Developing Game Mechanics That Stick

Today, we are going to talk about developing a set of mechanics that stick. What exactly do I mean by “stick”? Remember that feeling right after you completed a game, and you thought to yourself, “Wow, I need to play again”. Chances are in this scenario the game mechanics just “stuck”. What’s not spoken about in tabletop circles are all the different type of mechanics that lead to this feeling. The most complicated part about this process is there is not a sure-fire way to capture and create that feeling. There’s no one-trick pony mechanic that can be used, I’m looking at you direct conflict, and balancing them is one of the trickiest parts of game development.

All of the mechanics listed below are what we at Two Robots affectionately refer to them as, but there is a high chance that the naming of these will change depending on the circle that you are in. However, the gist of them will stay the same. Incredibly enough, the vast majority of games employ the same mechanics over and over again, the only difference being the percentages at how they are tweaked, and the apparent permutations of them. For example, in Settlers of Catan you have the concept of the Robber. This is a great example of a conflict mechanic, one where what you do with the Robber has a direct impact on another player within the game. Catan has layered this conflict mechanic by covering it with a dice roll, a player within the game has to roll the number seven to access the Robber. Even one of the most basic games ever made, Monopoly, employs the concept of conflict to great success. There are countless variations of these, studying how they work is vital to architecting a fun, replayable game.

The Conflict Mechanics

As mentioned above, this is one of the most popular game mechanics ever invented, whether that be tabletop or digital. Simply stated, it works by either direct conflict with another player within the game or conflict with all the players in the game. When thinking about game development, it’s easy to pad your game with conflict. But ask yourself, is this mechanic helping the game or differentiating from others. I’m going to use Catan again as the example, it happens to be one of the most popular games ever made. They have three known forms of conflict within the game, building roads that cut off players, the robber, and action cards. It seems to be common knowledge in friend groups that Catan is the game “to lose your friends”, but let’s explore why. Simply put, it employs large direct conflict mechanisms. The space on the board is tight, and the moves that you do effect others around you. Sound familiar? A more distilled example of direct conflict is Diplomacy, a game that has endured the test of time and has been around since the 1950’s. The main mechanic of this game is direct conflict. Every move that you do effects others around you, a cause and effect with the effect usually being the demise of one or more players. Interestingly enough, in direct conflict mechanics, you don’t actually have to gain anything to be satisfied. How insanely cruel is that! Humans, I know, sheesh. However, most people are vulnerable to this, a great example of this is taking away a card from a player in a game. The chance that the card helps you is unknown, but the thought of taking it away from a game leader is enough for you to act on it.

When determining how much conflict to put into your game the first question you should ask yourself is, how do these conflict mechanics change how others play the game. Are players going to hoard pieces or cards in fear of losing them? Is the conflict too powerful, and does the player lose too much by it? Do I want to install a direct conflict mechanic where a player might not gain anything out of it?

The Builder Mechanic

Going back to the Catan example, and one of if not the most popular game mechanics in a game is what we are simply going to call “The Builder Mechanic”. The Builder mechanic is a snowball, where what you do in one move, has implications and builds into future moves. This is an incredibly important game mechanic, and I daresay the one that will make your game addicting and fun. How has chess endured for all these years? Being able to strategize your fifth move ahead, and how that will effect you and your opponent is vitally important. This is a great way to make sure your game is not linear. A relevant test to see if you have this in your game, is to playtest and ask the question “Does this move, have in any relation, anything to do with any following move”. If the answer to this question is no, it might be time to go back to the drawing board and think of a mechanic that you can add. There are plenty of examples of this played out in games, for instance in Catan, the longest road. Longest road is really a side quest in the victory in Catan, but to achieve it, every road you place has to be strategized to ensure that you can achieve the longest road. This takes into account other players roads, and your future moves. In most great games, the main storyline is built off the builder mechanic.

Here are some steps to ensuring that you are creating a game with the builder mechanic. First, examine every possible move in your game and ask yourself,“Does each move do something in relation to a goal”? If so, does satisfying that goal get you closer to a winning condition? Is the winning condition satisfied by more then one goal? Does each goal have an effect on another goal, or are they independent? If so, how can you tie goals together so that they build into each other for the potential winning condition. Remember, creating this mechanic of building into one another is what makes a game stick, no-one wants to play a game where doing one thing in the game has no effect on the outcome of the game.

The Trade Mechanic

Trading! This is an incredibly useful game mechanic that gets players engaged socially within the game and has about an infinite level of permutations to it. The best part about trading in any game is as a game designer the rules are pretty loose, and almost set in stone for you. Usually rulebooks will say,“Allow players to trade on their turn”. For example, once it is your turn in Catan you are allowed to pitch other players potential trades. This is one of the strongest mechanics within a game because it is a Give/Receive mechanism. Contrary to conflict and building which are systematically independent actions that are usually increasing self-worth, trading is a deal. Both parties going into the trade are looking for something, and usually coming out of the trade have both succeeded in gaining something. The coolest part about employing this into your game, is seeing all the variation that comes from it. There are plenty of cool sub-strategies that appear out of this, for instance in Catan, resource control. Attempting to control a specific resource in hopes of trading it out at a higher profit is a known strategy. This purely came to exist because of the trading mechanic. These sub strategies are very useful for having players think deeply about your game, and want to play again. Not every game utilizes trading, and it isn’t a hard and fast rule to require it, but the majority of the time it will be useful to use within the game.

The Luck Mechanic

Last but not least, is luck. I would be remiss to say that luck is unimportant in a game. Every game requires at least a little bit of luck. It can be extremely fractional, but you should be able to give a first time player the ability to win against seasoned players. This begs the question, “why?” Well, it’s simple, you want your game to sell, and you want others to buy it. The economics of luck have been well studied, but I’ll distill it very simply, allowing a large array of people to win within your game is important, it leads them to wanting to buy the game and replay-ability. Imagine a scenario, where you sit down at a party. Everyone around you is playing a game, it is incredibly complicated, learning the rules just took you 20 minutes, and you know you have no chance of winning. Compare that to a game where you sit down, learn how to play in 5 minutes, and have a good shot of winning. I’m not employing you to take out strategy in favor of luck, but there has to be a balance. Hardcore tabletop players would probably shudder at these opinions, but you do want your game to sell. The likelihood of that player at the party buying a game they could be reasonably good at and share with friends is a lot higher then one that is impossible to play, or gain skill without sheer hours of dedication. And here lies the kicker. In designing your game, you want players to have the ability to be reasonably good within a short period of time, but far from mastery without a large amount of time. Crafting this experience is difficult, essentially you need to hold the majority of players within an area of “competitive” and leave room for a subsequent amount of growth to reach master level. To achieve this, is to employ a combination of the tactics mentioned above, trading, conflict, and building. It really is difficult to get this combination to that exact space that you would like so it’s definitely worth tweaking. If you find your game becoming too luck focused, strip out percentages within your game. Here are a few examples of the mechanics talked about that we are using in Two Robots currently.

  • Drawing a card - Luck
  • Unlocking powers from completion of first robot - Builder
  • Hidden Protocol cards - Conflict
  • Trading Stacks - Trade

In general, crafting the perfect set of mechanics takes a lot of time and effort. However, do not be discouraged if it’s not perfect immediately. Remember to keep these mechanics in the back of your mind, and the relative percentages that you are using them at. It could so happen that tweaking one of them just slightly dramatically increases the fun factor of your game. I hope this was helpful, build on!


This post was written by Aaron Dack. He often goes by the moniker "Robot 2" and his favorite robot is the electrical/solar Hybrid.