (a completely separate conversation) but much like art, the most innovative designs are ones that have a very narrow focus and have imposed limitations on themselves. Also much like art, games need a critical eye to really reach a new level of design. In the past, publishers put both the limitations and evaluated games critically before green-lighting them for publication. In general publishers would be reluctant to publish a game that was too similar or did not offer something new and fresh to the market. Zev Shalsinger of Zman games compared games to movies in that there will always be a constant demand for new movies but you don’t want to see the same film over and over. Each new game needs to bring a new twist to make it unique.
I am not knocking Kickstarter though. There have been many positive benefits as well. The biggest benefit is that there are many more ‘new’ games on the market and that anyone with enough persistence can make publish a game. The majority of these could use another level of refinement to be fully realized.The veil has been dropped on the publishing process and people are more informed than ever before. The lines have been blurred between consumer/ reviewer/ publisher which contributes to greater involvement in the game industry. Established publishers are now using KS for advertising, to estimate print run sizes and to mitigate out of pocket expenses which enable them to advance more project. Because of their involvement and the massive number of projects that are fielded, I expect to see the critical eye of public opinion begin to help weed the chafe from the straw.
Jamey Stegmaier, co-designer of Viticulture and co-founder of Stonemaier Games
Are there no new game mechanics? I think the answer is twofold: No and yes. “No” because I think there are generally a few new minor mechanisms in every game. I could mention a few examples, but there are too many—I really think that almost every game offers a few new minor mechanisms and twists. For example, in Village, there’s a unique minor mechanism of death under the greater umbrella of worker placement.
But in terms of the major mechanisms—tile laying, worker placement, drafting, deckbuilding—sure, I think it’s been a while since a new paradigm was formed. The last major one I can think of is deckbuilding. I would love to see an entirely new construct taking the gaming world by storm…and, honestly, I just as much look forward to all the variations on that new mechanism that will inevitably follow.
As long as there is a market for new mechanics we will see new mechanics appear. I think right now we are seeing the natural result of more games coming to publication (many outside the bounds of brand guidelines or market analyses), which is, games that closely mirror one another or that don’t deviate much from the standard.
Paul Owen of Paul Owen Games
I really don’t think a new game mechanism can be just conjured up because somebody decides to invent one. No designer says, “Let’s see, I could create something new, or I could make a cross between Dominion and Settlers. I guess I’ll be unoriginal today.”
I believe that truly new, innovative, original mechanisms are like supernovae. The conditions that spawn them take a long time to develop, but you don’t see it coming until it happens. You can’t predict it. You can only enjoy it when it explodes onto the scene.
It’s probably true that today’s web technology and Kickstarter culture make it easier for more designers to get more exposure to more people, so we see many more game designs in a year than we did, say, five years ago. And everyone is building on their own game experience, so most game design is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. That’s okay, but it means we see a lot of variations on a few themes, and only the occasional, rare, truly original works.
So now for my opinion. I agree that new game mechanisms are few and far between. I like how Paul Owen put it. “I believe that truly new, innovative, original mechanisms are like supernovae. The conditions that spawn them take a long time to develop, but you don’t see it coming until it happens. You can’t predict it. You can only enjoy it when it explodes onto the scene.” And I’ll add that you can create other things from their remains or their memory. Any new mechanism that makes waves will be copied and evolved (as Sen-Foong said). We see this all the time.
I also agree with the Bellwether guys and Paul. We are seeing a LOT more games entering the market and many are very similar or contain similar mechanisms. Is this good or bad? I think some of both. I will not get into whether Kickstarter is good or bad for the industry. That arguement has been fought and will probably not be solved. But the increase in the number of games produced increases our chances of something revolutionary appearing. They will spawn copies and iterations which in turn will inspire. We see this in everything. Take movies. How many movies did Star Wars inspire? If you were around at that time you can remember that there were dozens for years.
And this will continue. It is a good thing. Creators drawing inspiration from those who went before them. It’s the nature of things.
So the idea that there are no new mechanisms being created is morning mist.
What do you think? I’m interested to hear what my readers have to say. Please leave a comment below or send me an email at goforthandgameATgmail.com.
Join me soon for another question of the month.
I also have a couple of interesting interviews in the que – John Moller of Unpub and Darrell Louder, the designer of Compounded coming soon from Dice Hate Me Game. So stop back by in a few days.