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Choosing game mechanics

Recently, my friend Questie let me know about someone arguing that my game I, The Land, could be played with a D20 system (it's played using a standard deck of playing cards). This made me laugh, and I found it very odd. Firstly, what a strange debate some die-hard fans feel they need to have– that any game not made in their preferred system could and should be.

Key terms

Before I continue, I'll just outline the terms I'll be using here, as I understand them:

A game mechanic refers to a specific rule or interaction within a game that governs how players can interact with the game system. It's essentially the building block of gameplay mechanics that define actions, rules, and outcomes.

Meanwhile, a game system (sometimes used interchangeably with game engine) encompasses the broader framework of rules, mechanics, components, and interactions that define how a game operates as a whole. It includes the combination of various game mechanics that work together to create the overall gameplay experience.

What to choose and when to use

Firstly, it's essential to understand that no single game system or mechanic is inherently superior to others. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and the choice depends heavily on the type of game experience you want to create and the target audience. Is randomness important? How much random is too much? These are very common questions in game design, and at the heart of the mechanics I chose for I, The Land.

Game design goals for I, The Land

For I, The Land, I wanted randomness, but also with a decent degree of control. Sometimes if there was an outcome I wanted that to then limit other outcomes. I wanted there be a finite number of outcomes that could be strung together if you continued playing, with a decaying amount of randomness. This could allow someone, as they get more familiar with the game, to string together a narrative more coherently, as well as predict what may happen next.

Comparing dice-based and card-based systems

There are many types of systems out there, but a large majority of tabletop systems fall into these two camps or a hybrid of them. So what makes them what they are and why would I choose one over the other for I, The Land? Keep my aforementioned game design goals in mind and I think you'll figure it out. Big thanks to the game design course at Cal Arts that I recently completed as well as Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses for helping me wrap my head around these concepts. I recommend both.

  1. Dice-based systems like D20:
    • Pros:
      • Randomness: Dice introduce an element of unpredictability that can add excitement and replay value to a game.
      • Accessibility: Most players are familiar with general dice mechanics, and it's simple to roll a die around in your hand and notice the permutations or odds in your favour or not.
      • Versatility: Dice can be used in various ways, such as determining outcomes, generating random events, or even as a resource mechanic that's manually flipped instead of rolled.
    • Cons:
      • High variance: The randomness of dice can lead to extreme outcomes, which may not always align with player expectations or strategic decisions. For example, an incredibly strong character failing an easier feat of strength can break immersion.
      • Luck dependency: Some players may feel frustrated or disempowered if their success or failure relies heavily on dice rolls, especially in critical moments.
      • Complexity: Balancing probabilities and ensuring fair outcomes can be challenging in complex games or systems with multiple dice mechanics.
  2. Card-based systems:
    • Pros:
      • Controlled randomness: Cards can provide a more controlled form of randomness compared to dice, allowing designers to fine-tune probabilities and outcomes.
      • Strategic depth: Card mechanics can add layers of strategy, such as hand management, deck building, and card drafting, that may not be as easily achieved with dice alone.
      • Progressive gameplay: Card games often involve card acquisition and deck evolution, providing a sense of progression and customization over time.
    • Cons:
      • Deck management: Constant shuffling of decks, especially when keeping certain suits or other groups separated, can interrupt gameplay flow and may require additional components or mechanics to manage effectively.
      • Learning curve: Card games can be more complex for new players, especially if they involve intricate card interactions or deck-building elements. Though, simpler games may avoid these altogether, as a card-based game does not have to be inherently complex.
      • Card availability: Designers like myself must consider the availability and distribution of cards in physical games, which can impact gameplay balance and accessibility. For example, if a card is used and discarded, does that limit other scenarios where that card would have been useful or had an entirely different outcome?
  3. Hybrid systems and other mechanics:
    • Pros:
      • Blend of elements: Combining dice, cards, tokens, or other mechanics can create unique gameplay experiences that leverage the strengths of each component.
      • Flexibility: Hybrid systems allow designers to tailor mechanics to specific gameplay aspects, such as combat, exploration, or resource management.
      • Player engagement: Mixing different mechanics can keep players engaged by offering diverse challenges and decision-making opportunities.
    • Cons:
      • Integration challenges: Designing cohesive mechanics that seamlessly blend different elements without creating confusion or imbalance requires careful planning and testing (read: time and money).
      • Variable familiarity: Many people are familiar with dice or cards but may not be familiar with other concepts and mechanics you try to introduce, especially if you try to combine them.
      • Component management: Hybrid games may require players to manage multiple types of components, which can increase complexity and setup time.
      • Design complexity: Balancing the interactions between different mechanics can be more intricate and time-consuming compared to single-system designs.

I hope by reading through some of those examples you can align with me on why you may use one mechanic or system over another. Perhaps you can see now why I, The Land was made using a card-based system.

What influences mechanic choice?

For all of the projects I am working on, whether large like Bug & Claw, or smaller like I, The Land, I am constantly considering the following factors as I choose and adapt or try to invent mechanics. These are only a short list of what you might call heuristics, but they could also be adopted and elaborated on as full goals for a game project.

  • Theme, narrative, and setting: How do the mechanics support the game's theme and narrative? For example, dice might create a sense of risk and adventure in a fantasy game, while card drafting mechanics can emulate strategic decision-making in a political setting or a more fate-determined narrative.
  • Goals, win states, lose states: How do I influence the player toward an enjoyable end goal? How do I allow them to fail with grace and growth so they try again? How do I motivate them?
  • Player experience: What kind of experience do I want players to have? Is it a quick, luck-driven game or does it require deep strategic thinking?
  • Accessibility: Can a wide range of people access and understand it? Dice and cards are extremely different, tactile-wise alone.
  • Game Balance: First off: do I want it balanced? If so, how balanced? How does this effect player engagement, especially related to luck, skill, or player agency.
  • Component integration: If I want to provide this to people myself will it be hard to source everything? If I am just providing the rules and expecting others to source additional components will it be hard? Do the components integrate smoothly to enhance gameplay rather than create confusion or imbalance?
  • Reliability: Are components readily available and accurate?
  • Usability: Just because things are functional doesn't mean that they can be done easily. Can things be done without difficulty? When there is difficulty is it by design?
  • Convenience: Is it made how I think and expect? Is it easy to pick up and put down?
  • Memorable: Does it stand out in some way that makes it worth sharing?
  • Meaningful: Is there anything about this that could make it personally significant to someone?

Ultimately, the best game mechanics and engines are those that do a combination of aligning with design goals, resonating with the target audience, pass your heuristics for quality, and create memorable and enjoyable gaming experiences. Assuming there is one system or mechanic to rule them all is foolish and immature of both a game designer or player.

Addendum: The future of I, The Land

I, The Land was created for a one-page RPG jam. I intended to explore some of the concepts I have outlined above, and I love limitations like creating a game on a single page as it forces us to focus on what matters. It has been much more popular than I expected, and I am really glad that folks enjoy it!

I'm not done working on I, The Land. I'd like to do another iteration, perhaps even a full version 2. I would also like to incorporate additional content and themes. Every shuffle of the deck is a new set of possibilities.