LESSON 1: Mechanics, rules and Goals - The Cardboard Designer

LESSON 1: Mechanics, rules and Goals

Games designers utilize building blocks to create a specific player experience. Understanding what these blocks are, how they interact with one another and how they can be used as tools to create is one of the key stones of game design.

My first ever car was a Nissan Micra Mauritus. Why exactly the marketing heads at Nissan thought that naming a car after a small island nation in the Indian ocean would make for a more desirable model, I haven’t the foggiest idea. Name aside, that lime green wonder was my first car and I loved her the whole 4 months she was with me before I unceremoniously crashed her off the M4 near Old Sodbury outside Swindon.

Why am I talking about my first car? If you’ll indulge me for a second, using a car to describe different aspects of game design and how they fit together is a very handy way of looking at things:

  • Board game mechanics can be represented by all the individual things that a driver uses to control the car. The gear stick, the pedals, the steering wheel. All of these driver to machine interactions compares to how a player uses mechanics to play a game.
  • Rules (everyone’s favorite bit!) are the laws that govern the road and restrict the way a car is able to get to it’s destination. Speed limits, one-way systems, warning signs indicating the presence of deadly wildlife – they put constraints on the player to keep everyone moving in the right direction.
  • Goal (win condition/victory condition) is the final destination that the driver is trying to get to. It’s where the player/driver wants to end up when all is said and done.

It takes everything working in sympatico for a car to carry out it’s journey and get over the finish line, in the same way that it takes all of those individual building blocks of a game to create something with a cohesive beginning, middle and end.

I will be covering all three in a lot more detail, as they really are the meat of what it is to design a game. It’s where the fine tuning will take place and it is where you will spend the most time iterating between play-tests. I also talk about how these separate elements tie into the overall player-experience and why that is important.

Victory conditions and goals are usually the easiest thing to define when working on a fresh new idea and can often be dictated by the theme of the game itself (should you decide to build a game driven by a theme.) For example, if you are making a game that includes combat and territory control, the win condition is likely to be something to do with the eradication of the opposing forces.

It is impossible to build a game without these elements. You could remove all artwork and flavor text so as to neuter the game of a theme and it would still be playable. You could take all the components of a board game away – and have people just talk through what they would do each turn and in theory – though with great difficulty – it would still be playable. Without the mechanics to interact with, the rules to maintain coherence and the win conditions to tell people when the game is over, play would be impossible.

It is worth pointing out that the above definitions are not universal. Many designers would include things like rules and victory conditions under the umbrella of mechanics. If you bump into people in the wild that have the same reasoning, no worries. This is the way that I learnt it, and is therefore the way I find easiest to teach it.

Takeaway / TLDR

  • When you take away all the fancy components, the graphics, even the theme of the game, what you are left with are the rules, the mechanics and the win conditions.
  • Mechanics determine the tools at the players disposal, rules define the constraints related to those tools, and win conditions give the player a focus on how to utilize those tools most effectively.
  • The creation, adaptation and balancing of these 3 elements is what the bulk of game design is all about.
  • A game stripped down to it’s bare minimum that is still playable would have to include these 3 elements at the very least.

Exercise

Take a game you enjoy playing, or something you’ve seen on a let’s play recently and strip everything that is not related to either the rules, the mechanics or the goal.
How differently does a game look when stripped down to these bare essentials?
How succinctly can you write these different items out?
Can it be achieved in just a few bullet points?

Consider doing this when you play a game that you enjoy and want to try and create a similar user experience or feel (how the car drives) to the game.

–Tom

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