If you make board games, you should add [MDA] – Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics to your tool chest. Even if you just like to play and discuss games, understanding the framework can give you a new context for describing what part of your games you enjoy.

Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics,
and Board Games:

In addition to talking about [MDA], I also look at great dynamics from three games.

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Eduardo Baraf is a game maker from Mountain View, California. He is married with two boys (5/8) and loves playing games with his family and friends at home. He owns Pencil First Games (Lift Off! Get me off this Planet, The Siblings Trouble, GemPacked Cards) and runs the YouTube channel: Edo’s Game Reviews. Professionally his career spans Video Games, Startups, and VR technology.

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  1. Norv Brooks on February 10, 2016

    Once again, Eduardo, you’ve presented an excellent video. I think on your subject there is a lesson to be learned from the sporting event of this past Sunday in regard to Dynamics. I think one thing might find common agreement is that a good game needs both theme & mechanics done well. So, from slightly different semantics, Experience (Theme or Dynamics) & Game Play (Mechanics) need to both be done well. Back to the Super Bowl. You had NFL’s #1 & #2 Defensive teams pitted against each other. The defense of both teams were excelling in their play. The Game Play/Mechanics of the game performed as designed. However, for the spectators (game players) it lacked Entertainment/Fun. So, if your game design execute exactly like you designed it and is well balanced but doesn’t produce Dynamics/Fun/Experience, the game may remain on the shelf.

  2. Eduardo Baraf Author on February 10, 2016

    Very interesting! How the humans interact in the experience has a large impact on the outcome – especially in board games where there is no ref.

  3. Gil Hova on February 11, 2016

    Fantastic discussion, Eduardo. Board games are sorely lacking this kind of critical analysis that video games seem to enjoy.

    One of my big takeaways of MDA is that the designer and players have different perspectives. The designer sees their game mechanisms-first. But a player sees the same game aesthetics-first.

    This different in viewpoint leads to designers defending their game as thematic against players who feel the theme is “pasted-on.” Like how Knizia designed Ra theme-first, and from his perspective, the game is quite thematic; but the game feels so abstract during play, players feel it could be about anything. (This doesn’t take anything away from Ra, my favorite pure bidding game.)

    I was helping a designer (my friend Dan Newman) test a card game about sea life. He had an octopus power that allows players to hold 8 cards. From his point of view, this was thematic; octopi have 8 tentacles, so it fit. But during play, from the aesthetic perspective, we found that it felt more like a giant whale. So we gave the whale power the large hand size, and gave the octopus the ability to draw cards from other players’ discards (like a slimy tentacle pulling them away).

    This felt much more thematic, but also illustrated the challenge for a designer to view a game from the player’s perspective. I think MDA gives a good framework to view that dilemma from.

    • Eduardo Baraf Author on February 11, 2016

      That is a fantastic example! Thanks for writing it up!

  4. Jeff Johnston on February 11, 2016

    Eduardo, thanks for a very enjoyable discussion. I’m intrigued, however, by the diagram you attached from the original research paper characterizing the two perspectives–designer vs player. The arrow from the designer might indicate mechanics first, but the example of a design approach in the paper (a babysitting game) actually has the team thinking about the experience/aesthetic first and then working the design backwards. This is usually how I approach a game design–inspired by some play experience I’d like to create and then wrestling on what mechanics might simulate it in a fun way. Guess that puts me in the “theme first” camp!
    Thanks again for a great topic.

    • Eduardo Baraf Author on February 11, 2016

      As I say at the start – everyone makes games differently.

      The Siblings Trouble absolutely starting with the Aesthetic. I wanted to go back to the sense of wonder and discover of narrative games and childhood.

      On the other hand, GemPacked (and GemPacked Cards) started at a mechanic. What if you took the action of organizing app icons and used that mechanic for a game. In this case I had to actually change some of the rules between the two because I wanted the end experience to be different between the two versions of the game.

      • Jeff Johnston on February 11, 2016

        Yes! And I admit that I leveraged a core mechanic in one of my designs and added a new mechanic that I predicted would have a meaningful game experience–so, heading from left to right like the diagram. Both ways, which isn’t necessarily what the diagram from the paper conveyed.

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