cannibalism

If you’ve played Pandemic, you know how great the infection deck mechanic is: after an outbreak, the discard pile is shuffled and put on top of the deck, ensuring that the action is focused in known problem areas while keeping the exact order of infections hidden. While the game was innovative in many ways (it effectively created the co-op genre!), I think it was this clever mechanism that made it an instant classic.

And if you’ve played Forbidden Island, you know it uses… the exact same mechanic. In many ways, the game is just a simpler, more accessible version of Pandemic. Of course, both games were designed by the same person, Matt Leacock, so Forbidden Island doesn’t really steal from Pandemic. But is it always okay for a designer to reuse the same mechanic in multiple games?

I started thinking about all this because I’m considering doing the same thing with one of the unique mechanics in one of my games. In Corporate America (now on Kickstarter for a second edition!), players take turns picking which of several industries makes money. One option is revealed for free, but the player must pay to see additional options. Eventually, the player will have to pick one option he or she revealed, but other players can try to influence the choice with bribes. It’s a really fun, lively part of the game. I’d say it’s the highlight for most players!

corporate_america

Now I’m working on a totally different game, which has gone through several major revisions. The last version didn’t fix some lingering problems, so I decided to radically change it, and in doing so introduced a very similar mechanic to the one found in Corporate America. I haven’t tested it much yet so I’m not sure if the mechanic will work in this context, but it’s made me wonder:

When is it a good idea for a designer to reuse the same mechanic? Are there any situations when it’s definitely a bad idea? Or is it just building on a mechanic that has untapped potential?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know what you think in the comments below!

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. Peter Dast on March 9, 2017

    Reworking themes is perfectly acceptable, even expected, in literature; why not re-use mechanisms in games? Designers always make choices and sacrifices, so it’s perfectly reasonable to go back to the path not taken in one game and see where it leads in another.

    It can also make a game easier to learn, if it incorporates actions similar to those of another game. As a designer, you can build a reputation as the person with the smart auction variants or interesting worker placement options.

    The downside is that ‘cult of the new’ types will bash you for being boring or unoriginal if you rework your own old ideas, or for being a copycat if you borrow others’ work. As long as the new game is better in some way (simpler, more efficient, more complex, better integrated, more thematic, whatever), I don’t see a serious downside.

    Designers should design the best games they can. If this means reusing a clever system, why not, as long as it makes a better game? But I’d want to be very sure my game was a LOT more clever if I was borrowing anything very specific from another designer.

  2. Vincenzo Averello on March 9, 2017

    I find some satisfication in seeing designers put out a few games with the same ideas reworked or used in different way, almost like literature you see how the designer is approaching the game or what ideas are at work. As a player it can make it easier to teach games to an experienced group. We play Ingenious and Tigris and Euphrates often, but not everyone has played both. Final scoring is VERY easy to teach when its, same idea as in Ingenious. Continuing with that example, the scoring mechanic in those games has the same goal, diversification of what you build and play, however, those are very different games. While I may not want to play the same game several times with different names seeing a novel mechanic used a few times doesn’t bother me.

  3. Chris on March 9, 2017

    I’d say Peter is spot on. Reusing mechanisms is kind of how it is and should be done. People who argue otherwise aren’t thinking things through in some weird crusade for fairness or originality.

    Perhaps more to your point, I’d probably add that as a game designer, you’d probably want to avoid leaning overly hard on a particular mechanism for solving a particular problem or evoking a particular experience. It will force you to learn more about the other tools in the box. Unless, of course, that sameness is in fact your goal. In that case, you may want those choices and mechanisms to become part of your brand, like Leacock.

    I read recently about Eric Lang’s design journey with Rising Sun. At one point the mechanisms lead to the game feeling too similar to Blood Rage. They worked fine, but the changed them nonetheless because he didn’t want the games to feel samey. Of course, I don’t really know which changes he made, but I think he’d have a hard time transitioning a design to a different set of mechanisms if he didn’t have a full toolbox.

  4. Lewis Pulsipher on March 10, 2017

    Your question means something only if you look at games as collections-of-mechanics, as mental gymnastics. Which is typical nowadays.

    If you look at games as models of some situation, then whether the mechanics have been used before matters very little. The question is, does the game model that situation while still being enjoyable for the target market?

    In any case, there’s hardly anything new under the sun, and many mechanics that are original to a particular designer, have in fact been used in the past. Many people can come up with the same mechanic. So why worry?

    Another way to look at this: if the purpose of a game is to surprise the players, what matters is whether the people in your target market have seen the mechanic before, not whether it’s been used before somewhere.

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