No, I don’t mean mechanisms in your game that simulate brainstorming by a player character, although that might be pretty interesting. I’m talking about my process for coming up with potential mechanics for a game while I’m designing it. I like to have as many options as possible during this phase, that way I can test them all out and see what flavors work best, what needs tweaking, etc. Another great thing is that by writing all the ideas down, I can start compiling them for use in later games as well.
The very first thing I like to do is figure out what the theme is (it’s okay if you don’t have one, then you can skip this step). If I have a theme in mind, I can hone in on a few thematic mechanics that will help sell the game as belonging to that particular setting. This is also where you have the potential to create some unique mechanics that might not appear in other games. For Gateway, specifically, that is the main thematic element. The actual Gateway. My major mechanic in this game is to maneuver units through the portal so they can go back to their home world. Having that core element in place gives the players a precise direction and purpose. From there, I can develop all the other mechanics around it, to supplement it. I want all my mechanics to serve the core theme of the game. This will also help set the game apart from other games where a theme might have been tacked onto a bunch of different mechanics that might not fit together well.
General Game Play
Now that I have my core theme in mind, the next thing I do is come up with a basic set of mechanics for how the game flow is going to be. I figure out what elements I want to include (cards, dice, pins, miniatures, blocks, currency, etc.). In this case, Gateway will feature a game board with the Gateway in the center, surrounded by grid squares. Players will maneuver units around the game board, because they must get their units through the Gateway. I also want these units to be able to attack and kill enemy units.
With this in mind, I can start developing the mechanics to facilitate this aspect of the game. I also want to give players a choice between different types of game play, which will add variety. In Gateway there are 5 decks called crafts, each one with a different style of doing things. In the previous article on balance, we worked out how the units will maneuver. Each unit will have a set direction and distance they can travel. We also worked out the direction and distance they can attack, which are different from their maneuver abilities. The final piece is to include attack and defense stats.
Lastly, I want to give each player a certain number of actions they can perform per turn. We’ll start with 5. Everything a player does costs 1 action: moving, attacking, bringing out a unit, using an ability, or drawing a new card. How they spend their actions is up to them.
With our basic mechanics in place, now it’s time to brainstorm. I want to give players as much variety as possible while keeping everything simple. Each card will clearly lay out what it does so there’s no ambiguity. The reason I want it this way is because I want players to begin the game as soon as possible, and I don’t want them to have to constantly refer to a rule book.
So what types of mechanics can we include on these cards? I like to break things up into categories, then brainstorm within each category.
I am definitely going to want cards that influence movement. I need some that enhance a player’s maneuvering ability and some that hinder their opponent. I write down every possibility I can think of:
- increased range of movement
- decreased mobility range of enemy units
- temporarily changing the location of a unit
- temporarily altering the designated direction of a unit’s mobility
- moving a unit more than once (by making a rule that units can only move once per turn I open up the possibility of expanding this mechanic with special cards)
- preventing a unit from moving to certain grid spaces with obstacles
- placing a new unit closer to the Gateway (new units must be placed by default in an outer grid square)
Attack and Defense
The process is the same here.
- increased range of attack
- decreased range of enemy units
- increased attack power
- decreased defense power of enemy units
- attacking multiple units with one unit
- preventing an enemy unit from attacking for a certain period of time
Drawing Cards and Maintaining a Hand
Because players have the ability to draw new cards from their deck, I can use this as a possibility for new mechanics.
- drawing multiple cards with no action penalty
- looking at the next card and making a choice
- preventing enemies from drawing new cards
- preventing enemies from playing new units or abilities from their hand
- playing more cards from your own hand
- forcing an enemy to discard
- returning cards in play to an opponent’s hand
- glimpsing an opponent’s hand or top card in the deck
With the Gateway being the core mechanic, I definitely want to think of ways to tinker with it.
- summoning enemy units back from the Gateway
- transporting friendly units through the Gateway
- temporarily closing the Gateway or obstructing it
- moving the Gateway location to a different grid square
Some of the cards are going to be equipment that can help a unit during gameplay in some way. I want to enable players to manipulate equipment in different ways.
- there must be a way to destroy equipment attached to a unit
- commandeering enemy equipment for use by your own units
- rendering equipment useless for a period of time
- transferring equipment from one unit to another
- protection or immunity from certain types of cards
- enhanced abilities vs certain types of cards
- decreased action cost to bring out equipment
Spells and Abilities
The same mechanics used for equipment should be present in the spells and abilities. Most of the above mechanics will be facilitated by cards from this category. Other possibilities are:
- resurrecting dead units
- temporarily gaining control of an enemy unit
- blocking other spells or abilities
- countering attacks
- dealing damage to attacking units or spells and abilities used on your own units
- decreased action cost for spells, abilities, etc.
- increasing enemy action cost for certain types of cards
It’s important to think of the game’s victory conditions. How does one win the game? Can I think of multiple win conditions or do I want just one mechanic to determine the victor? Do I have ways of preventing an opponent’s progress or have I focused too much on facilitating progress? How easy or difficult is it to win? Is it easier for one side to get the upper hand than another? How can I balance things out?
For Every Action There’s Adjustment
My goal with this whole process is to come up with every possible thing a character can do and provide alternate variations of that action. Then for every variation, I come up with away to incorporate the theme into it. For example, I have a card in the Sorcery craft called Morvidian Twin. What this spell does is enable a player to bring out a second unit that’s identical at no extra action cost. I could have just called this something like Clone, but I wanted it to sound more magical. Had this card appeared in the Champion deck it would be called something like Reinforcement, to keep the flavor there. The Engineering craft has a card called Rust. What this card does is destroy an enemy piece of equipment. Again, I wanted it to fit the flavor of the Engineering craft. If the card had appeared in a different deck, it might be called something different. Another example might be a card that causes an enemy unit to retreat one grid square. Such a card in the Champion deck might be called Intimidate, but in the Artifice deck it might be called Payoff, and to go a step further, a card in the Divine deck might be called Blinding Light.
Another thing I want to avoid is having too many cards that do the same thing. I want each deck to have different abilities, but I also want the game to remain balanced so that no deck is stronger than another. Merely different.
During the development phase, I like to brainstorm as many things as possible. I don’t have to use all of the mechanics, and depending on your game you can always save some mechanics for expansions. Whenever I get to the playtesting phase I like to brainstorm even more by thinking of things I wish my character could do. I write down everything. Then I contemplate every mechanic. Is it fair? Are there certain mechanics that seem overpowered? Is everything balanced? Have I covered every possible play style? I like to give players plenty of options. Do aggressive players have plenty of attacks and ways of dealing damage? Do players that prefer a more defensive style have options? Have I built in enough subterfuge for the cunning players? I want just as many ways of preventing enemy actions as I have for moving my own units toward victory. I also want to look at all the mechanics I’ve brainstormed and try to place them properly within my own theme so that it fits the play style I’m going for with each craft. I want one craft to have a more defensive approach (Divine), one to be more aggressive with battle (Champion), one to have different types of powers like resurrection (Sorcery), one to focus on guile and deception (Artifice), and one to control the battlefield with machinery (Engineering). I’ve found that doing things this way makes it easier to enhance the theme while maintaining balance. I also want each craft to have a little bit of the other focuses so they’re not just one-trick ponies. Once you’ve done this, test it. Rinse and repeat as necessary. The name of the game is options. Give yourself plenty of room to make your game just the way you want it.