Broken Mechanics

Today I’d like to address an issue brought up by one of my patrons: what do you do when a mechanic doesn’t work out? Do you have to scrap the whole project, or are there measures you can take to salvage some of it?

In design, dead end paths don't have warning signs, but you have to explore them anyway. Image from Brian Gaynor Photography.

In design, dead end paths don’t have warning signs. You have to explore to find out they’re dead ends. Image from Brian Gaynor Photography.

All designers are familiar with this topic, often with sad associations. Because as a designer, you need to expect “failures” like mechanics that don’t work. Why? Because we’re explorers! And explorers sometimes encounter dead ends. You need to take risks when you’re making games (or making anything, really), and sometimes those risks won’t work out as well as you hoped they would.

When that happens, it’s important to be able to identify the problem and move forward, learning from the experience rather than dwelling on the past. Remember, a good designer isn’t someone who never has bad ideas; a good designer is someone who knows how to recognize and move on from bad ideas.

What’s Broken?

How can you identify that a mechanic isn’t working out? The first thing to note here is that there are no inherently bad mechanics. You may strongly dislike a certain mechanic, but that doesn’t mean you should never consider it for a game. And even if a mechanic is almost universally despised, like roll-and-move, that doesn’t mean it has no place in the right game. Mechanics are only good or bad with respect to a specific game, audience, and desired experience.

That said, there are definitely times when mechanics are a good fit and times when mechanics are a bad fit. Let’s look at some of the reasons you might not want to use a mechanic in your game.

Unfun. If a mechanic is actively not fun (it makes your players angry or sad), it’s probably not a good idea to put it in a game. If a mechanic is just boring, there might be room for it in a game, but it shouldn’t be the central mechanic.

Mismatch. Sometimes one mechanic will conflict with the experience you’re trying to create. It might not fit the theme of the game, it might encourage the wrong behavior, or it might clash with some other mechanics.

Complexity. Certain games can handle a lot of complexity, but many cannot. Even in high complexity games, it’s often better to combine several simple mechanics than having a few complex mechanics.

Clunkiness. Does your mechanic require a lot of finicky rules and exceptions? Does it take a long time to explain? Do players forget about it while they’re playing? Then it might be too unwieldy to be worth including in your game.

How to Cope?

You’ve discovered a mechanic you’re working on isn’t working out. What do you do?

There are many different approaches from this point, and you’ll have to look at your particular situation to decide the best way to move forward. Here are a few possibilities.

Tweak the mechanic. Some mechanics can easily be changed, and a little change can go a long way in making a mechanic more fun or understandable. Take deck building, one of the most successful mechanics to be introduced in the past decade. If your hand size is so small you never go through and refresh your deck, you’re missing out on a lot of the fun of the mechanic. Shifting numbers is easy enough, but keep an open mind about less obvious changes (like adding cards to your hand instead of adding cards to your discard pile) that might fix a broken mechanic.

One of my prototypes, formerly Fungus and currently Second Age of Sorcery, has had many mechanics cut, including a board where positioning mattered.

One of my prototypes, formerly Fungus and currently Second Age of Sorcery, has had many supporting mechanics cut, including a board where positioning mattered.

Try new supporting mechanics. Many mechanics require other mechanics to function. For example, a unique set scoring system can be great, but what actions do players take to collect sets? If your mechanic isn’t working, it might be that it has the wrong support mechanics, or it’s supporting the wrong mechanic. Is there anything else that might work? Something from another game? Try a new pairing and see if you have a better experience.

Trying new supporting mechanics is especially important for more open games with a lot of exceptions, like Magic. There are so many mechanics you could include, it’s very possible that one or two specific problem cards are spoiling the rest of the experience.

Simplify. Especially when players are having difficulty understanding or learning a mechanic, consider simplifying it. Get rid of special cases, even if they’re thematic. Choose numbers that are easy to remember and compute. Streamline possible actions and reactions. Any way you can, strip the mechanic down to its bare bones and see if something unnecessary is causing the problems.

Adjust graphic design. Sometimes players just need a little help to appreciate a mechanic. Maybe redoing your card layout will make it more clear how different cards relate. Or maybe creating mats will help players remember special rules or unusual actions. Don’t use graphic design as a crutch, but also realize that some degree of graphic design is required for everything, and your mechanic might be missing what it needs.

Shelve the mechanic. Be honest with yourself. Does this mechanic have any place in your game? If you’ve already tried some of the above suggestions, it might be time to get rid of the mechanic altogether. There’s nothing wrong with this. Really, it’s the sign of a mature designer to be able to drop something they’ve invested time, thought, and passion into and move on to the next thing.

And remember that you never truly throw out a mechanic. Who knows, you may come back to it after working on another project and giving it a little space. Or it might fit nicely in another game with a different theme or targeting a different audience. Or maybe you’ll look back on the mechanic in a few years and laugh at your naivete. In the very worst case, you will have learned from experimenting with the mechanic!

Cloning

There’s one type of problem mechanic I didn’t mention above: a mechanic already used by another game. If your core mechanic is too similar to another game’s, there might not be room for it in the market, even if it’s lots of fun.

Cards Against Humanity found its place in a market with Apples to Apples, but can't escape constant comparisons. Image from Board Game Geek.

Cards Against Humanity found its place in a market with Apples to Apples, but can’t escape constant comparisons. Image from Board Game Geek.

Of course, it might not be a problem at all. Many mechanics have a lot of room for different supporting mechanics or tuning, and games that use the same mechanic can feel radically different. Presenting an existing mechanic in a new way can be as innovative as coming up with a new mechanic from scratch.

If you do go down this path, keep in mind that your game will likely always live in the shadow of the game it borrows mechanics from. Even if it is more fun or more popular, it will always be compared to the game that came first.

Keep Calm and Carry On

If you don’t ever come up with bad mechanics, you aren’t taking enough risks. Designers need to always push the envelope and try new things, and discovering things that don’t work out is part of that process. The important thing is how you react to those problems, not that you never encounter them.

As a designer, you should be familiar with psychological concepts like loss aversion, and be able to recognize them in yourself. If you have emotional trouble accepting that a mechanic isn’t working out, I have two pieces of advice for you.

First, be honest with yourself, and try to identify problem mechanics earlier rather than later. It’s much more difficult to say goodbye to a project you worked on for months or years than when you only spent a few days or weeks working on it. Don’t let your excitement cloud your judgement, or you’ll be more disappointed when you can’t ignore the truth any longer.

Second, work on more than one project at a time. Not only will this result in higher quality work in general (since you can always pick the best project to pursue and switch projects when your passion begins to wane), it will mean you have backups to work on if one goes awry, softening the blow.

Bad mechanics happen. The trick is to deal with them with grace and not make the same mistakes again!

I would like to thank my generous Patrons for providing the support and encouragement that made this article possible.

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