I’ve been designing games for many years now, and one trend I’ve noticed in my own design style is that I continuously approach games from a more and more abstract perspective. I rarely start with a theme, like I did with Corporate America. And I often avoid complete systems with unique special rules and exceptions right from the start, which is how Shadow Throne began. Instead, I try to create something bare bones, usually experimenting with a single mechanic that interests me. I only build up from there if the mechanic seems promising on its own merits, without any bells and whistles.

Birds of a Feather

I have yet to release any games using this method (Birds of a Feather came close, but was more of a complete system right from the start). That said, even experimenting with new designs has led me to a realization: most games can be broken down into a few important parts, and understanding the different strategies that existing designs use for those parts is really helpful.

That’s because a new mechanic will often fit into one of those parts, so it’s useful to know what other parts you’ll need to fill out a potential game. Borrowing the other parts from existing games, especially early in the design process, is the fastest way to test a new mechanic. And even if you do end up coming up with your own support mechanics, experimenting with existing mechanics can teach you a lot about the new mechanic and guide you in designing the rest of the system to support it. But you may not even need to–many games can stand on their own with a single unique and clever mechanic.

Today I’m going to break down the parts that most games have. I’m sure I’m missing some, and the definitions can be a little murky and overlap a bit. Still, this is a good start, and my hope is that discussion in the comments might lead to identifying some more parts that are useful to be aware of and understand when designing. In future articles at the League of Gamemakers, I plan on delving deeper into some of these parts to discuss common mechanisms that designers use.

Goal

Almost every game has a goal of some sort. Usually, goals are races, competitions over a limited time, or involve eliminating the opposition. Tying the goal to the end of the game, and therefore the duration of the game, is very important to consider when designing.

Actions

If your players can’t take actions, you’ve got a simulation, not a game. Actions can take many forms, involving the core game system or other players. When thinking about actions, it’s also useful to consider the potential for simultaneous play, downtime, and turn order.

Resources

Every game involves some resource management, even if it’s just in determining how to use one’s turns. But resource systems can be a great asset to games, helping to control pacing, differentiating strategies, and facilitating player interaction.

Acquisition

Many games, from Memory to Citadels to Eclipse, focus on collecting game pieces. It’s not uncommon for games to involve collecting many different types of pieces, and for those pieces to be layered. Amassing a collection fills a player with a sense of accomplishment, so I think this is a great aspect to include in almost every game.

Scoring

Scoring may seem straight forward, but there are actually many different ways of scoring, which can have dramatic effects on how a game plays. Especially in acquisition heavy games, a unique scoring system can be all that’s needed to turn a mediocre game into a really interesting gem.

Elimination

Chess is a great example of a game that prominently features elimination. Over the course of a game, players lose more and more. And in some games, whole players become eliminated. In general, I think this leads to a pretty bad action arc, as players feel much weaker towards the end, but it has its advantages and is commonly used.

Uncertainty

I intentionally use “uncertainty” instead of “randomness” because the latter is closely associated with dice and shuffled cards, which aren’t featured in every game. But uncertainty is a huge asset, creating suspense and excitement. Even perfect information games involve uncertainty, as the other players’ intended plans are always unknown.

Interaction

And finally we come to the biggest strength of tabletop games, interaction. When players can have nearly infinite solo experiences with a few taps on their phone screen, it is face-to-face social interaction with friends and family that makes board games worth seeking out and playing for many people. And the ways players interact in games is nearly as open as the number of games out there, including conflict, competition, cooperation, anticipation, bluffing, negotiation, obstruction, treachery, and many more.

With this list, I’m trying to capture major themes in game systems. I’m sure I’m missing some, so feel free to offer additional suggestions in the comments. And if you have a better name for these than “parts”, I’d love to hear suggestions for that too :)

I plan on covering these parts in a lot more detail in future posts. If you have any that you’re particularly interested in hearing about or discussing, please let me know in the comments. I’ll prioritize any requested topics!

Teale Fristoe is the game designer that runs Nothing Sacred Games. He has self published Corporate America, Shadow Throne, and Birds of a Feather, as well as several digital games. His passion for games knows no bounds. When not playing, designing, studying, or writing about games, Teale can usually be found wandering around forests and mountains.

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  1. Eric Redekop on August 17, 2015

    I’ve learned that most game designers are particularly anal that “games” must have a well-defined goal by which the determination of a “winner” is made. Meanwhile, I contend that it isn’t necessary for said goals to be prescribed by the designer; it’s feasible and perhaps even desirable for goals to be defined by the players themselves (e.g. “Let’s play until 100 points have been awarded” or, “Let’s play until someone has 20 points” or, “Whoever has the most points after 30 minutes will be the winner”). I don’t understand why game designers are so adamantly opposed to such a scheme, going so far as to declare that such a product “isn’t a game”, and I am baffled that much-respected mavens in this field are so regressive and dismissive on this point. Some are downright hostile to anyone who even suggests that their opinion is not law. I would expect *real* designers to be more open-minded and flexible, but I’ve found most of them have bricks up their asses.

    • Teale Fristoe on August 17, 2015

      I’m going to agree with your sentiment Eric, even though I may not quote some of your colorful language on the issue ;) I think it’s great to give players the option to adapt a game to their own preferences and circumstances. I’m a huge fan of house rules myself, and also think getting players involved in tweaking their own games is a good way for them to inch towards becoming game designers themselves.

      All that said, as a designer, I will almost always present my players with a suggested goal for a couple of reasons. First, while I’m a big fan of house rules, I know many gamers live and die by the rule book, and actively WANT the designer to tell them how to play. Second, for many games I have an intended experience curve, and making changes to game length can easily cut that short or make the game overstay its welcome. For those reasons I recommend designers give a suggested goal, but it also comes down to the game… lots of party games are a lot better as “play until the game grows old” rather than “play until someone has X points or you’re playing it wrong”.

      • Norv Brooks on August 17, 2015

        Teale, I agree & especially with the latter part of your comment. That’s what play testing helps the designer to come up an appropriate ending. House Rules can be useful sometimes.

  2. Brad Sims on August 17, 2015

    Jesse Schell takes this idea of breaking down games into essential parts, and building from those parts, into great detail in his book “The Art of Game Design.” I highly recommend it (if you don’t have it already).

    • Teale Fristoe Author on August 17, 2015

      That is my favorite book on game design! That said, it has been many, many years since I read it, and I didn’t even remember that he also broke games down in this way. Maybe it’s time I reread the classic.

  3. Norv Brooks on August 17, 2015

    I think you could have quite a discussion as to whether there are really any NEW mechanics but rather there are NEW & UNIQUE application of tried & true mechanics.

    • Teale Fristoe Author on August 17, 2015

      I think you’re right that most “new” mechanics really aren’t new, they’re just novel variations or even reskinnings of existing mechanics. That said, I still have hope that there are genuinely new mechanics yet to be discovered!

  4. John Michael Thomas on August 18, 2015

    As someone who also loves to try and organize things into categories or “parts” I agree with all of the parts on your list (maybe “mechanics classes” or some such might sound more sophisticated, but it’s really all just other words for parts, isn’t it).

    I haven’t taken alot of time to think about it, but here’s one that I think fits in with your breakdown that you might want to add:

    Placement

    In many board and card games, where and how the pieces or cards are placed on the playing field is important. From traditional games like Go to classic games like Risk and virtually all war games, the placement of components in relation to each other or in relation to the board is a critical component of play and a key element of player choice. Note: This can also include orientation of components, which have different effects in different orientations.

    Thanks for the article. Will add more if I think of them.

    • Teale Fristoe Author on August 19, 2015

      Parts really does sound dumb, doesn’t it? Mechanics classes sounds a lot better. I’m going to continue to think about it and hope for a really fitting name by the time I write my next article delving into one of the classes.

      I think placement is a great category to consider, but I might make it even more broad and say Space. Not all games use placement to affect the game, but all games take up space (or consciously don’t, which is worth considering). I think Time is another aspect worth considering.

      Thanks for the suggestions, keep them coming!

  5. Dennis Hoyle on August 19, 2015

    Teale have you checked-out the alternative classification system of board games over at BGG? I know you’re not talking about classification per se, but you are discussing mechanics as building blocks for games, which involves a level of classification before they can be applied. Here is the one I’m referencing: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/581158/alternative-classification-board-games-long

    • Teale Fristoe Author on August 19, 2015

      I have to admit I don’t keep up with the BGG designer forum as much as I used to, so I wasn’t aware of that classification system. It’s a great resource, and I’ll definitely be referencing it as I dig down into some of these classes. Thanks!

  6. Vickie Moore on September 22, 2015

    One of the things I really like about this article is that it made (and still makes) me think about games from different perspectives. Designers are constantly asked ‘What kind of game is yours?’ While I admit that I’m new to the industry and so still learning, I find that answers seem frequently inadequate. It’s not so much that I don’t know the typical, industry-generated categories, rather that describing a game in those narrow definitions doesn’t usually really relate the game narrative or feel. In the end, I think it’s the experience of a game, which is derived from the combination of your elements with emphasis on interaction (as you’ve pointed out), that is truly the question that should be asked.
    I’m looking forward to the future articles!

    • Teale Fristoe Author on October 2, 2015

      Great to hear Vickie! I agree that genres are often uninformative, and worse, they come with a lot of baggage that prevent us as designers from seeing possible directions to take a game. I hope this article series continues to offer new perspectives that inspire new creative ideas!

  7. Shao-Ying Chen on January 28, 2016

    Great article! I’m a boardgame gamer and designer in Taiwan, and I’d like to translate the series of articles with titles “Breaking Down Games” and “Game Elements” into Chinese to facilitate the understanding of boardgame designing principles for boardgame designers in Taiwan. Of course, the original author and the location of these articles will be subscribed in the beginning of the translation articles.

    May I have the pleasure to translate these articles and publish on the Facebook fan page about boardgame designing and testing? Thanks!

    • Teale Fristoe Author on January 30, 2016

      You are welcome to translate the articles! Please let us know when you do so we can check them out and maybe post to the League social media accounts :)

  8. Andrés Micalizzi on February 3, 2016

    Hi, there! I’m just starting in the game design world (though i play a lot of games, board, card and VG) and i want to get a better education at it, so i can understand better how to create compelling fun games. I was wondering if there were some books you would recomend on how to create boardgames (i’ve read a couple of books but those were more suited for video games)…

    Thanks in advance!

    • Teale Fristoe Author on February 3, 2016

      Unfortunately, I don’t know of any good books that focus on designing tabletop games specifically. Someone needs to write one! You can get a lot out of books that focus on digital games, though. I recommend The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell and Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton.

      • Andrés Micalizzi on February 5, 2016

        Thanks for the recomendations! i’ll be looking for those, sadly where i’m from (Argentina) are not available at any bookstore and i have to order them online abroad (and there’s issues with customs and the exchange rate for the dollar) but i’ll make sure to get one of those asap…

      • Andrew Kemper on May 31, 2016

        Try “The Characteristics of Games” by Richard Garfield, et. al. It’s less a how-to and more an in depth examination of games, from Patty Cake to Football to Tag to DnD to Chess to Counterstrike. It examines what makes something A Game, and examines the huge myriad of traits a game can have.

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