This week I am going to delve into game mechanics and what in my opinion makes good mechanics for a given game that has a theme. Before I started designing games I watched a video by the fantastic people at Extra Credits talking about Mechanics as Metaphor in video games and a link to that video will be at the end of this post.This helped me see that games not only as a pastime but also as a teaching tool for any number of skills, historical events or facts in life. The Mechanics of these games are vastly important in helping determining the learning experience that one could have and the lessons they take away from the experience. In my opinion, when a designer is making a game they must think about the experience they are giving the player a provide mechanics that complement or enhance that experience.
There are games that have no metaphor with them such as: rummy, poker, Majong, BS, Cribbage, Yahtzee, Hearts, etc and thus are not a part of this discussion. However for a large number of games mechanics can help enforce the feel of a game or detract from it if the wrong mechanics are used.
So what is an example of good mechanics as metaphor? For that I will look to a game I have mentioned in previous blog posts: The Grizzled. For those that aren’t familiar with The Grizzled, it is a Co-op game for 2-5 player where players are soldiers in World War One and are simply trying to survive to the end of the war alive. Throughout the game there is a constant feeling of frustration and dread which simulates the feelings of those on the front lines in WW1 and the mechanics enforce that.
Right off the bat, we can start to see some of the mechanics as metaphor from the goal of the game and how it is structured. It would be quite simple to have a game where players fought one another to survive but in thinking about the scale of the conflict and how the soldiers felt in the middle of WW1 it would make sense to have the game or rather the war itself, as the enemy players are trying to survive from. This initial decision helps the frame the rest of the game as not a conflict in the traditional sense between players who have agency over each other but rather that the players are not powerful and thus must try to survive despite the game. This also helps set the players’ expectations going into the game. On a given round there are 4 phases of play, Preparation, The Mission, Support, and Morale Drop. Each of these phases have mechanics that help enforce the theme of desperately trying to survive despite a cruel, uncaring, world that is falling apart around them.
The Preparation phase simply helps players determine how many cards they will attempt to remove from the Mission deck (the deck they are trying to deplete to win). This phase makes the player who’s turn it is to prepare feel like a leader as they evaluate the group as a whole and then choose the number of cards for everyone to draw.
During the Mission phase players try to play cards from their hand or take special actions to deplete the Mission deck so they can win. However, on each of these cards has hazards on it or are status effect cards called hard knocks that cause difficulties to all the players (such as forcing players to keep playing cards until they have only 1 card in their hand). If a player has too many hard knock cards then all of the players lose. In the entire deck of 59 cards, there is only 1 card that has a truly positive power: The Christmas card. Some of the hazard cards however cause other hazard, or hard knock, cards to be played potentially causing an endgame or failure of the mission. In addition to playing cards players can also use their special ability to help avoid hazards and even give speeches to avoid a card and all of its hazards altogether. These abilities though are very limited and either require all players to vote to restore another player’s ability (or remove 2 Hard Knocks) or are removed from the game entirely. All of these actions during the Mission Phase help enforce the game’s theme and the mechanics behind them further that metaphor. In the case of playing hazards or hard knocks, players have to navigate their plays to get rid of as many cards as possible without causing 3 matching cards to be played and to avoid any one play from acquiring too many hard knocks. If 3 cards are matched then all of the cards played are shuffled back into the mission deck adding onto the feeling of dread and frustration that soldiers faced in WW1. Finally, with almost all of the cards carrying negative effects players then have dread each play which is a perfect metaphor for how the soldiers must have felt going into battle time and time and time again.
The Support Phase is where players choose secretly (or sometimes at random) which player they will give support. to based on support tiles that allocate support based how many players to the left or right of the player. If a player has a majority of support played then they can either get rid of 2 hard knock cards or to refresh their special ability. All of the tokens are passed to the various supported players (not just the player with the majority). There are two important things to take away from this phase in how it enforces the mechanics: one the use of proximity is brilliant because it helps the players understand that in helping someone requires proximity especially when you are dealing with a traumatic scenario. The second thing to take away is that the support gets handed off helping enforce the idea that if you get supported you are able to help other people in the future.
The Morale Drop is when the oppressive feeling of war sets in with cards get added onto the Mission deck from another deck. The number of cards added is equal to the number of cards in all player’s hands making the preparation and mission phases more important; if too few cards are initially drawn from the deck that round and there are not enough cards played then there are more cards in the next round to try to deplete. If the deck adding onto the Mission deck is depleted, the players also lose. The importance of this mechanic is to put pressure on the players to draw and play a lot of cards but that if they fail to play all of them then they are more likely to fail.
From the initial structure of The Grizzled and in each of the four phases of play, the emphasis is to provide an experience to the players that they are in a war much bigger than them and that their mission are fraught with peril. The Preparation phase has the team leader trying to decide how much of a risk to take. From the Mission Phase, the dread of going into battle and the psychological effects of war. The attempts to calm one’s allies and the realization that you can’t always help everyone comes from the Support Phase. Finally the crushing feeling of the continuation of the war and its mounting pressure comes from the Morale Drop phase. With these phases of play coupled with a cooperative setting and simple goal of getting rid of cards to survive The Grizzled is a fantastic game from how it simulated several of the dread, frustration, and hopelessness of being a soldier in WW1 without having players leave the table.
This is just my thoughts this Easter Sunday. My final thoughts for you would be what do you think would change if the mechanics of play were different? What would happen if the game was a 1 vs. many instead of co-op for example? I hope all of you think about other games that use their mechanics to enforce a real life metaphor. Have a great day!
Extra Credits video on mechanics and metaphor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QwcI4iQt2Y