Tuesday, December 12, 2017

“Mechanics Salad”

Some tabletop games are collectively categorized as “Point Salad”. Many things enable you to score points in these games, and there is no apparent logic to what scores and what doesn’t, other than what works for the game, that is, “the designer said so.”

This is very different from a game that is attempting to model something. Then there ought to be some logic to what scores points and what does not, certainly in a good model. (Sometimes these are called “strongly thematic games”.)

Abstract games are by definition not models of any particular reality. Which mechanics are used is only a matter of arbitrary choice for the designer. Classic abstract games like Chess and Go are also simple games, games that reflect my motto:  "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  -Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Another form, about Japanese art-gardening, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."

In other words, simplicity is a virtue in itself, because it enables the player to easily understand the mechanics and be able to focus on the tactics and strategies of the game. You could say that abstract games are naturally minimalist.

Point Salad games are almost always abstract. But there's a category of games that may not be Point Salad, but still seems quite arbitrary: "Mechanics Salad". A completley abstract game is a small collection of mechanics, but in Mechanics Salad there are lots of mechanics. Sometimes it seems as though it's a game made up entirely of exceptions to the rules, except there don't seem to be any basic rules, just lots of individual cases. I don't care for Mechanics Salad because they are abstract games without the main benefits of abstraction (from a gameplay standpoint), and all the disadvantages of puzzles (I dislike puzzles).

This makes the game hard to learn: we don't have the context provided by a model to help us understand how the game works, but we don't have the fundamental simplicity of the classic abstract game.

The other problem with Mechanics Salad is that it's hard to bring harmony to the game. (Read www.gamasutra.com/blogs/LewisPulsipher/20170424/296624/Harmony_and_the_Kludge_in_Game_Design.php for my extended discussion of harmony; briefly, everything in the game seems to fit with everything else, nothing in the game sticks out as not fitting or not belonging.) It's much easier to bring harmony to simple abstract games.

Okay, then why would you make a Mechanics Salad game?  Because you want to make a parallel competition puzzle, not an opposed game. In a parallel competition the players can do little or nothing to affect the other players deliberately, and perhaps not at all.

Puzzles that are more complicated are often harder to solve. In practice, it's difficult to make a really simple game that actually has much depth to it. (And I mean depth, not variety.) It's much easier to make a more complicated game, though it's much harder to make a more complicated game that's really good.

Yet Mechanics Salad is a popular kind of game. More people like puzzles than like games, I think.

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