The Holy Grail of Game Design
Updated: Sep 1, 2019
I originally wrote this piece as a guest post about tabletop game design for Hyperbole Games.
The market is saturated with game mechanics, and it's only getting more saturated over time. Games aren't un-inventing themselves.
Because of this, 99+% of games are merely existing mechanics combined in a new way or with a new theme slapped on them. These games can certainly be fun and successful, but will have a far harder time standing out than a game with a completely fresh mechanic.
And this, friends, is why developing a new mechanic is the holy grail of game design.
So if you can come up with a mechanic that is both fun and novel, you should strongly consider developing it. That is one of the surest ways to create a unique game that has a chance of standing out amongst the crowd.
This can be a great way to design a game: find a fresh, fun mechanic (easier said than done) then figure out a game to fit around it.
Here are some games that did exactly that:
Apples to Apples - The mechanic: judge which player-chosen noun best describes your adjective. Brilliant. The dynamics change with every set of players because there is creative input.
Trivial Pursuit – The mechanic: guess the answers to insignificant questions. The pies and the board could have been designed a hundred different functional ways, and it would barely matter because the central mechanic is so strong.
Pictionary - The key mechanic is your partner has to guess what you’re quickly drawing. Another simple concept constructed into a wildly successful game.
Hungry Hungry Hippos – the key mechanic is eat marbles. Simple. Nailed it. Kids love it.
Magic: The Gathering – the mechanic: construct a deck from spells you find, by chance, in booster packs, then face off with other players. The game has many details, but the overarching mechanic has helped render it one of the most successful games of all time.
These examples may sound dated, but you recognize them because they were (and still are) wildly successful. Yes, Hungry Hungry Hippos is on this list. To find success, you don't need to design a game with an instruction manual as long and tedious as, say, waiting for your damn friends to finish taking their turns in Settlers. Quite the opposite. The more mechanics you have, the more watered-down your game is(unless your entire game is about exceptions, like CCGs). You want only as many mechanics as you need, and no more -- especially if you have a new mechanic! Don't hide it behind a bunch of noise!
So how do you find your holy grail? Start by understanding what kind of mechanics you are the most drawn to. Which ones get you the most excited, the most emotional... make you want to play for hours or throw that scheming troublemaker next to you into a running jet engine. Maybe you like deck building. Or traitors. Maybe voting, bidding, or trade. Perhaps storytelling. Or lying. Then brainstorm around those and combinations thereof to see if you happen upon something new.
Also, try and figure out why you like those mechanics, and imagine similar concepts in real life that may not have been applied to gaming yet. Yes – if you want a new mechanic, you might be better served searching for inspiration outside of gaming. What mechanics do people use in interesting or desperate situations in real life? Why do conflicts arise and how are they solved or manipulated? There are countless places to look for inspiration. You can look to math. Or nature. Or politics. And so on.
For example, a movie scene just came to mind – it’s an action movie with two heroes held hostage. They can escape, but can’t communicate by speaking or they’ll be heard and give up their plan. Maybe there’s a mechanic in there. Could we design a fun game where…
It’s everyone (the “good” players) against a villain, and the villain has to wear a blindfold for certain quick timed portions of the game.
The good players can only win by exchanging vital information.
But the good players can’t talk because if the villain overhears, it will put him at an advantage. So in the quick times when the villain is blindfolded, the good players must frantically try to convey as much info as possible to each other through gestures and signals.
What’s the new mechanic here? Timed windows of opportunity to communicate vital information while impaired. Is it fun? Maybe. Maybe not. Any possible new mechanic deserves some investigation. Perhaps the players are drawing cards, so they never know what they’re communicating ahead of time. Or perhaps there’s an element of lying that can be involved, “accidentally” being overheard communicating misinformation to mislead the villain. Or maybe players would develop a system while the villain is blindfolded, then use that system to communicate when he’s not. And maybe we mix it up and sometimes the villain is blindfolded, sometimes he can’t hear, sometimes both, sometimes neither – you never know.
The point is: there are plenty of these mechanics waiting to be discovered and toyed with, and hopefully with a little persistence you can make them fun and design them into a game that will stand out as unique. And hey, maybe you’ll even hit the mass market.
Or you can design a game with a bunch of resources. Some wood, perhaps. Or stone – stone’s a popular one these days. And cards that alter the number of resources you get. Like cloth or gold, which you can spend on more cards. And then make the scoring complicated, where you have to add up a bunch of stuff at the end and you never really know who wins until you do some calculus. Then you know you’ve got a great game, right?
Why don’t you look for your holy grail instead?
Because it’s out there... waiting for you to find it, waiting for you to influence the gaming industry forever and inspire countless generations of games to come.