How to Design the Mechanics of Your Board Game

Posted on Posted in Start to Finish

Board game development is a very individual process. Every single developer has different methods for creating their games. This article is the third of a 19-part suite on board game design and development.

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This suite is based on the Five Levels of Communication through Game Development, my own personal board game development philosophy. However, I’ve brought in Jesse Bergman, the lead designer of Battle for Sularia so that you can get two viewpoints instead of just one.

I’ve spoken before about designing and testing the “Core Engine” of a game. The core engine is what’s left when you strip a game of mechanics and obstacles. The core engine is the bare minimum set of mechanics and concepts you need to have a functioning (but not necessarily fun) game.

Game mechanics are how we bring the core engine of a game to life. Jesse and I will explain further. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our direct messages on Discord.

This guide comes in three parts:

  1. Who is Jesse Bergman?
  2. What are game mechanics?
  3. How do you come up with game mechanics and implement them?

Who is Jesse Bergman?

Brandon: Thank you very much helping me out with this! Tell me a little about yourself and Battle for Sularia.

Jesse: Where to begin? I’m 38 years old and was born and raised in Lincoln, NE. I studied Game Design at UAT in Tempe, AZ and graduated with honors in 2009.

Jesse: I’ve been a gamer for my whole life. While I’ve always played video games, I’ve also always had an interest in various tabletop games, going as far back as the early 90’s.

Jesse: Sularia was an idea I had during college back around 2008. It came to me as a passion for collectible card games and real time strategy video games. I had been very into the original VS. System from Upper Deck and wanted to create a game that required a player defeat the opposition by using two resources, base building, and unit building. Additionally, I loved the VS. System’s threshold cost mechanic and wanted to utilize it in Sularia.

Brandon: I’m definitely fond of CCGs and CCG-like games! Sularia fits in that classification pretty neatly from the sound of it.

Brandon: Not only do you make games, but you’re also formally educated in them. How has that formed your understanding of how games are created?

Jesse: When I went to school for game design, I thought – like most do – that making games is all “fun and games.” What I learned from my education wasn’t just principles of great game design like “risk vs reward” and “narrative storytelling,” but that games are a business like any other. They face real legal issues, intellectual property rights, trademarks, copyrights, etc… Going to school for game design gave me a very well-rounded appreciation of all aspects of game development.

Jesse: One of my biggest takeaways from school was the idea that complex interactions come from simple systems. I have an entire paper on how Mario and Megaman in the 80’s created outstanding gameplay with only three core mechanics – move, jump, shoot.

Jesse: The other big takeaway for me was finding out that design and development are the not the same thing. Many new designers or aspiring designers don’t understand the difference beteen design vs. development. Being a developer for a game is equally as important as being a designer.

Brandon: It sounds like it’s given you the sense that games are bigger than just design. Lots of factors come together into the cohesive games we enjoy.

What are game mechanics?

Brandon: With the basic idea that games are big multifaceted projects in mind, here is a question for you.

Brandon: What are game mechanics?

Jesse: Great question! I believe game mechanics come in a three different forms. The first is purely mechanical. They are functions in the game, typically controlled by the player, but not always. For example, one mechanic in Magic is mana. For other games, it would be resources. Mana in Magic is acquired by the player tapping lands (physical/mechanical manipulation).

Jesse: Other mechanics in a game are derived through player actions. You can do this through narrative, such as a players’ actions during an RPG campaign. They’re bound by their alignment or some other inhibitor. Alternatively, you have something as simple as bluffing about what card you may have in poker.

Poker has built-in mechanics for betting. These built-in mechanics cause players to bluff in certain ways. This bluffing becomes a mechanic in and of itself.

Jesse: Finally, some mechanics are not controlled by the player, but the game itself: such as timers or rotating dials (found in T’Zolkein). Each of these mechanics influences the players’ choices. This, in turn, impacts the gameplay and outcome of the game.

Jesse: I’m sure there are countless other examples and this answer is drastically oversimplified, but I imagine you can capture a great many through the following three lenses. Mechanical (mechanical function initiated by the player), emotional (metagame initiated), and game state (mechanical function initiated by the game itself.)

Reader note, ripped straight from Wikipedia: Metagaming is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself.

Brandon: Board Game Geek alone lists 51 distinct mechanics. Not even an exhaustive list!

Brandon: As you put it, mechanics can not only be purposefully created, but that they can also organically arise out of repeated plays. That’s because player interactions can create their own mechanics.

Jesse: Exactly! So what do you think incorporates mechanics? How do we, as designers, recognize when a player finds a certain mechanic to be fun and perhaps even core to the game, even if we as designers didn’t intend for that? I’ve listened to so many designers describe how through play-testing, a game came out dramatically different then their initial concept because the new version was more fun.

Brandon: I see mechanics as an expression of what I call a game’s “core engine.” That’s the unremovable basic ideas behind a game – sometimes an objective, sometimes a feeling, often a mix of both. To me, mechanics are the underlying structure that helps games express the core engine.

Brandon: In the same breath, I believe rules are what we use to regulate that which mechanics alone cannot. For example, moving from point to connected point on a board is a mechanic. Getting to move up to six spaces is a rule.

Brandon: Structure can be both intended and unintended. An office is not merely scaffolding and drywall – intended by architects and construction workers. It is also a place of social interaction, hierarchies, and people influenced by the physical space (who in turn influence the physical space itself).

Brandon: Let’s take a video game example. Smash Bros. Melee – a unique fighting game that got a new lease on life as people exploited glitches and created a new form of completion. Those glitches weren’t intended, nor were characters intended to be sorted into tiers by quality…yet these unintended mechanics made the game feel better for the diehards who play it today. One can argue that this unintended behavior is the game’s core engine now.

How do you come up with and implement game mechanics?


Brandon: This brings me to my next question: how do you personally come up with ideas for mechanics and implement them?

Jesse: I approach design in a couple of different ways. Sometimes I get inspired to design a game around a theme that was significant in my life at the time. I can take a lot of influence from the media that I’m consuming and transfer that into a theme. Using this top-down approach, I work to find the best mechanics that will fit the theme. At that point, I’m getting close to a prototype.

Jesse: Other times I get really excited about a potentially unique mechanic that I’ve not seen in another game, and begin designing a game around that mechanic without theme. This bottom-up design approach also works and keeps the game able to be themed into anything that would work for the overall design. I’m still a very big proponent of theme in my games and don’t see myself really deep diving into themeless euros.

Jesse: But I never know where my inspiration comes from.

Jesse: How about you? Do you approach design from a top down or bottom up approach?

Brandon: I’ve done both. I’ve taken mechanics from a childhood game and rebuilt the theme around the mechanics – War Co. I’ve also gone on many road trips and said “this would make a great board game” – Highways & Byways. One came from abstract mechanics and the other came from travel brochures and the other from half-remembered coffee-soaked cross-country trips.

Brandon: When you need to find mechanics for a theme, where do you look? And follow-up question, if you’ve got a mechanic in mind, how do you make the theme?

Jesse: I don’t necessarily go looking when I’m specifically looking for a mechanic to fit a theme. I think in order to be a better designer, you have to play games and a lot of them. I pull inspiration for mechanics from my past experiences as a gamer in both tabletop and digital spaces. The more games I play, the more I see how I want to make changes to the mechanisms to try and “improve” them. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I don’t. I fail a lot more than I succeed in those endeavors.

Jesse: When I have a mechanic in mind and want to attach a theme, that is a much trickier proposition. Particularly because without care, the theme can feel a bit tacked onto the game. In a game I co-designed with Matt Greenleaf, which is currently unpublished, I had come up with a mechanic that was whenever a player made a move, the game state would either go to imbalance or balance.

Jesse: I didn’t know what theme this would land on for quite some time, but we eventually landed on the idea that we were Buddhist monks working on a zen garden. With each patch of grass, rock, or bonsai tree placed in the garden, the world would move to either a more black or white state. As monks we can only win once we are in perfect harmony, which requires strategic placement of garden tiles to balance our own inner state. The game’s greater balance mechanic can enable us to make more powerful moves when the world is aligned to the color of move we are making.

Jesse: I think in the case mentioned above some of that theme comes from play-testing, and some of it was from setting the mechanic aside and returning to it with a new frame of mind. This can be somewhat difficult, especially as designers when we are particularly excited about a mechanic. Have you walked away from a design and returned to it later or are they all abandoned to a closet or notebook?

Brandon: A lot of your process for developing mechanics comes down to experience and perhaps even intuition.

Brandon: However, in lieu of both those things for the new game devs in the world, I’d recommend using BGG’s list of mechanics as a good springboard. Not to mention, there are lots of good games, five of which I’ve specifically pointed out, which contain a wide variety of mechanics that you can use. Mechanics can be used in combinations to make all sorts of different games, but like keys on a piano, the ones that you can clearly distinguish from others are limited in number.

Brandon: I haven’t shelved a game to return later. I have, however, completely changed the basis of both games, effectively leaving behind the husk of game that used to be.

Brandon: I’ve dropped lots of mechanics. I’ve done hard pivots on both War Co. and Highways & Byways at some point. In my recent career, I haven’t shelved a game to return later. I have, however, completely changed the basis of both games, effectively leaving behind the husk of game that used to be.

Brandon: I do have an Evernote list with a bunch of ideas, too. Sometimes I use those ideas, sometimes I leave them for later.

Brandon: Would you say you just take mechanics you’ve seen in other places and try them in a new context, then?

Jesse: I’m always trying to find new innovative ideas. Every time I do so, I inevitably find a player who says, so it’s like this “insert game.” I think there are very few new ideas remaining, many of the mechanics are derivatives of another game. That doesn’t mean their are no new ideas left, but instead that truly innovative mechanics are one in a million. Which is why I believe as a designer, unique twists on familiar mechanics will only take you so far. The final polish of a game from a graphic design, illustration, retail packaging, and community support are imperative to a successful game.

There’s more where this came from. Next week, Jesse and I will continue to discuss game mechanics. However, we will focus on testing game mechanics once you have designed them.

Until then, please leave your questions and comments below 🙂

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