Once you get into the board game hobby, the sheer number of games available can be overwhelming. They all look good! For most people, trying them out before buying can be difficult unless you have a board game café or friendly game store with demo copies available for play, or maybe a friend with a big collection. Even then, the choices may be limited. So how to decide whether a game might be for you without playing it first?
One way to decide what you like is to know basic game mechanics. Knowing how a game will play can help when deciding if it should go in your collection. For instance, I don’t care for card drafting all that much, so if that’s what a game is all about, I am less likely to want to play it. On the other hand, I love deck builders.
Most games are based on a familiar design concept. Then designers add innovation, theme, and maybe a new twist or two.
One thing you will notice is most games are a combination of two or more mechanics. A single game mechanic is uninteresting and too simplistic to keep people’s interest. On the other hand, some designers can go overboard, putting in every mechanic they can think of, making a game just too overwhelming. The best games are a perfect balance of mechanics. A game will usually have one dominant design element, so you can use a favorite or least favorite mechanic to make your personal choices.
A decision of whether a game fits your preferred playing style or not may depend entirely on how much aggression between players a game might have. Sometimes attacking other players is exactly what a group wants, but for other occasions gentler competition (or none) might be more enjoyable. Certain design mechanics will naturally lead to more player competition or “take that” play.
Let’s take a look!
Roll and Move
Everyone knows this one – think Monopoly. Roll the dice and move that many spaces, then take an action as a result (or maybe not). There’s no changing what you rolled. It’s entirely luck based. Much of the time spent playing is just rolling dice and moving around the board. Modern board game designs have developed beyond this mechanic for the simple reason that players want to be able to influence what they do on a turn. Random rolls can be frustrating and spoil any plans a player might have made to win the game, which isn’t very fun. Thus all the house rules and cheating in Monopoly!
There are still roll and move games that are popular with gamers. Talisman is a good example of a roll and move mechanic that has stood the test of time. Monopoly Gamer takes the idea of roll and move and adds player powers and monster fighting with familiar video game characters.
Card or dice drafting requires a player to pick and choose from a group of cards or dice. The idea is you choose what you need, and give the rest to the next person or discard it. Drafting adds a lot of competitive tension and strategy to a game since players have to decide what to keep that will help them, but prevent passing on cards or dice they know will help other players win (thus the term, “hate drafting,” which means taking a card you don’t need just to thwart someone else’s plans.)
Drafting is a mechanic that rewards players that know which strategies will help them win the game, and requires that all players understand the cards or pieces they are choosing from.
7 Wonders and Sushi Go are two games that use a drafting mechanic. Sagrada is a dice drafting game.
Roll and move may be scorned, but rolling dice certainly isn’t. Dice are used as part of a larger strategic plan in games that want to add an element of randomness to the gameplay. Dice are now colorful, custom made, in all shapes and sizes, and are often rolled by the handful.
Dice rolling is most often associated with games that “push your luck.” For new gamers, the addition of a dice rolling mechanic can ease some of the pressure of pure strategy. It can also mitigate your circumstances in the game, for good or bad. If you like a little luck in your gameplay, a dice rolling mechanic might be just the thing to give you some excitement.
Often “real-time” games, where players are under time pressure to complete a task, involve rolling dice (very quickly!).
Elder Sign, Qwixx, Roll for the Galaxy, Machi Koro, Roll Player, and many others include dice rolling as a main mechanic. Real time dice games include Flatline and Space Cadets.
In a deck building game, players start with a set of cards (or pieces) and add to them by acquiring new and more powerful ones over the course of the game. Each person’s hand will be different by the end of the game depending on the choices they have made. New cards or pieces are acquired from a common pool by spending currency integrated into the cards players hold (in some games, like Rune Age and Nightfall, there is also a personal pool to choose from). There are a great many variations on the deck building mechanic, but the core idea remains the same in most games: a hand of cards that is cycled through each turn, building up a more powerful deck of cards that leads to a victory condition.
Deck builders on the whole do not have a lot of player interaction, so some variants have included attacks on other players. The core idea is to make powerful combinations or chains of cards to gain victory points, which can be very fun.
Dominion is the most well-known deck builder. Other deck builders include Ascension, Puzzle Strike (which uses chips instead of cards), Arctic Scavengers (which has an element where players attack each other directly), and Marvel Legendary – just to name a few!
Role Selection/Variable Player Powers
Variable Player Powers is a very popular mechanic found in many, many games. In this mechanic, on any given turn — or throughout the game — each player has different individual abilities or paths to victory. This design choice relies heavily on each person determining the strategy they need to take to win depending on the role they have. Roles and powers can change throughout the game, or be assigned at the beginning of the game randomly or through a draft (see above).
If there are game balance issues in the design, variable player powers will often be the culprit –some elements might be more powerful than others giving one player and advantage.
Puerto Rico, San Juan, Cosmic Encounter, Scythe, Terraforming Mars, and Terra Mystica are just a few of the top rated games that use variable player powers. Designers will often add player powers in expansions to increase the depth of a game.
As the title says, it’s all about building chains and connecting areas on the board through route building, usually though roads or train tracks, but it can be anything that connects one point to the other.
This mechanic gives players a chance to block others, which can lead to aggressive game play.
The two most well-known network building game are of course Ticket to Ride and Catan. Power Grid is a route building game. Other examples include the 10 Days series, Thurn and Taxis, and Brass, one of more complex games to play.
Worker Placement/Action Point Allowance System
The heart of many Euro games, worker placement and action point allowance systems give the player a choice of taking a piece and assigning it to a space to perform an action. In most cases, once a piece has been placed, another player cannot occupy that space and take that action, which is where the tension lies. There are literally hundreds of worker placement games, with all sorts of mechanisms and mechanics to change up the game play. “Point salad” games, an expression coined for many different ways to score points in a game, is a term often associated with the worker placement mechanic (but not always).
Worker placement games have the reputation for being multiplayer solitaire, which some people like very much. Others want more player interaction, which some designers try to deliver with more “take that” elements in the design, allowing players to interfere with their competitor’s plans. The classic game Caylus is one of those, where the provost piece can be moved to block someone’s actions, which can get nasty.
Well-known worker placement games include Stone Age, Lords of Waterdeep, Agricola, Champions of Midgard, Russian Railroads and Terra Mystica.
Although the name says it all, set collection games come in all shapes, sizes and complexity. It’s the go-to for most lighter games and you will find it everywhere. It sets up competition for scarce resources, which makes it a core mechanic.
Set collection is often combined with another mechanic, such as drafting, route building, or deck building.
Some examples of games with set collection elements include Pandemic (a co-op), Sushi Go (drafting), Ticket to Ride (route building), Fabled Fruit, and the Castles of Burgundy.
Betting/Wagering/Commodity Speculation/Stock Holding
That’s a lot of mechanics in one title! But they all have a similar idea: players wager or bet on certain outcomes in a game. Of course, the best games allow you to “hedge your bets” or manipulate the outcome, but in the end, each player is gambling on whether a stock, commodity, or other game element will rise or fall, win or lose. The winner in these types of games usually has the most money at the end.
Gambling can include a heavy psychological element, be more or less contingent on luck, or be mitigated by player strategy. It’s all about predicting an outcome with the imperfect information you are given in the game. Which makes it…fun!
There are many great games in this category: racing games, such as Camel Up, stock games such as Acquire or Stockpile, train games like Chicago Express and Union Pacific, even social games like Wits and Wagers. And let’s not forget Poker, of course!
As it says, this game mechanic calls for each player to place a bid on items in a game. It can be a hidden or an open bid, ending in the winner taking control of the item(s).
Auction games can be polarizing, as the competition to win the item can be stressful. Game designers have implemented various ideas to make it fun, but in the end, it’s all about not paying too much for something you need. This is one of a handful of mechanics which can cause some players to turn away from a game (hidden traitor mechanics and negotiating games are two others).
Power Grid, Downforce, Aladdin’s Dragons, and Medici are just scratching the surface of games that feature this mechanic.
There are specific games that call for negotiation among players. Rather than kill your competitors, you make deals with them.
The progenitor of all this bargaining was Monopoly, but now there are games that specifically have players freely negotiate terms and prices for commodities with each other without the roll and move. Some negotiation games make it so good negotiating helps the other players. Others just reward the best deal makers with victory.
It can be a very fun gaming experience with the right crowd, but for those who don’t like discussion and arguing, it can be an unpleasant experience.
Diplomacy, the game with the reputation of table flipping friendship ending negotiations (you must betray your allies at some point), is probably the best known in this category.
Chinatown, Sidereal Confluence, Merchants of Araby, Flea Marketeers, and New Angeles are other examples. New Angeles adds a hidden traitor mechanic, and Sidereal Confluence has variable player powers.
Instead of taking turns moving, in a programmed movement game players decide secretly or openly what moves they will make in advance, and then execute those moves. Obviously, the best laid plans can go spectacularly awry.
This mechanic can be divisive, as some people don’t like the inability to react to an outcome.
Well known games that use this mechanic are Mechs and Minions, Colt Express, RoboRally, Lords of Xidit, and Dungeon Lords.
Think Risk, and you’ve got this one. Players score points by having the majority of units or influence in an area. Combining this mechanic with other game play designs makes for interesting play.
Obviously, this is the most aggressive form of play so if your taste doesn’t run to killing off your opponents and taking their territory, this design choice won’t be for you.
Small World is a good example of pure area control, as is El Grande, a classic in the genre. Kemet, Cyclades, Scythe, anything by Cool Mini or Not (CMON) — all include an area control component. Tyrants of the Underdark combines area control with deck building. As we like to call it in my gaming group, “dudes on a map” is always a favorite mechanic for those who love to spread out and conquer.
This one is pretty simple: choose and tile and place it down. Hopefully if you place your tiles correctly, they will score victory points. Having said that, there are many wonderful tile laying games and it is one of the more popular game mechanics.
Examples include the classic Carcassonne, Kingdomino, Cacao, Lanterns Festival, and the Castles of Mad King Ludwig.
Pick Up and Deliver
Get your stuff from one place to the next. That’s what is involved in a pick up and deliver game. How you do that depends on the game’s design.
Empire Builder is one of the first pick up and deliver games, which also include Istanbul, Africana, Railways of the World, Cinque Terre, Firefly the Game, Merchant of Venus, the hard to find Stefan Feld design Macao, and the monster Roads and Boats, which is complex and takes several hours to play.
Cooperative play games, or co-ops, encourage players to work together to win the game. There is no competition between players. The game is won by completing an objective. Semi-co-ops , such as Marvel Legendary, have the same mechanic, but allow for individual players to score points and win.
Co-ops can be played solo, which if you can’t find a game partner is a nice option to have in your collection.
Pandemic is probably the best known of the co-op games, but there are many. Others include Forbidden Island, Flash Point Fire Rescue, Magic Maze, Robinson Crusoe, and for the younger folks, Ghost Fightin Treasure Hunters (which is really hard to win even if it’s designed for kids). For love-to-read puzzle solvers, the one or two player Sherlock Holmes Detective game can be very enjoyable.
A sub-set of this mechanic is all versus one, where one person tries to outwit the other players who work together to stop the villain. Letters to Whitechapel, Fury of Dracula, Betrayal on the House on the Hill, and The Last Friday are examples of this type of game.
Modern game libraries often have one or two games that include a hidden spy or traitor, whom the other players need to uncover or thwart. It adds a lot of tension when no one knows who is trying to sabotage the game.
Bluffing games require players to keep their roles or motivations secret. These games do require some ability to pretend or lie, which not everyone enjoys, limiting their wide appeal.
Secret roles are often found in social games for large groups. Werewolf is a great example of a game with this mechanic.
Other examples include Dead of Winter, The Resistance, Battlestar Galactica, Betrayal on the House on the Hill, Dark Moon, Deception in Hong Kong, Shadows Over Camelot, When I Dream, Coup, Sheriff of Nottingham, and many others.
Some games are are more social activities than competitive board play. In the storytelling mechanic, players weave narratives to guess words, ideas, and other people’s opinions. Often play is not really for points, but just to interact with a group. It’s great to have an icebreaker or two around for gaming groups, or for those times when you have non-game players in the mix.
Storytelling or social games can be difficult for those people who are shy or don’t feel they are creative. Some games have mechanics that help this issue by using a team mechanic, but in general, the introverts are going to have to speak up or it can be awkward. So, choose with care.
Codenames, where players try to guess key words from word clues, is an example, as is Dixit, Concept (guess a phrase from just icons), Say Anything, Time’s Up Recall, and Wits and Wagers.
That was a lot of mechanics! There are more, but those are the biggies. If you play many games, you will see these appear in various forms. How can you quickly find what mechanic a game employs? Look on BoardGameGeek.com under the individual game title entry. On the right hand side of the page you will find a list of the mechanics the game uses in its design.
No matter what your taste, there’s probably a game out there that will satisfy your need for any one of these styles of gameplay. Or design your own!
Have a favorite in one of these categories? Let us know in the comments.