Sometimes when designing a game the mechanic that seems like an obvious fit is actually constraining you, preventing you from exploring interesting paths and alternatives. Let me illustrate with an example.

marmot - wiki commons
single die

In “The Marmot-Catching Game” (not a real game, just an example) a player who finds a burrow needs to know how many marmots they have found, a randomly determined quantity between one and six.

The obvious mechanism to employ for this is the roll of a six-sided die.

Alternatively, you could have a deck of six cards, numbered one through six, and shuffle and draw one card each time you need a value. No sane person would prefer that method to rolling a die for the given scenario, but game designs change over time and a more flexible mechanic might encourage you to explore more design options. Some examples of design evolutions that might be handled better by a deck than a die would be:

  • You decide that the quantity of marmots found should be 0-7. A seven-sided die is hard to come by, but adding a “zero” card to your deck is easy.
  • If you want a non-linear distribution of values (e.g. ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘3’, ‘4’, ‘4’, ‘5’) instead of the die’s standard 1 to 6 you could find or make a custom die, but it would be trivial to alter your deck to support any distribution.
  • Actions in the game may increase or decrease your chances of success in finding marmots. It’s hard to add or remove sides from a die during the course of a game, but this can be accommodated by adding or removing cards from your deck. Acquiring dandelions might add higher value cards to your deck while mishandling a marmot might add a bite card.
  • If you use the randomizer to generate an event instead of just a value it might be smoother to pull a card with the event text on it then to roll a die and consult a chart of events.

Don’t get me wrong, dice are great – I love rolling dice. But they’re not the only randomizer in your toolbox and exploring other options may open other possibilities worth investigating.

Next time I’ll continue this theme by demonstrating how the worker placement mechanic can be replaced by the contraption from Mouse Trap.

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Brad Brooks

iOS Developer

Brad designed Letter Tycoon (a word game for capitalists) which won the 2015 Mensa Select award, and the upcoming Rise of Tribes. He is currently in need of a time machine to address his idea vs. execution imbalance.

6 Readers Commented

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  1. Norv Brooks on April 12, 2014

    Ok, define “Transmogrify”. I think we’ve had this conversation before. Verrrry interesting!

    • Brad on April 12, 2014

      verb humorous
      1. transform, esp. in a surprising or magical manner.

      • Kevin Turk on January 26, 2016

        When are you going to post about the mouse trap contraption replacing worker placement? Sounds like a great idea

  2. Al Boulley on April 8, 2015

    “You decide that the quantity of marmots found should be 0-7. A seven-sided die is hard to come by, but adding a ‘zero’ card to your deck is easy.”

    One quibble: A seven-sided die would not give you 8 outcomes (0 thru 7, inclusive).
    Rolling an eight-sided die and subtracting one, is the “Occam’s Razor” solution. 😀

    • Brad Brooks Author on April 8, 2015

      Good catch. I’ll fix it in the article to avoid confusion.

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