Characteristics & mechanics of games.

The mechanics within games vary a great deal. Games work in such different ways.
These notes are just a brief outline, culled from various more expert websites.

Abstract – no ‘theme’

Abstract games have no underlying theme or scenario, so there is no hidden information – nothing to discover other than what the powers of the cards or pieces are. That’s not to say that they cannot be attractively designed.

Outcomes depend almost totally on decisions that players make, so players need to look and think ahead to outmanoeuvre their opponent.

Standard card games are abstract – you know, those olde worlde games.

HiveSpades …. Fox in the Forest …. Tiny Towns

Action now (decide) ~ move later

Players make decisions about what they’re going to do and do it later: an interesting mechanic. Their decisions may be secret (not always). They cannot change their minds later, when the actions & consequences of their decisions follow. So, a planned action that seemed such a good idea at the time may turn out to be far from good when it’s executed, because the state of play has changed.

Games with this mechanic may call for ‘but if I did this, might she have done that’ thinking – lots of what if. Players who can see strategic states that might develop out of other players’ decisions might get it right (sometimes). The approach can make a game intriguing, annoying, and exciting.

Colt Express6Nimmt!

Area control/influence.

Area control often crops up in games with a board, map, or laid-down structure defining areas that players compete to control, often through military, political, or economic influence. This is usually through adding their own pieces to regions or areas, or by removing opponents’ pieces. Sometimes the control can come through denying access to areas rather than taking them yourself.

Some are strategic games, requiring attention to what’s going on over the layout, and planning ahead to take control. Some loosely mimic the expansions of real-world systems, and the way they may decline under pressure from outside forces.


Clue creation – words, pictures, sentences, stories …

Whilst some of the players will have to find the answer using lateral thinking abilities or their memories, other player(s) must first have given some sort of clue or indication as to what they’re seeking. The pressure felt by clue givers may be even greater than the answer seekers, since they have to come up with something that stands a chance of being guessed, and of bringing them benefit. They must do this without breaking rules, and without giving the game away to all & sundry.

The range of demands varies across games of course. In some, the demand on the clue giver may be as little as pointing to a concept-icon, whilst in others it is much more ‘expanded’ ~ right up to creating the first sentence from a book.

Clue creation games are often played in teams/partnerships, which is a strong reason for giving clue-guidance that one’s team will be guided by, hoping that opponents won’t get a chance to jump in and benefit. Even where it’s not a team game, the clue giver doesn’t want everybody to guess it, or the giver probably won’t benefit.

One cardinal rule when it’s a team or partnership setup, oft disregarded, is “they’re doing their best, don’t swear at them!”

Dixit .. Ex Libris .. Codenames .. Articulate

Combative – take that!

Most games are competitive: not all are combative. Where players are seeking to block or restrict the opportunities of others, they are in combat. The same of course is true if they set out to remove opponents or their ‘possessions’ from the game, or to take points from them.



In cooperative games the entire group is pitted against a common enemy: usually the board itself, or the game’s parts, pieces, and elements.

It’s an approach to game playing that may take a little getting used to, since we’re so used to not helping everyone around the table.

Forbidden Island


Players start with their own identical deck of cards, and their deck alters during play. Better, more powerful cards may be added to the deck, and less powerful ones may be removed.

Players expose cards from their pile. As the cards are turned over, they will reveal possibilities for score enhancing actions. So players take available actions, as well as adding to and removing from their deck. They continue thus during the game until their pile is exhausted, at which point it’s turned over, shuffled, and restarted.

One of the core aspirations, then, is to develop a deck within which there are more opportunities to score than your opponents have in theirs.

Tea for Two

Deduction – puzzle solving

Using the clues before them, players use logical thinking to work out (deduce) the answer to a puzzle, or conundrum. They have draw conclusions based only on the evidence that’s before them.

Black Sonata .. Concept

Drafting cards or tiles

Card or tile drafting – choosing and taking pieces that may be placed strategically later, or doing so to prevent an opponent from getting an advantage.

In card drafting games, players pick cards from a subset, such as a common pool. Players are trying to gain some advantage (immediate or long term), or to assemble hands of cards that can be used to meet objectives later.

It’s not simply taking from a pile or deck. Drafting implies some sort of opportunity to pick and choose, including the ability to draft a card or tile that another player may want ~ thus denying them in some way. (Yes. Some people are like that!)

In some games, players are dealt a number of cards to start. They choose what they want, then pass others onwards.

Azul .. Caper .. Jaipur

Engine building

Here’s an in-term that seems designed to confuse. What it boils down to is this – I hope.
You’re not really building an engine, but neither are you building an island, a town, or a even a motor car.

What you’re building is more abstract than that.

Think about building a firm or a company. It doesn’t exist in ‘real space’ as do cars, towns, and islands. It’s really a bringing together of skills, monies, properties, and abilities – along with buying and selling abilities. To manage it and its growth, someone has to make decisions about when to buy and what to buy, and what skills to invest in: is it better to have more of this, or less of that?

So ‘engine building’ games tend to be about taking those kinds of decisions in order to acquire more scoring potential, or so set the ‘firm’ up to be able to take more effective decisions later. It may include saving up, or ‘unlocking’ abilities, or upgrading them.

In some games it can include building up cards or tiles into patterns or groups that bring ‘strength’ to the developing firm.

Splendor, for example .. or the excellent Merchants of Dunhuang

Hand management.

Players may gain points, position, or power from playing their cards in certain sequences or groups. The optimal way to play them may change, depending on board position, cards held, and cards played by opponents. So, managing your hand seeks to gain most benefit out of the cards that are available.

Actually, ‘optimal’ may never be achieveable – perhaps we talk about ‘apparently optimal’.

Cards may have multiple uses in some games, which makes the notion of an “optimal” sequence even more difficult to define. Hand management is a popular mechanic because it presents a high level of strategic challenge.

Colt Express .. Jaipur .. Lost Cities

Luck and pushing your luck

There’s always a limit to the number of things that could happen in games. But the order in which they crop up or their frequency may be influenced by luck and likelihood. In Roulette, the chance of that little ball landing in any single one of the 37 pockets is determined wholly by luck. Very, very few games are that luck-driven though.

Even in classic trick taking card games that can be highly skilled like bridge, whist, solo, and spades, some luck is involved. Players are dealt hands from a deck of 52 cards, after all.

From then on, it’s down to them and their decisions, and skill plays a large role. Part of the skill is in being able to guestimate who’s holding what cards: there’s no certainty.

Bleak Moor .. Lost Cities .. Can’t Stop

Set collection.

Players collect pieces (cards, tiles, or resources) during the game, seeking to make a set of them. Completing sets earns extra points.

Basically, the mechanic is making decisions about number and pattern, anticipating the availability of resources, and trying to manage scarcity. On the non board game front, all forms of rummy involve collecting cards, according to whether they match cards of the same rank, or form a sequence, or fall into the same suit.

Jaipur ..Tokaido .. Azul

Placement of cards or tiles.

Each player’s turn involves placing a tile or card to accomplish an objective. Sometimes the tiles themselves become the board. The placing of pieces will be influenced by players recognising and maximising patterns (possibly pathways) and getting their strategy working before someone else does. Generally they are quite easy to learn, but not necessarilly easy to play, especially in the company of opponents who may see something coming that you don’t.

KingDomino ..Azul .. Carcassonne .. Saboteur.. Hive

Simultaneous action.

Here, all players act at the same time. Each will have previously decided what they want to do, but the doing of it follows, and is simultaneous.

6 Nimmt .. Dixit

Trick taking

Players play cards from their hand, in a series of “tricks”. In each trick the cards of players are compared. Who wins will determine who scores points, and perhaps other outcomes too. The most common way to win a trick is by having the card with highest value of the suit that was led. Many classical card games use the “trump” system (where cards of a designated suit have higher ‘power’ will win the trick, even against high ranking non-trumps).

Games follow a series of tricks: generally several rounds of several tricks.

Fox in the ForestSpades