Welcome to the first article in a six-part series about our Pillars of Game Design!
At Coalition Game Studios, we evaluate games in six different areas that we believe are the fundamental qualities of good games. Awareness of these six pillars can deepen your understanding of the craft and improve your ability to create a player experience.
Games, of course, are a frontier. We are exploring new ways to entertain the world as the industry continues to grow. There can never be a true metric for evaluation that fits all games. Their very nature defies uniformity.
As such, I believe that these Pillars of Game Design should always be considered, but they should be considered differently for each individual game.
Today we start with our first, and somewhat overvalued Pillar–Mechanical Patency.
What is Mechanical Patency?
To best understand this, we should establish a bit of critical vocabulary.
“Game mechanics” and “mechanisms” are things you hear plenty about on the internet. Every reviewer seems to have a slightly different idea of what those terms mean, but the general idea is fairly unified–mechanics are the game’s functional building blocks.
One of the best and most popular game theories out there is the “MDA Framework” by Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubec. In their “formal approach to game design and research” paper, they propose that games consist of three fundamental components–mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics.
Mechanics are the rules and rule-based systems that structure and facilitate a player’s passage through the game session. Basic procedures, like drawing cards or rolling dice, are a part of this, as are more composite systems of procedures, like drafting or deterministic resolution. We also use the term “mechanics” when we’re referring to mechanical balancing–or the game’s underlying numbers and algorithms necessary for completion and fairness.
A mechanically patent game is one where the game’s experience is unobstructed by its rules, systems, or balance. On the surface, this means that the game must function. At a deeper level, this means that your game’s rules (and resulting dynamics) must function at a level appropriate to the overall experience.
Let’s talk more about that by using a game that I hate as a positive example.
Case Study: Fluxx
Probably not the case study you expected in an article about getting your game’s mechanics right, but lend me your ears.
Fluxx is a card game that’s been gathering dust on shelves since 1997. The game’s framework is extremely simple. You draw a card, you play a card, you do the thing that the card says if the card says something. The first player to satisfy the objectives of one of his or her “Goal” cards wins. For example, if you have the Reptiles goal, and you have the snake and the lizard in your play space, that’s it. You just won.
However, quite a few cards in Fluxx will temporarily or permanently change the game’s rules. The more “Rule” cards that are played, the more absurd the turn structure can be. For example, you may end up drawing four cards and playing three cards per turn. Maybe you end up being required to groan like a zombie every time you play a card.
Objectively speaking, many game states in Fluxx are mechanically broken. There’s no pretense at balance here. Certain combinations of rules can just be a disaster…
…And this is perfectly okay.
Fluxx is a strong example of mechanical patency because its rules and procedures do not obstruct its core experience, even though degenerate game states are not uncommon. These game states fuel the players in their search of light-hearted, wacky, high-impact moments.
Designing a Balanced Game
Just because I used Fluxx as an example of strong mechanical patency doesn’t mean you can go throwing caution to the wind. You do not have permission to run with scissors. You’re still bound to exercise due diligence when it comes to your game’s mechanics.
When designing a game, start by aiming for perfect balance and form, and then tastefully depart from that. Granted, not all good (or profitable) games are well-balanced, and not all well-balanced games are good. Even though true balance may be an illusion, we should still strive for it–concede ground only if you’re certain it benefits the game’s overall experience.
But…what is balance? How can we find this elusive creature?
Balance in game design is a state of equity–either as a natural occurrence, or as enforced by rules and weighted values intended to protect the game’s experience. The best way to design a balanced game is simply to consider this equity in every part of the process–starting with your concept and continuing through iteration.
During this consideration, try asking yourself some of the same things that we do when we evaluate a game for mechanical patency:
- Are the costs and values of employable effects properly balanced? – There can be many kinds of value in a game. Sometimes it will be possible to come up with a conversion table, and mathematically weight them on the same axis. Other times–especially in games with multiple routes to victory–such effects are too different to balance by the numbers. In these cases, rely on intuition and iteration.
- Does this game have any exploitable features or structures? – Exploits are actions or lines of play available to one or more players that are strategically superior, but not in the game’s spirit. Spamming low kick shouldn’t be the dominant strategy in a Mortal Kombat game.
- Can this game be broken? – Make sure your game’s core machinery functions at a playable level of integrity. Do you have clear, concise answers for rules questions that arise (especially regarding timing)? Are there any undesired loops or loopholes present?
- Are players presented with equal opportunities? – Don’t focus on the opportunities that players create for themselves through their decisions in gameplay. Instead, make sure that no player’s ability to play the game as intended is compromised by artificial structures or occurrences in gameplay.
- Are the risks in the options present comparable to their rewards? – Players that are not incentivized to take risks won’t take risks—even if the riskier option is statistically superior to the safer option. Make sure that the incentives are properly scaled to the risks. Don’t forget the additional penalty of opportunity loss–the loss of the action it took to take the risk.
These questions won’t apply to every game, while certain games would beg for different and better questions to be asked to assess balance. As we like to say, games are a frontier–we can only hope to prepare you for that journey you take to your’s.
When to Prioritize Balancing in your Design
So, we understand what mechanical patency is. We know that it’s relative to experience. We know about balancing, how to assess a game for balance, and that sometimes these things aren’t important.
But…how can we know when they’re important? How can we tell that it’s time to focus on balancing?
That depends on what your players expect from your game.
The greatest factor in determining how important balance is to your game is its accessibility. The more you invest in learning a game, the more you expect it to be balanced and fair. Apples to Apples isn’t a very fair game, but who cares? It took two sentences to teach you how to play. On the other hand, spending hours to learn and play Twilight Imperium can be supremely frustrating if you happen to stumble across one of its imbalances.
Accessibility isn’t the only factor though. Your game’s presentation can sculpt an expectation as well. Through theming, artwork, and even little things like font choices, you can invoke an idea of your game in your player before they even sit down at the table. Visual marketing is still a bit behind in much of the tabletop industry–especially the Kickstarter sector–but it sets the stage for a game in a way nothing else can.
Finally, consider how much control your players have over the game state. We generally don’t give players perfect information and agency–unless we’re making puzzles, which could be considered games. Instead, it usually benefits the tabletop experience when players cede control to other players, to variance, and to the unknown places of compartmentalized information. What’s important is to consider the axis of “strategy vs serendipity” in your game, and emphasize balance accordingly. The more competitive your game is, the more players will expect equity in the results of their strategic and tactical decisions.
It is a common mistake among new designers to underestimate a game’s need for balance. Never sacrifice balance because you think your game can afford to, even if you envision your game as being about light-hearted fun. Sacrifice balance (or its pursuit) only when it is necessary to improve your game’s core experience.
Go to your shelf and find a game that you feel is unbalanced.
Consider that imbalance from a design perspective. Why did the designer make the game that way?
If you changed it, would that negatively affect the game’s core experience?
Would the impact of this rebalancing echo across other areas in the game?