I game for mechanics

Why I play games


I've been thinking about why I enjoy games, and what kinds of games I tend to gravitate toward. The more I think about it, the more I find that it's probably an unsolvable riddle (but that in itself seems a little like a game). Either the gamer or the technical part of my brain has taken the bait, and this post is another one about an aspect of gaming I enjoy. Specifically, I play games for the mechanics.

A game "mechanic" is essentially a rule. On the one hand, it's jargon and probably we "serious" gamers could just say the word "rules" when we talk about game mechanics. On the other hand, though, I think when we use the term "mechanic" there's the implication that we're referring to not the entire ruleset, but a particular aspect of the rules, or the way a specific rule interacts with another rule. In other words, we mention a "game mechanic" when we're imagining the game rules as an engine, and we want to lift the hood and take a look inside to see all the gears.

Thinking of a set of rules as an engine is an apt analogy, of course, and video games distinguish the "engine" part of the code from atmospheric parts. It's all arbitrary, an artificial set of restrictions placed on a predefined activity, but it's what drives the game process. If you move this piece, then you make that thing happen.

It's proscribed cause and effect, and it's fun in stages. At first, it's fun to learn what the causes and effects are, and how they all work together to predictably end at an endgame scenario.

Once you understand them, it's fun to see the triggers happen. It's like the satisfaction of bubblewrap. You know what's going to happen when you press down on a bubble, but there's no satisfaction until you do.

And then, it's fun to see what the endgame scenario looks like from scenario to scenario. Sometimes you're in the lead. Sometimes it's your opponent. Other times, you're in the lead but by the barest margin, and then your opponont steals a victory by surprise. Or maybe you've set some things in place to snag the victory at the last moment.

That, I think, is the normal progression of a typical game's lifecycle. In the best case, it continues to satisfy for years and years, even after hundreds of game sessions. In other cases, it seems there's closure. You've discovered all possible states of the game, and while the discovery was entertaining, it's essentially a puzzle you now consider solved.

But playing a game because of the mechanics can sometimes transcend both the best and most common scenarios.

Hacking the engine

For a hobbyist game designer (which is what I think you are if you do this), tinkering around with the game engine can provide years of continue entertainment even in a game that otherwise would have fallen flat. The common path into this, I think, are house rules. You identify something that just doesn't feel fun to you, and so you change it.

It's a slippery slope from house rules to what might be a whole new game or a homemade expansion pack. One of my favourite activities with any game I own is inventing compatible assets for it, whether it's a new character profile or alternative rules or adding some chaotic element to upset the state of the game. If I like the game, then I add stuff to it. If I didn't like the game, then I "fix" it (subjectively speaking).

The benefit to this, from my point of view, is that the discovery stage never stops. I'm constantly being surprised by an overpowered mechanic I designed poorly, or something that makes no difference to the game at all, or something that's not as powerful as I'd expected, or something that works just right. It's a never-ending loop of private game development, and it adds a component into the game that you just can't buy.

Or can you? I think that this, in a way, is exactly what Magic: The Gathering (MTG) and Warhammer and other always incomplete games actually sell. Few MTG players believe that the game is going to stay the same from one set to another. It's in a constant state of change, for better or for worse. Similarly, Warhammer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar are basically on an eternal update cycle, with a new edition being released every 3 years. It's planned and entirely manufactured obsolescence, because obviously the game rules functioned last year and the year before, so what really needs updating? Well, actually nothing, and personally I don't chase after updates. I'm happy to play previous editions of games and to ignore the latest and greatest "innovations", but unfortunately this somewhat falls apart when you play against people who happen to be playing a different edition than you. (Incidentally, a major appeal of Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game is that it's only on its 4th edition since 2001, and two of those editions were arguably "forced" due to The Hobbit movies coming out.)

Hacking the rules

For me, the ability to hack the rules of my tabletop games is a major rationalisation for buying them. I often judge the value of a video game based on how many hours it keeps me entertained. Personally, a dollar an hour seems pretty great to me, so an $80 game ought to keep me happy for 80 hours of game play. (That's not an entirely fair way to measure success, because the time I spend fondly musing about a game, or wishing I were playing the game instead of, say, mowing the lawn, qualifies as much as time spent with a controller in hand.) Board games are similar, and a game that's good enough to keep me playing day after day, and then hacking its rules for just as many games, is well worth the investment. Of course, whether I care to hack a game often, interestingly, depends not on its mechanics, but on the game world, but that's an entirely different article.

Photo by Riho Kroll on Unsplash

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