How to Avoid Bad Mechanics in your Game Design

Posted by Brandon Raasch on Oct 6th 2018

How to Avoid Bad Mechanics in your Game Design

If rules are the tools used to make a game, some rules work better than others. In fact, there are some board game rules play testers consistently call bad game mechanics. Bad mechanics usually fall into three groups; rules that are Never Fun, Game Mechanics that Depend on the Game and Game Mechanics that Depend on the Player.

Game Mechanics that are Never Fun 

Some rules are universally reviled by experienced play testers. Avoid these bad game mechanics;

  • Player Elimination- A player is removed from the game and has to wait for everyone else to finish playing. This guarantees boredom; watching other players battle it out is no fun. Find other ways ways to ‘punish’ the lagging player, but keep them engaged in the game.
  • Roll to Move- Rolling dice to move replaces strategy with luck. This may work for a young kids game, but it is also why Heroquest™ was good, not great . If movement is strategic, consider action points or fixed movement rates. Find ways to create variation in movement rules, without surrendering the game to luck.
  • Lose a turn/ Skip your turn- Almost as bad as Player Elimination. If a players waits five minutes for their turn, and learns they have to wait five more because they lost their turn, they will lose interest, and game play interruptions will grow. Find ways to make a turn more challenging, and ensure players can do something every turn.
  • Kobayashi Maru- Unless you are Captain Kirk outwitting Starfleet, you probably wont like playing a game you cannot win. Once a player (or group of players) figures out a game is hopeless, they will quit playing, possibly for ever. Make sure the game has some hope (no matter how dwindling) of winning until the bitter end. Don’t guarantee a win; cooperative games with a high fail rate are addictive; Eldritch Horror™ anyone?
  • Runaway Winner- Players don’t like suffering through a game with no chance of catching the lead player. Combat this with lots of play testing to ensure optimal balance of play time, scoring acceleration and lead player variance. Also, be wary of solving the Runaway by adding ‘catch up mechanics’. This may add complexity without solving the real scoring issues.
  • Punish the Leader- games that punish the lead player with extra rules, mechanics and penalties are another attempt to solve for unbalanced scoring. This steals from the fairness of good game play by the leader. Fix the scoring, don’t rig the game.
  • Kingmaking- occurs when the 2nd, 3rd and 4th place players decide their only fun is to topple the leading player. Experienced gamers know this is an attempt to force some fun at the expense of the leader, when in truth they would rather have a way to win. Worse, the lead player can have all their well earned victory stolen by an angry mob. Make sure the game is close enough that the lagging players have a shot at winning, or get to the end of the game quickly.
  • The “Death March” game- Ever play Risk™ and know who is going to win, then play two more hours to prove it? Don’t make your game an endurance test. Most games can be broken up into a Beginning, Middle and End Game. The Beginning includes set up and commitment to a plan. In the Middle Game plans, luck and opportunity collide with the other players to set up a winning move. The End Game is often a race to declare the winner, and should include the risk a surprise winner is still possible. The Beginning and End should be as quick is possible, so players can enjoy the endorphins released when the stress of the Middle Game breaks into the End. Know your target player; Casual games average 20 minutes per player, Euros and Ameritrash can be 60 minutes per player and Family games are best at 10 minutes per player.
  • Stuck- Want to sit in jail for fun? Mechanics that hold a player hostage until lucky enough to get a missing card or player assist are similar to Losing a Turn. Make sure there is a way to get unstuck that is not completely random like a set number of turns or voluntarily take a penalty.
  • The “King Tut” is what I call the “Roll a specific number to…” rule. King Tutankhamun had a copy of the game Senet in his tomb, and the only way to get your pieces off a Senet board is to roll a specific number. Senet is fun until you are rolling and re-rolling, turn after turn, trying to roll a specific number. Your game should not collapse into series of dice rolls, just waiting for the magic number.

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