Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Killer Mechanics

My post a few weeks ago regarding Shadows over Camelot got me thinking about how specific mechanics can be so cool that they practically make the game. This is not to take away from the remainder of the system, but rather it's the kind of thing that takes an already great game and makes it excellent. I'll describe a few which I think deserve to be on this list and I'd like to hear from the rest of you on others I may have forgot...

Lord of the Rings:

This is the game that got me thinking on the topic. I feel that the Corruption track is a brilliant design... it's what differentiates this game from all other LotR games; the fact that Knizia went for the psychological aspect of the journey more than the physical one. As the hobbits get corrupted and Sauron approaches, a palpable sense of impending doom unites the players on the quest in a way that literal battle simulations do not. Genius.

Tigris & Euphrates:

The decision to make your lowest scoring colour your score makes the game. A small but important touch.

El Grande:

There are several very interesting mechanics here, but the two which stand out are the Castillo and the effect of the King on Caballero placement.

Power Grid:

The market for fuel is wonderful. If there had been a way to pull this off without the finicky upkeep, it would have been even better.


The trading of the sun tiles is a fantastic idea... it adds a subtle but very important aspect tot he game. to a lesser extent, th destruction tiles are also a good way to make lots become worth different values to different people.

High Society:

No matter how much "stuff" a player has purchased, the poorest player at the end of the game loses. It's a small thing, but it changes the entire game from a straightforward money management game to a long series of perplexing decisions.

Puerto Rico:

The idea of picking a role for yourself AND for every other player every turn is quite interesting. What action would benefit yourself the most and your opponents the least? I describe this as the ultimate passive aggressive game!

Call of Cthulu RPG:

The system representing sanity is simple but very clever. The idea is that your stat for sanity is a percentage, and it's value goes down as you are faced with unspeakable horrors. Success rolls BELOW your current percentage prevent you from going insane when things get kind of ...creepy. I've been tempted to create entire RPG systems around this mechanic, I liked it so much! (if this has been done elsewhere, I don't know about it...)


In conclusion, it becomes pretty obvious that Reiner Knizia is the king of "Killer Mechanics". If his games offer nothing else, they give us that (of course, they give much more...). Curiously, Princes of Florence, one of my favorite games, doesn't fit in this list very well... for me it's a very elegant assembly of mostly mundane mechanics.

Any others?


  1. You've got a good list started here to which I have one obvious add...

    San Marco:

    The game is an area majority contest but the mechanical beauty of the game lies in the card distribution mechanic of I divide, you choose... whereby to get left the card set one desires, you have to make the other piles more attractive to the other players, which is as enjoyable as it is agonizing...but can be AP inducing...deliciously so.

    And now that I've started thinking there are certainly others that spring to mind... These include:


    A simple mechanic in action. The decision to fix the card order of the players hand to the order drawn really drives the game by inducing trades as a means to manipulate one's hand composition.


    Another area majority game which rises above others for me through the a killer board manipulation mechanic of drifting tiles whcih create a dynamically expanding board throughout the play of the game.


    A modification on the High Society mechanic blended with the balancing ideas inherrent in T&E you noted above is in play here. To be a contender at the end of the game you must have won the most figures in one of the three figues types. Without one such majority you are out of consideration. Of the remaining eligible players, the one with the most figures from the other two types, not counting their majority set, wins. It sounds confusing but has a similar balancing effect as the weak color score of T&E (and also used in Einfach Genial). So that's 1 (2 if you count my E.G. name dropping) more in the Knizia column.

  2. Jaywowzer,

    Nice to hear from you!

    I agree with you on Bohnanza, the fact that the cards you draw have to be played in order IS the game, and makes it a very different experience to most trading games.

    Samurai is a game I enjoy quite a bit (although I've only played against computer opponents). However, I'm not that impressed with the scoring... not that it's confusing but that it normally ends in virtual ties every game. I prefer the simplicity of the T&E way.

    Haven't played Trias or San Marco, but they seem interesting! (That mechanic you describe for San Marco, in particular, sounds very clever)

  3. Hey, Easy, I'll comment more, later, but, as always, when it comes to Lord of the Rings YOU ARE HIGH ON CRACK or something.

    So far from genius, unless you are discussing a genius for TEDIUM.

    Seriously, it's just a track that counts down. Tons of games have them. Not too exciting, not too interesting. I won't go into detail, since I've said it all before here.

    Like I said, the more positive stuff will follow.

  4. Shemp,

    No need to beat this horse again! I know you don't like the game (despite having only played it once, and with the Sauron and black tiles expansion at that), but I still think the device is clever and original enough to be appreciated without liking the game. To each his own!

  5. OK, but honestly, I don't see the mechanics of that Lord of the Rings game as being anything special. Your description is about the theme of the game. What is it that makes the corruption track innovative, or special, or genius, or whatever?

    From a mechanics point of view, it is a timing mechanism that can be affected by the players to hasten or delay the end of the game. It's fine and all, but like I said above, doesn't strike me as anything special. Please elaborate.


    Now, as far as the others, I totally agree with you on T&E, El Grande, High Society and C'thulhu - nothing to add on those.

    We're in substantial agreement on Power Grid - only difference is that I don't even find the upkeep to be that finicky. It's pretty straightforward as long as the chart is available, and upkeep duties are split amongst the players, IMO.

    Ra, I don't remember enough to have a real opinion on, I don't think.

    I'm a little confused by what you are getting at with PR, though - what do you mean about selecting a role for other players?

    With Bohnanza, I would also add that removing cards from the deck to represent money, thus affecting the odds of drawing certain types of beans is something I would characterize as a genius move. We've played a hand ignoring that mechanic before, and things don't work out nearly as well without it.

    The other games JW has suggested I'm not familiar with, so again, no comment.

    I am personally liking the way Colossal Arena works, for much the same reason that Shadows Over Camelot is interesting - almost every step to help yourself in the short term works against you in the long term. I guess this is more of a balancing thing, rather than strictly a mechanics thing.

    Maybe this should be another thread, but does anyone have an idea for a mechanic that they think would be interesting, but they HAVEN'T seen implemented in a game?

  6. Shemp,

    In the same way that a good architectural detail looks so obvious that it seems easy after the fact, there doesn't have to be anything "tricky" or "complicated" for a mechanic to be great (I can only guess that by "not special" you are again going back to "just a track, etc, etc"). You just agreed with me on High Society and Tigris & Euphrates, games who's "killer mechanic" are substantially simpler than LotR. Conversley, the fuel market in Power Grid is more involved. If you are not referring to complexity, I'm not sure how you want me to describe what amounts to "special"... It's simply a case of a simple mechanic (the track), which manages to capture the corruption of the hobbits and the search by Sauron in an elegant way which creates a sense of drama, teamwork AND acts as the central mechanic for the game (it runs as the "spine" which unites the events of the various scenarios, and largely determines the loss conditions). That's a lot, and it represents a fundamentally original way of approaching the story to create a game (it's not a simulation of a battle, or of the war... it's about the fellowship, and a struggle against impossible odds). From that point of view the corruption track is a great distillation of an original idea (also note that the parts of the game you seemed to mostly take issue with: the randomly drawn event tiles and the linearity of the scenarios, are not related to this aspect of the game...).

    errr.... let's move on.

    Regarding your other comments... In Puerto Rico, I choose Mayor and everyone has to load up on workers. I choose trader and everyone can sell to the trading house. That's what i meant.

    I also echo your comment on Bohnanza, and the interesting way that the payout for the fields reduces the frequency of that bean.

  7. Another game with the similarity to Bohanza that Shemp mentioned and that may better feature that killer 'beans are money' mechanic would be San Juan, the followup to Puerto Rico. As in Bohnanza, in San Juan the cards are the game, but here they are the buildings, the produce, the gold, and in the case of the church card they are pure victory points as well. In San Juan you spend the cards (buildings) to build buildings and use cards to represent goods produced...all of which drive the process of cycling the deck and creates an environment where players try to hold certain cards out of circulation for future play or to prevent others from accessing them but also therby limiting what you can do too because cards drive the game's economy and unused cards are just dead weight in your hand (but sometimes necessary).

  8. My nominations for killer mechanics:


    The Civilization cards, which as well as giving victory points and special powers which feed back into the gameplay, also give discounts on future card purchases. This has been a *very* influential idea in computer gaming.


    The 2D stock market, with prices increasing (horizontally) when your company pays a dividend, and dropping (vertically) when someone sells shares. Brilliantly simple way of giving the flavour of stock market speculation.

    Note that both these killer mechanics came from the brilliant brain of Francis Tresham.

  9. Anonymous1:29 PM

    on the contrary

    i think you are both wrong