Introduction to Game-Defining Concepts

Written by Matt Pavlovich

After some in-depth design analyses of a couple of our favorite recent games, Terra Mystica and Bora Bora, this month, we’re taking a closer look at some iconic mechanics and components and their impact on the design of the games they’re part of.

What makes a concept game-defining?

One way to think of a “game-defining” concept is as a component, mechanic, or other design element that is so closely connected to the identity of the game that it’s is inevitably talked about when the game is brought up. Well-known examples might include the “king” mechanic in checkers, the “letter tile” components in Scrabble, or the idea of a “trick” in bridge. The polyhedral dice used in Dungeons and Dragons could represent a game-defining concept in a few different ways: the idea of random variables operating under different probability distributions is central to the game’s behind-the-scenes math, the mechanic of rolling dice to resolve the outcome of an action is the single most important mechanic in the entire game, and the dice themselves are such distinctive components that anyone who has ever played the game instantly recognizes them.

It’s important to note that game-defining concepts don’t need to be unique to the games they define. Other board games besides Scrabble use tiles with letters on them, and the concept of a trick or trick-taking is part of dozens of card games in addition to bridge. These concepts just need to be unmistakably tied to the identity of a game.

As a game design blog, we’re most interested in analyzing the process of creating these game-defining concepts and thinking about their relationship with other design elements. A game-defining mechanic could be a particularly clever method of balancing or scaling a game. A unique or unusual game-defining component could boost the game’s monetary or collection value if players are intrigued by the component and want to play with it. And game-defining ideas might make a game more familiar by producing a clever twist on an old concept, or more parsimonious by novel graphical displays of the game state, increasing approachability in the process.

What are some characteristics of game-defining concepts?

Presenting clever, elegant, or unusual resolutions to in-game issues.

Race for the Galaxy

The “cards-as-currency” idea in Race for the Galaxy, San Juan, and Glory to Rome helps to solve a classic problem in card games: what if you get a pile of cards that you want none of? Most similar card games have external currencies, or currency cards that are also parts of the deck, plus a “discard and draw” phase that allows cycling through the deck. Spending cards to play cards allows the simplification of both the deck and the flow of play. In addition, it creates a secondary strategic layer: paying a card into the discard pile might allow your opponent to acquire that same card in the future.

Showing information in a concise, centralized, or attractive manner.

Poker

Poker chips are probably one of the greatest unsung reasons that televised poker has attracted such incredible mainstream popularity in the last several years. Of course, they’re functional for players, in that they’re easier to handle and organize than paper bills would be, and they can easily be abstracted to adopt whatever value the game might call for. But it’s equally important that they’re visually informative both for players and viewers. Anyone can tell at a glance how a particular player is doing in the game just by looking at the size of the player’s stack, and in situations where it’s important to keep track of how much each player contributed to a pot, it’s always easy to determine by a single glance at the chips.

Creating tension or acting as a game’s primary demand for strategy.

Hanabi

The fixed card order in Bohnanza and the backward-facing cards in Hanabi are ideas that define both of those games. Both would be simple set-collection card games except for their strategic “twists.” In Bohnanza, the constant pressure to eliminate cards at the front of the queue leads to all of the player interaction, including trades, donations, contingent trades, and whatever other deals might emerge. And in Hanabi, the incomplete information that comes from not being able to see your own cards drives the need to invent clever ways to communicate with the rest of the players and to remember what information you’ve been given yourself.

Cleopatra

Another example of a game-defining concept driving tension is the donation mechanic in Livingstone and the corruption mechanic Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. Throughout both games, the players voluntarily “donate” some of their resources by placing them in a chest, effectively removing those resources from the game. At the end of the game, the player who donated the least is automatically eliminated, regardless of his score or how much the other players donated. The catch is that the donation amounts are not public information, and much of the experience of both games is defined by the tension of what’s going to happen when the donations are revealed at the end.

Taking common elements and implementing them in an original manner.

Power Grid

Power Grid is so complex (and so brilliant) that there are plenty of mechanics that stand out, but for my money, the one that really defines the experience of playing Power Grid is the resource market. Obviously, the idea of selling various goods for different amounts of money is not particularly noteworthy. But Power Grid implements of a full-fledged economic system, complete with supply and demand driving prices and externalities in the form of the regeneration rates changing over the course of the game. It touches nearly all of the other aspects of the game, from which plants you want to buy at auction to how much you want to disadvantage your own position to keep an opponent from winning.

Modifying established gaming conventions.

Risk Legacy

The reason that Risk Legacy has caught the attention of gamers is that permanent changes are made to the game over the course of playing it. “Legacy”-style games offer unprecedented replayability and customization because they thought outside the design box enough to endorse permanent, physical modifications to the components. Around the World in 80 Days is played on a geographical map that you need to traverse from start to finish, similar to many “track” or “race” games. However, the winner is not necessarily the player who finishes first, but the player who finds the most efficient route.

Borderline game-defining concepts

There’s no algorithm for deciding whether or not a particular design element counts as “game-defining.” A given concept could be the single most important part of a game to one player but fail to make an impression on another player, or a concept could strike players as wonderfully innovative but lose its charm when other games eventually copy it. Here are a few “borderline” game-defining concepts that could really go either way.

Village

In Village, workers aren’t merely means of accomplishing actions, they’re family members that are born, live and work for a while, and eventually pass away. This mechanic is certainly an innovative take on the “workers as family members” concept used in Agricola and elsewhere, and it does drive strategy and tension in the late game. However, Village is not really about the personal lives of your family members in the same way that, say, the Harvest Moon video games are; and when stripping away the theme to examine only the mechanics, the elimination of workers is mostly in the game as a means of enforcing positional balance.

7 Wonders

7 Wonders is played out entirely over the course of a three-round draft, and the draft is a sufficiently central mechanic to the game that saying “7 Wonders is a card-drafting game about building a civilization” would be completely reasonable. The draft clearly creates intrigue in the game, as each card selection determines not only what cards you have but also what cards your opponents have access to. The problem with calling 7 Wonders’ draft a “game-defining concept” is that drafting is so commonplace, and 7 Wonders’ take on it not particularly original, that it’s more a family of mechanics than a unique concept. Saying that territory control is a game-defining concept in Risk doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the game-defining mechanic, which is why it’s tough to say the same for the card draft in 7 Wonders.

viaappia

One of the most unusual aspects of Via Appia is its dexterity-based “resource-pushing” mechanic. It’s the game’s most famous quirk, to the point that some players think of it as a gimmick, and pushing stones into the quarry is inexorably associated with Via Appia. As with Village, though, Via Appia is a game about building a road, not about pushing rocks. The quarry concept is Via Appia’s most noteworthy element but hardly the one that contributes the most to its strategy or tension, instead simply being one of many things available to do on a given turn.

Conclusion

Two important points to conclude with are that not every game, or even every successful game, has a game-defining concept; and not every interesting or clever concept is necessarily a game-defining one. Puerto Rico is one of the most perennially popular games because of its strategic depth and absence of luck, despite lacking a single component or mechanic that makes Puerto Rico Puerto Rico. The game isn’t necessarily about growing crops or shipping goods, even though those are common actions performed frequently throughout the game. The role selection is a well-designed mechanic, and an influential one, but it doesn’t define the game. Maybe the most innovative idea in Puerto Rico is the financial incentive to take less-popular roles, but it would be a little obtuse to describe Puerto Rico as “a game where you pick things to do, and you get paid to do the job nobody else wanted to.”

With that in mind, some of the best games–and some of our favorite games–do have these defining components, mechanics, or other concepts. As a designer, these elements can draw attention to your game, create buzz about it, and give you a point of reference for your entire design to crystallize around. Over this month, we’ll be giving various examples of game-defining concepts, from ancient abstracts to contemporary Euros, and discussing how those concepts interact with other design elements.

Further discussion:
  • What would you consider a “game-defining” concept? Does it need to “check off” certain attributes on a list, or is it enough to say that it’s the most salient element of a game?
  • Do our “borderline” examples fit the criteria for game-defining concepts or not?
  • What other examples of characteristic game-defining concepts are out there?
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8 comments on “Introduction to Game-Defining Concepts

  1. David

    Hi Matt. You talk about game defining concepts, have you considered how nomenclature in a game adds enjoyment. Using words like ‘destroy’ or ‘crown’ or ‘crash’ and so forth, might actually add enjoyment, not just illustrate an action or outcome of an action. I try to add words that people will like using during play. I playtested a game that had the word ‘burn’ in it and ‘conflation’, ‘fire sale’, ‘burn baby burn’ and so forth were spontaneously coined by the play testers during play. Thety seemed to enjoy using the words as much as the action and outcome.

    1. Matt Pavlovich

      Hi David, thanks for the comment, and that’s a really great example. I think that nomenclature can certainly add enjoyment, not to mention thematic immersion, to a game. A farming game with a “harvest” phase and a “gathering” phase is much more interesting than one with a “scoring” and a “cleanup” phase. If the vocabulary is creative enough, that can become a game-defining component itself.

      The TV show The Amazing Race does a fantastic job with that–instead of “tasks” or “challenges,” it has “detours” and “roadblocks,” it calls its instructions “route markers,” and so forth. Using interesting language elevates it from being just another reality competition show to one unmistakably about travel.

  2. Matt Pavlovich

    That’s an excellent point–what might be considered “game-defining” absolutely depends on context. Sometimes a particularly brilliant (or just memorable) idea ends up launching an entire genre instead of just defining a single game!

  3. blasphemous orifice (@iandioch)

    Interesting article, and a nice rundown of games to try out to widen your creative horizons. I’m surprised that Dominion was left out, as it seems to be what everyone jumps to when discussing things like that. A breath of fresh air to hear some other games :D

    1. Matt Pavlovich

      Thanks for the comment! To me, Dominion isn’t so much a game with a single game-defining concept as one that takes a basic genre (i.e. deck-building) and executes it particularly well. If anything, the most clever concept in Dominion is the “tipping point” between building your deck and buying victory cards. We plan to discuss that idea in much greater detail in another post later this year.

      1. Mark Josef

        That raises an interesting issue, then. Given Dominion created the deck-building mechanic, if other games didn’t follow suit, then I think deck building would very clearly be a game-defining concept for Dominion. But since the mechanic so quickly got copied into tons of other games, many with a unique twist on it (and many without a twist on it at all), it does seem like it’s harder to describe it as a game-defining feature for Dominion.

        1. Alex Harkey

          That’s a very good point, Ben. It’s an idea that was certainly new within the context of Dominion.

          The cycle of completely throwing out the old hand and starting with a new hand each turn is a key piece to Dominion’s success. If players were able to carry over some cards and draw back up to a full hand of five, the design would have resembled more of an ordinary hand-management game.

          Instead, we gained the need for deck management – organizing the composition and contents of one’s deck. I think that’s probably the most interesting evolution of game design we’ve seen from pool building games – managing our resources and thinning out the deck/pool so we can get to the best cards or resources more often.

          As an aside, I think it drastically reduces analysis paralysis – I’ve either gotta use the card in my hand or lose it, so I don’t even have the option to evaluate whether holding onto it would get me a slightly better benefit next turn or not. Preventing players from overthinking minor and trivial decisions is a trait of a great game design.

          Great thought Ben, thanks for joining us!

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