Sunday, July 10, 2016

Re-purposing Mechanics: Finding New under an Old Sun

The RPG Design Panelcast had a particularly board-game-related episode in "re-purposing" the mechanisms of previous games during the creation of your game.

When is it stealing? When is it ripping someone off? When are you creating something new from the soup of other people's previous successes.

The short answer the Panelcast offered was the old saying "There is No New Stuff." Which is ultimately true.

The huge genre-creating new game most people first think of is Dominion. And if you consider Dominion to be the first "deckbuilder" there are hundreds of copies out there doing almost the exact same thing: either changing the theme, or combining deckbuilding with other mechanisms to create various levels of differentness.

photo by Anders Nordström

The designer of Dominion, Donald X Vaccarino, has often been asked how he feels about the tide of deckbuilders that came out after Dominion. Find any interview, and you will find he is somewhat dismissive of the entire genre, seeing most as simple clones of the game he made.

Other break-out mechanisms have less familiar origins. People still argue to this day about the first "worker placement game". Early contenders are Stone Age and Pillars of the Earth. But there's good evidence the earliest worker placement is actually Bus. And who's played Bus?

photo taken by Toshiyuki Hashitani
I think if you look at the huge following for both "deckbuilding" and "worker placement" games you realize there is something special about these mechanics. They "gamify" a previously unexplored segment of a game: deckbuilding explores the actual construction of a deck of cards as the game, worker placement messes with turn order in a way previous games haven't attempted.

But both mechanisms also offer plenty of wiggle room to execute those new explorations in different ways.

I don't care how many expansions Dominion releases. There will never be an expansion approaching what Xenon Profiteer does with the addition of tableau-building and filling contracts.

I think this is the point of creative originality: when a game is so different it could not easily be incorporated back into its "parent" game.

Changes to the theme or slight changes to the basic existing mechanism are not as original. Of course, I should say right now failing this test doesn't mean a game shouldn't be made. An un-original game can be fun, rewarding and even superior to its carbon-copy forebears. But that is for another post.

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