The Mechanisn’t: Intro

More often than not, board games are described in a similar pattern to this:

  • “Lord of the Rings with hidden movement!” (War of the Ring)
  • “Farming with worker placement!” (Agricola)
  • “Egyptian myths fighting each other with customizable powers!” (Kemet)

In those three examples, I’m doing a theme + mechanic equation. It’s easy to explain what a game is when you describe it in terms of it’s constituent parts, as long as those parts are familiar. Movie genres are this way too. Hereditary is a horror movie about a messed up family. Categories are useful. They help us move and sort information, and put it into boxes that make sense. Board games often involve points, and winners and losers. They’re quantifiable, and this characteristic lends itself towards categorization. Mechanics are a useful way to describe a game, and the elegance of a mechanic ought to describe how good the game is, no? Only if we believe that categorization and mechanics are the only things that matter. For me, games are experiential and human experience cannot be easily judged and neatly divided up into categories.

I want to talk about mechanics in a way that does more than just describe what they do–I want to talk about mechanics in a way that describes what they promise, and how those same mechanics can interact with materials, emotions, theming, personality types, and environment. I think these sorts of conversations can give us a better and fuller understanding of what makes a game interesting, and how games with similar mechanics offer fundamentally different experiences.

For people who haven’t bought into what I’m saying, I’ll engage with a video from Paul Dean here real quick. In his review of Friedemann Friese’s 504 (embedded below), he echoes the game’s marketing as an “experiment.”

What’s the goal of the experiment here? For those who don’t know, 504 is a game about making (possible) 504 distinct games by combining different mechanics, held together by a common ruleset.

This experiment’s central conceit or thesis is that games are mechanics, and all it takes to make a game is to combine different mechanics together with a strong enough glue (in this case, the rules) and voila! You have 504 different games.

Now, I’m not reviewing 504 here, because I think the concept is cool, and I admire the ambition of the design. But, it does illustrate what I believe to be a false premise about art and experience (which board games surely fall under the purview of). The experience of a Van Gogh is not just brushwork. A game is not just endless recombined mechanics.

The combination of the elements that make a game a game generates something larger than the constituent parts. Games are not just mechanics, just like a movie is not just actors or a director or cinematography. Games are their designers and they are also their mechanics, and the people who play them, and the artwork, and the theme.

If you like Friedemann Friese (I do), you will find something of value within the design of 504, because you like the way that he pulls together a game. However, in my opinion, when an element becomes the defining characteristic of anything, I lose interest. People, games, it doesn’t matter. The sum is more important than the parts for me. That’s what I’ll be working with when you see the title “The Mechanisn’t.”