Game Design

Game mechanics are about quality, not quantity

A little tale about killing your baby.

In my game, players compete to overthrow the current government of Rome and become its first ruler. They do this through passing policies to resolve various crises that Rome faces. Players play against the game itself (similar to a game like Pandemic), and they also play against each other.

Neat, so how has it worked out so far?

In my first iterations of the game, the general flow was such:

  1. When Rome isn’t facing a crisis, a player draws a Crisis Card
  2. Players take actions based on the Crisis Card (for example, if it’s a Military Conflict, Rome loses soldiers and population) that requires an excess of a resource to be resolved
  3. Players then take turns passing policies that take an input of resources and have an output of some kind in order to resolve the crisis
  4. The policy cards are types of action cards—their output gives players a small amount of a resource or allow them to construct buildings which let them build the resources without needing to pass policy
  5. Each player has their own win condition to become the first Emperor of Rome—typically by creating an excess of a resource (population, money, military, etc.)

Sounds fun, right? Wrong.

Tell me more about how awful your game was…

I had this idea in my head that adding more elements to a game would make it more engaging, more challenging. What I found was that I was putting in arbitrary obstacles which caused players to not worry about their real threat: each other.

Ore mining card from Alpha 4 (leftmost) and its Alpha 5 replacement. Clay tokens on the right.
Structures that players built once the right policy, money, and resources were in play.

My game ballooned into a tangle of passing policy to build structures which allow you to get the resources that you needed to keep Rome afloat—and you needed a lot of resources. There’s challenging, and there’s bullying. I created a game that was bullying the players into cooperation. What I wanted to make was a game that gave players the opportunity to bully themselves.

Smash it! Smash it! Smash it!

I got rid of the structures as a game mechanic altogether and moved to a simpler one of people passing policy to result in a direct cost/gain of resources.

I faced the Philippa Foot Trolly Problem—I had to kill one mechanic to save the herd [of mechanics] within my game.

At first, I was worried that I had just reduced my game to the likes of Uno…a game with simple action cards and annoyingly simple outcomes. But then I realized that I was just clearing out the clutter. There were fewer fiddly bits (that’s a real term, by the way) and people could focus on the meat of the game.

Sounds like it all ended perfectly then…

Not quite. I’ve been developing this game for a whole year. Even when I had win conditions for the players, I had major balance issues with the game.

By Neutrino Burrito

A writer and board game designer currently puttering about the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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