Building Game-Defining Concepts

Written by Alex Harkey


This month we’ve been exploring brilliant mechanics, elegant components and revolutionary ideas in tapletop games. We’ve titled this month’s theme “Game-Defining Concepts” to encompass the variety and scope of all these innovations. These concepts help formulate the draw to specific games and often create a “hook” that will draw in an audience.

In this article we’re going to pursue some basic frameworks that game designers can utilize as a starting point to develop game-defining concepts. There is no such thing as a comprehensive list, but I’ll look at several key areas that can often develop game-defining concepts.

Question the Status Quo

One source of innovation is simply to ask the right questions about the current climate and format of a topic. We’ve seen innovation emerge in all areas of gaming using a simple question as a starting point. One source of these questions in gaming is to re-examine the typical approach of a player. Every new mechanic or idea in games may require an adjustment from player expectations but there are usually a number of accepted conventions players can carry between games as a method of comfort. Let’s look at card games as an example:

When I play a new card game I have a habit of picking up my cards, inspecting them, sorting them by type and begin to identify out how each card can benefit me. Even one twist to my subconscious routine can dramatically shift my expectations for a game, capture my interest and demand my attention.

In Hanabi I can’t look at my own cards, I can’t sort them in Bohnanza and not everything I’m holding is beneficial to me in Twilight Struggle. As a result Hanabi isn’t as much about playing cards as it is about communicating effectively. In Bohnanza I’m forced to make a deal with my opponents – any deal, in order to keep my strategic interests intact. A hand full of the wrong cards in Twilight Struggle will bring even the most fearless Cold War leader to their knees. Each of these titles questions an assumption we’ve been conditioned to believe in games but they thrive because they found a way to retain the crucial element that makes them great.

How do we retain the tension?

A turn in a game is traditionally a source of power; we observe others patiently until we can exert our ambitions. Hanabi, Bohnanza and Twilight Struggle each use the ability to associate conflicting emotions with the idea of a player turn.


The card game War has always been a game I played between activities I really wanted to do. When playing I don’t know what my cards are, I don’t have any control over the outcome and I was never particularly concerned with the results. It was a game of pure luck. In Hanabi I can’t see my cards but yet I do care. Occasionally in Hanabi my turn arrives but I don’t know if I interpreted a clue correctly. I don’t want to let my teammates down and that inherent concern is what allows Hanabi to really maximize on its premise. A similar hidden information idea has existed in half a dozen deduction games such as Code 777 for decades but none of these other games engage players with nearly the same level of commitment. Hanabi use of cooperative elements is the supporting element that solidified its primary hook.

A common planning behavior exists in card games like Spades where players tend to sort their cards and begin prioritizing the cards that will assist in winning tricks while pacing the play of weaker cards in order to maximize the effectiveness of their hand.


In Bohnanza the inability to sort cards puts a demand on players to plan quickly while being active during their opponent’s turn. Every player has constrained capacity and needs to offload merchandise soon, so they have to pay attention during their opponent’s turn. Unfortunately I’m going to end up stuck in some undesirable deals when I’m trying to keep my blooming fields intact. I’m constantly conflicted as the other players are both my opposition and the solution to my agricultural struggles.

Twilight Struggle

The card game Hearts uses its namesake suit as a burden to penalize opponents. Generally even a player dealt an undesirable hand can maneuver the play of cards to damage opponents.

In Twilight Struggle I really only want to play a portion of the cards I’m dealt each round as the remaining cards include events which can heavily damage my position. This is an interesting approach to card play as I often get just as much enjoyment from observing my opponent’s turn as I do from my own. The events can be devastating and the choices can be frustrating but the experience is tremendously worthwhile by the end of the game. The only way I’m able to maintain my sanity is the knowledge that my opponent is running through the same gauntlet.

All three games question a few simple ideas we’ve come to expect but they successfully manage to pair these changes with a complementary structure. Hanabi overcomes apathy by becoming a team communication game and fulfills the need for affiliation present in cooperative games. Bohnanza overcomes a tedious restriction by incorporating negotiation and allowing your opponents to become the solution. The card dynamics of Twilight Struggle work for several reasons but perhaps the largest is because they occur between two empathetic opponents battling on a bigger stage.

Other games which ask the right questions:


Shuffling cards is usually an afterthought but Pandemic wouldn’t be nearly the same experience without a change to emphasize tension. The deck intensification mechanic shuffles the most recent (also the most threatening) cards together and places them on top of the remainder of the deck.


Usually taking an action generates the certainty of a result. In Caylus players pay to locate workers on buildings organized in a linear path. The Provost is a small disc with a huge impact that can be manipulated by players up and down the path. Any buildings that come after the the Provost along the path are deactivated for a turn and provide no benefit to player workers. It’s a cutthroat mechanic that keeps everyone on edge.

Castles of Burgundy

Numerous games have questioned the idea that dice rolls have an absolute change in strength between result. Castles of Burgundy is a favorite example in which the benefits of rolling a 6 are not superior to those of rolling a 3 from one game to the next. Players may favor one number over another at any given time but generally the tension of Castles of Burgundy is finding a way to complete everything you’ve set out to perform.

Wits & Wagers

Wits & Wagers transformed the idea of a trivia game to include people who don’t ordinarily like trivia games. Players don’t have to feel deflated because they didn’t know the height of the Eiffel Tower. Players put in a guess, gain information from other guesses and then can make the decision on what answer makes for the best wager. It transitions trivia from a matter of being “correct” into a game of “calculated guesses”. This change encourages a population who has been previously discouraged by experiences with trivia games.

What games could have asked better questions?


In Clans, players move colored huts from one region to another in an area majority style of game. An interesting twist is that while you are trying to score points for your color, you don’t know exactly which color belongs to each of the other players. Performing moves during the game can provide points to multiple colors so naturally deducing your opponent’s color and avoiding their scoring opportunities is ideal. The problem comes is every time I’ve played this game I’m left wondering exactly how important it is to be concerned with your opponent’s colors.

Concealing your own identity in Clans is generally advisable so you don’t become a target of scoring discrimination by other players but you don’t really get a direct benefit from identifying your opponents. Additionally there are always five colors in play, so if you are playing with higher player counts, it isn’t nearly as important to identify the uncontrolled neutral colors as almost every color is controlled by an opponent anyway. Clans is actually a neat game but the hidden player color idea doesn’t seem well suited to this style of game. The concept doesn’t scale well in Clans as more players are added and the importance to game play can vary widely. A similar idea has been implemented in several racing style games such as Heimlich and Co which are functionally more uniform across player counts.

Killer Bunnies

One really fascinating approach that modifies the assumption that highest score wins is in Killer Bunnies series of games. Players collect a finite number of carrots and once all carrots have been collected the game ends. One carrot selected prior to the game is then revealed as the winning carrot and the player who collected that carrot wins. This is actually a great idea in that a player who falls behind but manages to collect just one carrot by the end of the game has a chance of victory but I’m not sure what to think about the inclusion here. This lottery mechanic fits with the general silly tone of the game but I’ve never completed a game without someone else expressing the same concerns. The whole game is saying “do your best in the midst of chaos” but the final result is saying “oh don’t worry, it didn’t really matter that much anyway”. If the player with the most carrots at the end of the game wins it feels expected but every other result often leaves other players feeling conflicted about the outcome.

Appeal to Elegance

We’ve written about the brilliant cards-as-currency idea used in San Juan, Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome many times as it is a really elegant merging of currencies. Our second method of building game-defining concepts may be more valuable to game designers in the middle of a design who are seeking a “hook” to draw an audience. Elegance can help create game-defining concepts which are just as powerful as innovative ideas.

Merge Essential Ideas


Concordia uses several really interesting mechanics to create an amazing gaming experience. Many players may consider the hand-building idea of Concordia its game-defining concept but I was far more impressed with another idea. The cards in Concordia drive all the game play actions a player may take during their turn and they also manage to function as the centerpiece for endgame scoring. A player may elect to buy a certain type of cards to drive their strategy, play those cards several times over the game and then use those cards to evaluate their intended strategy in final scoring. We’ll dive into critical aspects of games in future articles but this is a profoundly elegant concept to merge the primary action driver in a game with the final scoring. Players are able to definitively choose their path to victory.

A similar approach has been used in many games to merge the resource supply (draw deck or pool of resources) and the endgame conditions (depletion of the draw deck or resource supply). The idea of using the passing order of the previous turn to determine the turn order of the following turn was perhaps the most inevitable application of merging necessary elements for the benefit of game play flow.

A few opportunities that may spark ideas

Merge the involvement of pre-game set-up with the initial turn order. This would encourage experienced players to pitch-in and assist with setting up a game efficiently so they gain the advantage of going earlier. New players generally want to go later in the turn order anyway to observe sample turns so this may work effectively.

Merging tiebreakers with player efficiency. I’m not typically fond of lengthy tiebreaker scenarios (Check condition A, then B, then C…until a winner is decided). Reward the player who spent the least amount of actual time on their turns with the tiebreaker victory. This has been done using other criteria, but why not encourage a shorter playing time? This would take a specific type of game to work effectively.

Streamline Actions and Information


Image courtesy of Chris Norwood

The Rondel used in games like Antike, Imperial, Navegador and many other games is a fascinating usage of Navigation and Parsimony in game design. Mac Gerdts introduced his signature idea in the middle of a decade where the process of a turn was frequently becoming more and more complex. The idea of putting players on a pre-defined track which limits turn options probably sounded crazy but has grown in popularity with many innovations and flavors that have emerged since we first observed it.


Image courtesy of BGG User Steph

Uwe Rosenberg has used resource wheels in several games including Ora et Labora and more recently Glass Road. These wheels consolidate information in comparison to the masses of resource chits used in a game like Le Havre and players are able to easily observe and organize information while minimizing the time spent exchanging resources each turn.


Image courtesy of BGG User cuazzel

Many games which incorporate the shipping or trading of goods utilize a price chart for reference of the going rate of goods sold. Darjeeling uses a visually elegant method of tracking supply and demand. Using two demand markers in each color, a player who wishes to sell tea they move the lowest tea marker to the top of the “chute”. The player then earns a bonus equal to the number of other goods markers between the two tea markers. Players can quickly observe that goods close to the top of the chute have been shipped more recently and will earn a smaller demand bonus while goods toward the bottom haven’t been shipped recently and will earn a larger bonus.


T’zolkin: The Mayan Calendar uses an amazing visual of functional gears which has generated tremendous attention due to the component production value. One of the primary benefits the gear system does is eliminate the repetitive nature of collecting resources for every player on every turn. One spin of the central gear advances all of the player actions to their next space in a fraction of the time.

What other elements are there to explore?

I’ve collected numerous other interesting ideas over the years that I think are representative of concepts which are still largely uncharted territory in games. Here are a few of them:

Light & Shadows

Image courtesy of BGG User Mike

Waldschattenspiel is nearly thirty years old but offers one of the most original experiences you’ll ever encounter in games. In a light similarity to the childhood game of freeze-tag, one player uses a candle and moves along several pathways attempting to find the dwarves of other players hiding in the shadows. The dwarves begin all over the board and can win the game if they converge behind the shadow of a single tree. Dwarves may only move in the shadows and if a dwarf is ever revealed by light they are frozen in place until touched by another dwarf. The candlelight player wins the game if they are able to freeze all of the dwarves.


If you really think about it, it’s quite incredible that board games are so often turn-based. We’re civil enough to wait for our opponents to finish their turns and while new games have deviated from this trend there is still a lot to be explored.

Galaxy Trucker

Galaxy Trucker is one of the best examples of using a “free-for-all” approach to streamline the player experience. Since the task of creating your ship ordinarily requires many considerations, a turn-based approach would severely dilute the player experience and prolong the game. Instead, Galaxy Trucker embraces the ridiculous nature of its ship-building and the player experience is better for it.


A real-time idea is used with queuing actions in Time n’ Space where players use 1-minute hourglass timers when manufacturing goods, traveling between locations and performing various other actions. Players are constantly pressed to use time effectively and manage all these actions while trading with opponents and upgrading facilities.


Space Alert

One last thought I’ll include is a bit of an oddball but one I wouldn’t have considered beyond a specific example. In Space Alert players are taking on a rapid series of events identified using a mission track on an accompanying CD. Players must communicate (when possible) and re-configure the execution of actions in order to adapt to the ensuing chaos and succeed on the mission. The experience of playing Space Alert is so innovative it earned a special award from the jury of the Spiel des Jahres.


Matt and I thought a monthly topic about some of the best ideas in games would be a fascinating choice but it came with a number of limitations. With all this emphasis we should help keep things in perspective with a few words of wisdom:

  • patreon2A game certainly doesn’t need to have a “game-defining” concept to be great. Many of these concepts are strong sales points and may help the parent games stand the test of time, but most games will naturally fade in popularity.
  • Asking good questions isn’t nearly as important as asking the right questions. These ideas didn’t arrive overnight and attempting to plug them into a design will probably create unnecessary design restraints for you long-term. Examine the problems of your current design and first seek a structural solution rather than a brilliant solution.
  • Don’t be afraid of asking the wrong questions. Many of these ideas still seem strange even in their published states. Keep moving with wild ideas but constantly re-evaluate their design fit.

4 comments on “Building Game-Defining Concepts

  1. Lee Ambolt

    this didnt make much sense to me
    “Concealing your own identity in Clans is generally advisable so you don’t become a target of scoring discrimination by other players but you don’t really get a direct benefit from identifying your opponents.”

    if concealing your identity is beneficial then logically that also indicates that its a disadvantage to having your identity known, as you described. hence, finding out what colour your opponents are directly gives that exact benefit.

    1. Alex Harkey

      You bring up an interesting inconsistency, Lee! I think I could have expanded my exact thought more clearly, but the disadvantage is isolated to your color while any advantage you might gain is spread thinly over all player colors. In a multiplayer game of Clans, I don’t think the advantage of deducing another player’s color and the disadvantage of having your own unveiled are in any way equal.

      If I play in a way that telegraphs that I’m the red player, at best opponents will simply work to keep my red clan from performing well enough to win. At worst I thrown into a scoring well as my huts get eliminated or positioned poorly.

      Now lets say I come to the idea that you are the green player. I managed to narrow down some information, but it doesn’t exactly gain me much; I can’t really use this information to score any better and I still have several other player colors to deduce before I gain a significant advantage. I might work a little more to keep green from outperforming my color but I was probably trying to do that anyway.

      Hidden identity games often follow the same logic except something like player elimination is included to keep the stakes high. I’ll never turn down a game of Clans but I just don’t think the hidden player color works as strong as intended here.

      I’m glad you brought this up as it gave me another chance to think about it. I still don’t think my opinion is in any way infallible, but something about this aspect of the game has always left me underwhelmed. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Christia Barrett

    regarding time i thought you might mention KHRONOS and THEBES, both of which use time in an entertaining way as part of the game mechanics

    1. Alex Harkey

      Great examples Christia! I actually had the turn order of Thebes in the original draft but I had to cut it down to a reasonable size. I didn’t think of Khronos but it makes for a great example with time-travel.

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