The Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design–the new book by Geoff Engelstein and Isaac Shalev

I learned this week about the new “text book” and encyclopedia of board game mechanics, Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design, by Geoff Engelstein and Isaac Shalev (with art by Daniel Solis). I first heard them discuss the project on a recent episode of Ludology. They explained there (and Isaac has discussed on his blog) that their book endeavors to codify, define, and discuss a host of the major mechanics and structures that make up many table top games. It seems their goal was to offer an open tool box to new and experienced designers–I thing I welcome gladly. My immediate thought was to take my little arm-wrestling card game, “Biceps” (which I first wrote about over here), and try to analyse and maybe even enrich it using the material in the book. So, that’s what we’ll do today.

For those familiar with the list of game mechanisms on BGG, you’ll know it’s just an unorganized, alphabetical list of possible mechanics including everything from “dice rolling” to “worker placement.” Compared to this scheme, I find the most helpful thing about The Building Blocks to be its larger organizational scheme. The first five of its chapters, for instance, which act as a kind of introduction to the book as a whole, outline the five features that nearly every thinkable game must have: 1. Over-all game structure 2. Turn structure 3. Player Actions, 4. Action Resolutions, 5. Game end and Victory conditions. (The first 50 pages, which more or less cover this material, is available as a preview on Amazon).

(Since publishing, the BGG has gotten the authors to update their list mechanics according to those described in the book, but since they were unable to bring over book’s organizational logic as well, the alphabetical list is now only longer. The authors discussed that problem in their interview there with Ludology.)

As tools for better analyzing the anatomy of a game, I find the logic of these categories extremely illuminating. First, there is the way in which the categories move from the most broad, to progressively more minute details. In order to walk through the steps of this system, I’ll try to use my game Biceps as an test case.

1. Game Structure

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In chapter 1, on game structure we consider what, in the broadest sense, is the goal of a game’s experience. Who wins and who loses? Do players play against one another or against the game itself?

At this level, Biceps is very simple. It is a two-player, competitive card game, which is meant to offer a quick, head-to-head, strategic experience, and it should be as much about planning and hand management as it is about trying to read your opponent’s plays and while you bluff and feint your way through your own.

One question this chapter posed, which I had not considered, is whether a game is meant to be played just once in a sitting, or in a series of games. This got me thinking that since Biceps is such a quick game, probably it will be best enjoyed “best two out of three.”

A related question is whether or not anything changes from game to game within a series. Could there be any advantages or handicaps accrued in a series of three games? What might that look like for Biceps?

2. Turn Order and Structure

If we zoom in from Game Structure, we get to the next level of detail–the order of rounds and turns that structure the actual game play. This is all about turn order. Do players go one at time, or play simultaneously? Is the game in real-time or played according to a number of rounds?–and so on and so forth. This level of a game’s design can be extremely detailed for some games–take Agricola which is structured in such a way that through a series of rounds, made up of a cycle of turns the possibilities within the game constantly expand and contract.

Biceps is, on the other hand, much more simple. Even so, asking questions at this level helped me realize that Biceps’ most distinct feature is probably the fact that players take their turns simultaneously. It is this which gives the game is “head to head” feel, and the game’s particular strategies entirely depend on this more basic structure.

3. Actions

When considering actions we zoom in by another degree of detail. Actions are the building blocks of the larger system of turn order. At this level we start to describe the actual work of players and player interactions in a game. It’s a matter of working out how, exactly, players interact with the game’s system. There is, of course, an overwhelming amount of diversity. Actions might be fixed (move and attack), variable (choose from this table), random (roll this die), or player specific (each with their own ‘power’).

It is at the level of Actions that Biceps has the most detail. Since players begin with a hand of cards and can select any card to play, each card represents a different action that can be chosen. However, since cards are discarded once played, these actions are restricted according to what the book calls an “Action Retrieval” system. Each action, once used, is unavailable until playing the right card to retrieve their discard pile again.

Reading about this helped me realize that Biceps, in this way, is actually hugely inspired by Gloomhaven (which really shouldn’t have been surprising). This is part of Gloomhaven which gives it its super-satisfying strategic depth and sense of exploration. If Biceps will be at all similarly satisfying, it will have to be extremely stable and well developed on this front.

4. Resolution

From actions (the way we move the game forwards) we move on to discussing resolutions (the way the game reacts to and conditions our decisions). It might be simple to select an action in a game, but how will that action be resolved? Perhaps you will have to roll dice, like in Descent, or reveal a card from your modifier deck, like in Gloomhaven, or just move your pawn to the next yellow space like in Candy Land.

Distinguishing Resolutions from Actions is, for me, a completely new way of thinking. I’ve tended to think of these together as a less defined mass, but once properly untangled it becomes possible to think about both aspects in their own way.

In Biceps, once again, the matter is rather simple. However, this distinction does help me understand a difficulty I had early on. We found in our play testing that there were times when a player could be very close to loosing and then, in a single turn, by luck or skill, land a crushing blow and suddenly win. This was fun, but it seemed to ruin the fiction (rarely in an arm wrestle, I imagine, would some one be just inches from loosing, and then in seconds swing back for the win). So we decided that unless you’ve already passed the middle threshold of the point tracker, you can’t win in a single turn; you are, instead, caught at the very edge and must play one more good card before you can win. This seemed at the time like a rather arbitrary, but I realize now it is just a matter of separating the way an action resolves from the way it is chosen. 

5. Game End and Victory

This was another section that surprised me. I tend to think of game-end conditions simply as part of the overall structure of the game itself. The problem with this is that the game-end belongs to the actual game play, and not just to that game-play’s structure. For instance, depending on how a victory is achieved greatly affects how actions and turns are taken to get there. There might be a victory point track, but can players loose points as they go? Are points only calculated according to a board state once the game is already complete? What determines that game’s conclusion? This topic helped me realize another distinctive aspect of Biceps. Being an arm-wrestling simulation, you win by moving the counter all the way to the left hand side (from your perspective) of the point tracker and then “on to the table.” We have been representing this point tracker with a series of cards: 4, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4. What I realized while reading is that this is just like a victory point track, but one in which whenever one player gains a point, the other looses one (what the book calls a “tug of war”).

I have been thinking of Biceps as a overly simple game, and it is indeed simple. However,  The Building Blocks of Table Top Game Design is helping me realize that its simplicity is still composed of parts, if I want to make a strong playable game then each of its parts should be considered carefully according to itself. 

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