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Game mechanic

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


A game mechanic is a construct of rules intended to produce an enjoyable game or gameplay. All games use mechanics, however theories and styles differ as to their ultimate importance to the game. In general, the process and study of game design is the effort to come up with game mechanics that allow for people playing a game to have a fun and engaging experience.

The interaction of various game mechanics in a game determines the complexity and level of player interaction in the game, and in conjunction with the game's environment and resources determines game balance. Some forms of game mechanics have been used in games for centuries, while others are relatively new, having been invented within the past decade. The creation of new game mechanics, and ways in which existing ones can interact, is an ongoing goal of game designers.

Complexity in game mechanics should not be confused for depth or even realism. Go is perhaps one of the simplest of all games, yet exhibits extraordinary depth of play. Most computer or video games feature mechanics that are technically complex (when expressed in terms of making a human do all the calculations involved) even in relatively simple designs. The development of new game mechanics is limited only imagination and ingenuity of game designers.

In general, commercial video games have gone from simple designs (such as Asteroids) to extremely complex ones (such as Splinter Cell) as processing power has increased. In contrast, casual games have generally featured a return to simple, puzzle-like designs, though some are getting more complex. In physical games, differences generally come down to style, and intended market.

Game mechanics vs. gameplay

Gameplay refers to overall game experience or essence of the game itself. There is some confusion as to the difference between game mechanics and gameplay. For some, gameplay is nothing more than a set of game mechanics. For others, gameplay, especially when referenced in the term of "basic gameplay" refers to certain core game mechanics, which determine the overall characterics of the game itself.

For example, the basic gameplay of a shooting or fighting game is to hit while not being hit. In a graphic adventure game, the basic gameplay is to solve puzzles related to the context. The basic gameplay of Poker is to produce certain numerical or categorical combinations. Golf's basic gameplay is to hit a ball and reach designated spot.

The goal of these games is slightly different from the gameplay itself. While, for example, reaching the end of stage (platform) or killing the boss, or completing the story (RPG) or sinking the ball into a hole (golf) may be the purpose of playing a game, the fun of playing a game is derived primarily by the means and the process in which such goal is achieved. Basic gameplay defines what a game is, while game mechanics determine what the entire game consists of.

However, from a programming or overall design perspective, basic gameplay can be deconstructed further to reveal constitutent game mechanics. For example, the basic gameplay of fighting game can be deconstructed to attack and defence, or punch, kick, block, dodge and throw which can be further deconstructed to strong/weak punch/kick. For this reason, the game mechanics is more of an engineering concept while gameplay is more of a design concept.

Game mechanics vs. theme

Games that are mechanically similar can vary widely in subject matter, or theme. Eurogames often feature relatively simple systems, and stress the mechanics, with the theme merely being a context to place the mechanics in. Wargames, at the other extreme, are often known for extremely complex rules, and sometimes reusing entire rulesets in new games, as a change in the battle or war being fought (or theme) alone can make it be considered a completely new game.

Game mechanics

Game mechanics fall into several more or less well-defined categories, which (along with basic gameplay and theme) are sometimes used as a basis to classify games.


A game turn is an important fundamental concept to almost all non-computer games, and many computer games as well (although in video games, various real-time genres have become much more popular). In general, a turn is a segment of the game set aside for certain actions to happen before moving on to the next turn, where the sequence of events can largely repeat. In a truly abstract game (backgammon) turns are nothing more than a means to regulate play. In less abstract games (Risk), turns obviously denote the passage of time, but the amount of time is not clear, nor important. In simulation games, time is generally more concrete. Wargames usually specify the amount of time each turn represents, and in sports games a turn is usually distinctly one 'play', although the amount of time a play takes can vary.

Some games use player turns where one player gets to perform his actions before another player can perform any on his turn (Monopoly and chess would be classic examples). Some use game turns, where all players contribute to the actions of a single turn (board-game simulations of American football tend to have both players pick plays and then determine the outcome; each 'play' or 'down' can be considered a turn). Some games have 'game turns' that consist of a round of player turns, possibly with other actions added in (Civilization plays with a series of player turns followed by a trading round in which all players participate).

In games that are meant to be some sort of simulation, the on/off nature of player turns can cause problems, and has led to a few extra variations on the theme. The semi-simultaneous turn allows for some reactions to be done during the other player's turn (probably best exemplified by the game Advanced Squad Leader). The impulse-based turn divides the turn into smaller segments or impulses where everyone does some of their actions at one time, and then reacts to the current situation before moving on to the next impulse (as seen in Star Fleet Battles or Car Wars).

In some games, not all turns are alike. Usually, this is difference in what phases (or different portions of the turn) happen. Imperium Romanum II for instance, features a "Taxation and Mobilization Phase" in every third turn (month), which does not occur in the other turns. Napoleon has an unusual variation on the idea, where every third player turn is 'night turn' where combat is not allowed.

Action points

These control what players may do on their turns in the game by allocating each player a budget of “action points” each turn. These points may be spent performing various actions according to the game rules, such as moving pieces, drawing cards, collecting money, etc. This type of mechanic is common in many German-style board games. Magic points are an example of a specialized type of action points that is used in many role-playing games.

Auction or bidding

Some games use an auction or bidding system in which the players make competitive bids to determine which player gets the right to perform particular actions. Such an auction can be based on different forms of "payment":

  • The winning bidder must pay for the won privilege with some form of game resource (game money, points, etc) (e.g.: RA).
  • The winning bidder does not pay upon winning the auction, but the auction is a form of promise that the winner will achieve some outcome in the near future. If this outcome is not achieved, the bidder pays some form of penalty. Such a system is used in many trick-taking games, such as contract bridge.

In some games the auction determines a unique player who gains the privilege; in others the auction orders all players into a sequence, often the sequence in which they take turns during the current round of game play.


These involve the use of cards similar to playing cards to act as a randomiser and/or to act as tokens to keep track of states in the game.

A common use is for a deck of cards to be shuffled and placed face down on or near the game playing area. When a random result is called for, a player draws a card and what is printed on the card determines the outcome of the result.

Another use of cards occurs when players draw cards and retain them for later use in the game, without revealing them to other players. When used in this fashion, cards form a game resource.


In some games, the number of tokens a player has on the playing surface is related to his current strength in the game. In such games, it can be an important goal to capture opponent's tokens, meaning to remove them from the playing surface.

Captures can be achieved in a number of ways:

  • Moving one of one's own tokens into a space occupied by an opposing token (e.g. chess, pachisi).
  • Jumping a token over the space occupied by an opposing token (e.g. draughts).
  • Declaring an "attack" on an opposing token, and then determining the outcome of the attack, either in a deterministic way by the game rules (e.g. Stratego, Illuminati), or by using a randomising method (e.g. Illuminati: New World Order).
  • Surrounding a token with one's own tokens in some manner (e.g. go).
  • Playing cards or other resources that the game allows to be used to capture tokens.

In some games, captured tokens are simply removed and play no further part in the game (e.g. chess). In others, captured tokens are removed but can return to play later in the game under various rules (e.g. backgammon, pachisi). Less common is the case in which the capturing player takes possession of the captured tokens and can use them himself later in the game (e.g. shogi, Reversi, Illuminati).


Some games include a mechanic designed to make progress towards victory more difficult the closer a player gets to it. The idea behind this is to allow trailing players a chance to catch up and potentially still win the game, rather than suffer an inevitable loss once they fall behind.

An example is from Settlers of Catan. This game contains a neutral piece (the robber), which slows the progress of players whose pieces it is near. Players occasionally get to move the robber, and frequently choose to position it where it will cause maximal disruption to the player currently winning the game. This may be desirable in racing games with a fixed finish line.

Other games do the reverse, making the player in lead more capable of winning, such as in Monopoly, and thus the game is drawn to an end sooner. This may be desirable in zero-sum games.


These involve the use of dice, usually as randomisers. Most dice used in games are the standard cubical dice numbered from 1 to 6, but increasing numbers of games make use of polyhedral dice or dice marked with symbols other than numbers.

The most common use of dice is to randomly determine the outcome of an interaction in a game. An example is a player rolling dice to determine how many board spaces to move a game token.

Dice also often determine the outcomes of in-game conflict between players, with different outcomes of the dice roll of different benefit (or adverse effect) to each player involved. This is useful in games that simulate direct conflicts of interest.


Many board games involve the movement of playing tokens. How these tokens are allowed to move, and when, is governed by movement mechanics.

Some game boards are divided into more or less equally-sized areas, each of which can be occupied by one or more game tokens. (Often such areas are called squares, even if not strictly square in shape.) Movement rules will specify how and when a token can be moved to another area. For example, a player may be allowed to move a token to an adjacent area, but not one further away. Dice are sometimes used to randomise the allowable movements.

Other games, particularly miniatures games are played on surfaces with no marked areas. A common movement mechanic in this case is to measure the distance which the miniatures are allowed to move with a ruler. Sometimes, generally in naval wargames, the direction of movement is restricted by use of a turning key.

Resource management

Many games involve the management of resources. Examples of game resources include game tokens, game money, and game points. Resource management involves the players establishing relative values for various types of available resources, in the context of the current state of the game and the desired outcome (i.e. winning the game). The game will have rules that determine how players can increase, spend, or exchange their various resources. The skilful management of resources under such rules allows players to influence the outcome of the game.


Role-playing games often rely on mechanics that determine the effectiveness of in-game actions by how well the player acts out the role of a fictional character. While early role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons relied heavily on randomisers such as dice to determine the outcomes of role-playing actions such as diplomatic negotiations, later generations of narrativist games sometimes use the standard of "good role-playing" as a modifier or even the sole determinant of whether such an action is successful.


Many games use tiles - flat, rigid pieces of a regular shape - that can be laid down on a flat surface to form a tessellation. Usually such tiles have patterns or symbols on their surfaces, that combine when tessellated to form game-mechanically significant combinations.

The tiles themselves are often drawn at random by the players, either immediately before placing them on the playing surface, or in groups to form a pool or hand of tiles from which the player may select one to play.

Tiles can be used in two distinct ways:

  • The playing of a tile itself is directly significant to the outcome of the game, in that where and when it is played contributes points or resources to the player.
  • Tiles are used to build a board upon which other game tokens are placed, and the interaction of those tokens with the tiles provides game points or resources.

Examples of tile mechanics include: Scrabble, in which tiles are letters and players lay them down to form words and score points; and Tikal, in which players lay tiles representing newly explored areas of jungle, through which archaeologists (represented by tokens) must move to score game points.

Victory condition mechanics

These mechanics control how a player wins the game.


This is the most general sort of victory condition, which can be broad enough to encompass any method of winning, but here refers to game-specific goals that are usually not duplicated in other games. An example is the checkmate of a king in chess.

Piece elimination

Some games with capture mechanics are won by the player who removes all, or a given number of, the opponents' playing pieces.

Puzzle guessing

Some games end when a player guesses (or solves by logic) the answer to a puzzle or riddle posed by the game. The player who guesses successfully wins. Examples include hangman and zendo.


Many simple games (and some complex ones) are effectively races. The first player to advance one or more tokens to or beyond a certain point on the board wins. Examples: backgammon, ludo.

Structure building

The goal of a structure building game is to acquire and assemble a set of game resources into either a defined winning structure, or into a structure that is somehow better than those of other players. In some games, the acquisition is of primary importance (e.g. concentration), while in others the resources are readily available and the interactions between them form more or less useful structures (e.g. poker).

Territory control

A winner may be decided by which player controls the most "territory" on the playing surface, or a specific piece of territory. This is common in wargames, but is also used in more abstract games such as go.

Victory points

These are points that a player accumulates over the course of a game. The winner can be decided either by:

  • The first player to reach a set number of points.
  • The player with the most points at a predetermined finishing time or state of the game.

This mechanic is often used explicitly in German-style board games, but many other games are played for points that form a winning condition. Victory points may be partially disguised in the role of game resources, with play money being a common example.

See also

  • Game clock
  • Kingmaker scenario
  • Pie rule

External links

  • List of games sorted by mechanic at BoardGameGeek
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