It’s Not Always Mechanics

There’s a tendency I’ve noticed in myself and other designers to try to fix everything in a game by focusing on the core mechanics, the basic rules of the game.

When I was working on the Kayn Somos expansion for Star Wars: Imperial Assault, my first instinct in designing my mission was to look for an interesting mechanical twist on the gameplay to reinforce what players already found fun. Moving and shooting enemies was the most fun part of the game, with skill checks and long defenses being much weaker. So I started with a premise of shooting as many storm troopers as possible, trying out different rewards for shooting them. I tried introducing a morale system, item drops, all sorts of stuff. It just kept being an over-complicated mess.

Finally things clicked when I stopped trying to think of new core mechanics to add to the game and just focused on setting up a scenario that let the existing gameplay shine. The mission design became entirely about creating an exciting ebb and flow for the players with ambushes, retreats and a satisfying climax that showed off our villain’s existing abilities. Not a single rule was changed.

I’ve noticed this mentality a lot since that breakthrough. For example, while working on Faeria we noticed that the core mechanics of the game made certain sizes of creatures weaker than  others. While a 6/6 for 6 faeria (faeria is the game’s core currency) was strong and a 1/1 for 1 faeria was strong… A 3/3 for 3 faeria was too weak. Someone suggested that we could redo the core combat rules worked on a fundamental and more complex level in a way that made all the sizes equally good.

Naturally, the simplest solution is not to mess with the core rules at all. If a 3/3 for 3 faeria is too weak, why not just make a 3/4 for 3 faeria instead?

A lot of great mechanics have some fundamental issues. I’ve seen some great game ideas and faction mechanics get dismissed because of a problem with the core gameplay that could have been solved by implementing the design cleverly. For example, the free-for-all multiplayer format in Magic the Gathering heavily discourages aggression. In that game, if your creature attacks it can’t defend against any of the other players. If it doesn’t, it can defend against ALL of the other players. Also, attacking people can make them mad at you… And that’s not good when people might gang up to take you out.

So when Magic decided to make a free-for-all set, they filled it with mechanics that encouraged aggression. One was called “dethrone”, which explicitly rewarded players for attacking the enemy with the highest life total. This gave players a reason to attack and a specific target, who couldn’t really complain that you were unfairly picking on him or her. After all, your cards were telling you exactly who to attack for the benefit.

It’s sometimes hard to remember that game mechanics don’t exist on their own. Our initial response might be to change the game’s rules to fix a problem, but it’s often easier to just design the game’s content with the rules’ limitations in mind. Faeria’s unusual resource system (as compared to most card popular card games) has a lot of advantages in opening strategic options, but also meant that we used to have trouble pushing games to a concluion. Now we’ve implemented a set of powerful cards that only get stronger the longer the game goes. They’re doing a great job, along with some similar designs, of solving this issue ithin the game’s content itself. And we still get the benefits of our resource system.

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