As game designers, and even just as players, we often think and describe games by their mechanic. These are the gears of the game: the numbers we’re trying to balance on cards, the types of actions a player can take.

But design is about the communication of an experience, and often times the same mechanic can create two completely different experiences. How is that possible?

In Hanabi, the primary experience is not about collecting cards in numeric order.

In Hanabi, the primary experience is not about collecting cards in numeric order.

When you’re introducing someone to a new game, how do you talk about it? The weak answer is to say what you’re doing: Roll the die, place a tile, take your actions. These are important to understanding how to play, but the strong answer is why they’re doing it.
It would be a mistake to try to define something like Hanabi by its mechanics. Players are trying to lay out cards of various colors in order from 1 to 5, but that is not what the game is about. The experience of the game is about learning to communicate layers of information through subtle use of position, timing, and other shared conventions. It builds the kind of social connection that normally only develops after years of associating with a group of peers. The cards and what you do with them are only the avenue that this experience is built upon.

Papers, Please goes way deeper than just stamping passports.

Papers, Please goes way deeper than just stamping passports.

So you go into the theme: maybe you are a team of firefighters saving people from a burning building. But, even describing what you do in a game in thematic terms is not quite the same as defining the experience of playing it. Video games tend to be more thematic than board games, but the same thing applies to them. The game Papers, Please is not about checking passports at a border crossing. It’s about maintaining both your family and your humanity in a situation that frequently asks you to sacrifice one to save the other. In the broader sense, theme is just context for the core aesthetics of a game.

What are the core aesthetics of a game? In their paper MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research , Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek reference 8 aesthetics of a game that define player experience:

  1. Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy: Game as make-believe
  3. Narrative: Game as drama
  4. Challenge: Game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship: Game as social framework
  6. Discovery: Game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression: Game as self-discovery
  8. Submission: Game as pastime

When you consider them together, you get a great framework for understanding what the appeal is for all kinds of games. Lords of Waterdeep invests heavily in narrative and fantasy, where party games like Apples to Apples or Pictionary are almost all about fellowship and expression. But even in heavy games, you can see elements of both worlds at play. Eclipse and similar 4X games (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) have a narrative and are challenging, but there’s discovery as you expand the board, and even expression of play style (choosing an offensive/defensive play style and being validated in your choice when it works out).

How can we use this as designers? How do we figure out which mechanics create the experience we want players to have? And is it wrong or bad when we want to create one experience and end up creating something else? These are important questions, and ones we might discuss in a future post. But for now, it starts with breaking down the games you know/love and seeing what combinations of mechanics drive what experiences.

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Mark Major

Game Designer at Whirling Derby

Mark Major wears hats and makes games of many different varieties (in both cases).

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  1. Luke Laurie on February 17, 2014

    Thanks for this piece Mark – I love the term “core aesthetic” and will definitely consider that in my designs!

  2. Ed on February 18, 2014

    Hanabi is a good example but a poor choice. In the photo above the colors are discernable because the lighting was adequate (and full spectrum) but in a low light situation such as the lobby of the LAX Hilton, those colors are barely distinguishable.

  3. Bastiaan Reinink on July 31, 2017

    Your article really made me think! So much so that I added it (with some comments of course) to my list of brilliant blog posts:

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