When talking games a number of board game terms come up that can be confusing to people. A lot of these are board game mechanics that people may not be familiar with. Today I’m going to try to define some of the most common board game mechanics based on a question we received during our first live show.
NecroDaddy80 on Twitch asks,
What game mechanics do you prefer?
There are a ton of different game mechanics, and for someone new to gaming, all these terms can be confusing. So I think it’s worth taking some time to talk about the wide variety of mechanics out there as well as discussing those that I enjoy the best.
For the podcast discussion version of this list check out Tabletop Bellhop Live Episode 9 – Under the hood.
Disclosure: Some links in this post are Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
The short answer:
Over the years I’ve played a lot of games and have seen a ton of different new mechanics. I can’t say that there’s one particular mechanic that sticks out as my favourite, but there are many that I have enjoyed playing.
Ever since first trying Caylus, I’ve found that I really enjoy worker placement games. Before that, I was already a fan of action/role selection games like Puerto Rico. I’ve always prefered deck building (improve your deck during play) to deck construction (build your deck before play) games. I have a soft spot for tile-laying games, going back to many games of Carcassonne played with my family. Many of my favourite games also tend to involve engine building, which for me goes back to Power Grid. It’s not all about heavy games for me either, there are few dexterity games out there that I’ve tried and not liked.
Those are probably my top mechanics, though I’m sure I’m forgetting something. There are a lot of different game mechanics out there (I’ve also put together a Giant List of Board Game Types that you may find useful if you’re looking for more board game terms and definitions).
The Long Answer
As I said, there are a ton of different game mechanics out there. I think it’s worthwhile to take a look at some of the more common ones and define them. I know for someone new to the tabletop game hobby hearing all of these terms can be overwhelming. What doesn’t help is that not everyone uses the same terms or definitions. For example, boardgamegeek.com lists fifty-one different mechanics. Nowhere on their list is engine building or dexterity. Two things that I consider game mechanics, which they obviously don’t. They also include something called area-impulse that I’ve never heard of.
So here’s my list of game mechanics and definitions. If you think I’ve missed a key mechanic, please leave a comment or drop me an email and let me know.
Action Blocking or Modification – When a player takes an action it prevents players from taking that action in the future or modifies the action in some way for any players taking that action after the first player. This is often seen in Worker Placement games. For example, when you take a spot in Agricola no one else can take that spot, whereas being the first to take a spot in Dungeon Lords gives a different, better, reward than being second or third.
Action Points – Players get a certain number of points per round to spend on a limited number of actions. Sometimes the points are more theoretical. For example, f you are given a choice of actions and get to pick a certain number of them each round then you have a simple action point system. Pandemic is a well-known game where you get four actions each round.
Action/Role Selection – This is where there is a selection of different actions that a player can take but they have to pick a subset of these each round. Usually, it’s only one action per player per round, but there are variations on this. In many cases, Action/Role Selection is combined with Action Blocking, once one player has selected an action or role no other player can select it. Puerto Rico is a classic example of a Role Selection game.
Area Control – Players win or get points for controlling a section of the board/map. This is most common in wargames but can be seen in many other types of games as well. The most recent game I’ve played which used this was Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire. I personally separate this out from Area Majority, which I think is a different mechanic.
Area Enclosure – Players place or move pieces to surround as much area as possible. This is one that I find is more common than you would think. Through the Desert is the first game that comes to mind but even things like the fences in Agricola fit.
Area Majority – Players score points based on the amount of control they have in an area. The player with the most pieces/units in an area is awarded the most points. Players in second, third, etc., often also get points, though less than the player in first. To me, this is a very different style of game to Area Control games. The best example of this has been and may always be El Grande.
Asymmetric Games – Each player’s game start condition is different from every other’s. This could represent different starting positions or faction powers or different decks. Cry Havoc is a great folk on a map example of an Asymmetric Game.
Auction/Bidding – This includes open or blind bid auctions. There are a lot of different auction mechanics that have been used over the years. I could probably do another blog post solely about the various different types of auctions used in games. Widely differing examples include Power Grid and Going Going GONE!
Block Game – This is a specific type of hex and counter war game where the counters are replaced by blocks which are stood up to simulate a fog of war. Columbia Games makes a ton of great block games. Hammer of the Scots is one of the best.
Campaign – This is when the actions of one game carry over to the next. For me, this does not include every game with scenarios. For a real campaign, the results of one game need to somehow affect or carry over to the next. Imperial Assault, yes. Zombicide, no.
Catch Up, Mechanic – This is a rule implemented in a game that applies some sort of penalty to the player in the lead or gives a bonus to a player who is falling behind the pack. This mechanic is often added to games to prevent a runaway leader. Power Grid uses this mechanic well, making the player in first start the auctions and buy resources last when they are the most depleted and expensive.
Card Driven – This is when the main way you engage with the game is through cards. This can be a rather broad category, including your traditional playing card games as well as things like the Command & Colours System. Any game that use cards as more than markers or references is card-driven in some way.
Chit Wargames – See Hex and Counter.
Cube Pusher – A term used for any game where you have a bunch of wooden cubes and a majority of the game is focused on getting, spending and moving those cubes. This is sometimes considered a derogatory term. It usually only applies to Eurogames. El Grande is the first game of this type that comes to mind for me. For something more thematic check out Lords of Waterdeep.
Deduction – This covers games where logic and deduction are required to solve a puzzle or complete the game. See also Social Deduction. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is a good example of this type of game.
Drafting – Players are given a selection of things. They pick one and then pass the rest on to another player. This can include drafting done before the game, as you often see in Magic The Gathering, or it could be the main point of the game, like in Medieval Academy.
Deck/Bag Building – Players start out with a basic deck of cards (or set of things in a bag) and part of the gameplay is adding cards to that deck (or bag). This can be seen as the sole mechanic in a game, like Dominion, or can be a small part of the game, like in Concordia. There’s a growing trend of using things other than cards for this, such as cubes in a bag (Hyperborea) or wooden discs in a bag (Orleans). Due to potential confusion with Deck Construction, I’ve been leaning towards calling this Deck Improvement.
Deck Construction – Players assemble a deck of cards before the game begins and then use the deck they constructed to play the full game. Magic the Gathering is THE deck construction game. Not to be confused with Deck Building.
Deck Improvement – See Deck Building. When players start with a deck and add more cards through play.
Dexterity – This covers games where the player’s actual physical dexterity is tested. Flicking and stacking games are very common Dexterity games, but there are other types. Bandu and Pitchcar immediately come to mind.
Engine Building – Players need to build some form of system to score points. The system starts small but grows as the game goes on. Scoring usually escalates as the game goes on. Actual ways this is done is through a combination of other mechanics. One of the best ramp-ups in a game can be found in Russian Railroads.
Folk on a Map – This is a form of Area Control or Area Majority that involves moving units (and usually miniatures) on a map. Risk has to be one of the most well known Folk On A Map games, but this also includes more modern games like Kemet.
Grid/Area Movement – Players control resources or units on the board. These can move from one board space to another. Grids include squares and hexes and usually have a very limiting movement system, like in Onitama. Whereas, Area Movement represents irregularly shaped areas such as are often seen on maps.
Hand Management – This covers card based games where you are trying to get the right cards into your hand at the right time. This one is pretty broadly interpreted and some people consider all card games Hand Management. Personally, I think set collection games and games where the order you receive your cards in matters, like for example Bohnanza, really set these apart from just any old card game.
Hex and Counter – This is also called Chit Wargames. Think big hex maps with lots of little square counters on them. This is the wargame version of Folk on a Map. Hex and Counter usually also uses Area Control or Area Majority mechanics. Advanced Squad Leader always enters my mind when I think about chit games.
Hidden Deployment – Most often seen in wargames, this is when you don’t know where your opponent is placing their troops before the game begins. Check out Battlelore 2e for a great take on Hidden Deployment. This can also include Block Games and games where you may know where your opponent is playing but not what they are playing.
Hidden Movement – In these games one or more players plan their movement in secret so that the other players do not know exactly what will happen. The first game I remember seeing this in was Starship Troopers.
Maintenance Cost – This is a mechanic where players must pay a cost or meet a specific requirement periodically during the game, such as having to pay a tax, feed your workers, pay an upkeep cost, etc. This is often included in Engine Building games where the cost increases each iteration requiring players to keep growing their engines while also limiting how quickly things can grow.
Memory – Memory is the basic mechanic of the kids’ game of the same name, where you flip over two cards at a time trying for a match. This mechanic doesn’t come up often but some modern games do use Memory as a mechanic. One of the best modern examples is Hanabi.
Multi-Use Cards – While this mechanic most commonly uses cards, there are some games that use other in-game resources like dice. Here you have an item that can be used for one or more things. If you use if for one of the things you cannot use it for anything else. One of the first games I saw this in was Race for the Galaxy where the cards in your hand are used to build you tableau, but they are also the currency you pay for the cost of that building, in addition to face down cards being used to track resources on planets.
Negotiation – This includes games where players need to negotiate with other players. This can involve trading but could also be the forming of alliances and the eventual, inevitable, betrayal. Chinatown is the purest negotiation game that I’ve ever seen.
Pattern Building – This includes games where scoring is based on placing pieces into a specific pattern. I think everyone already knows my favourite pattern building game, Azul.
Pick-up and Deliver – In this style of game, somewhere on the map produces goods, somewhere else wants them, and players get points for bringing goods from point A to B. Boat and train games commonly use this mechanic. For something a bit different checkout Wasteland Express Delivery Service.
Player Elimination – This is any game where one of the players can lose and the game will continue without them. It is a terrible mechanic, one that is best to be avoided. Only in lightning quick games, like Tsuro, should this archaic mechanic be tolerated.
Point To Point Movement – The map/board has spots that can be occupied by player components, these are connected by lines. Movement of pieces is from spot to spot, along lines. Nine Men’s Morris is a great classic game that uses this system. Concordia comes to mind as a fantastic modern game using Point To Point Movement.
Press Your Luck – This includes games where you can take an action over and over but each time you take it there’s a risk of a bad consequence, often negating the initial action or incurring negative points. My most recent push your luck play was CV.
Random Player Order – This is where each round of the game the order of play could be different. The best version of Random Player Order that I’ve seen is in the Academy Games Birth of America series, where you draw a cube out of a bag to determine which army moves next.
Real Time – These are games where players have to act within a time limit, often but not always, simultaneously. Space Alert is a fun co-op example.
Resource Management – Players not only collect resources they have to determine the best way to spend them. Many games also include ways to convert, upgrade, or trade those resources.
Role Playing/Storytelling – Playing a character isn’t just for full-on roleplaying games. There are a growing number of board games that encourage you to get into your character to increase enjoyment and immersion. A fun modern example is Fallout: The Board Game. Similarly, there are a number of games centred around telling a group story. Check out Untold: Adventures Await which uses Rory’s Story Cubes.
Roll/Spin to Move – These are games where you randomly determine what moves you can take. This mechanic is usually very limiting and frowned upon. For a game with roll and move that’s actually fun check out Xia: Legends of A Drift System. For a fun spinner game, try the edible Catan: Chocolate Edition.
Roll And Write – This mechanic seems to be growing in popularity. Players roll the dice and then use the results to mark off something on a score sheet. This is often combined with a push your luck mechanic to add some risk to the rolling. Yahtzee would be the most well known. I personally really dig Saint Malo.
Rondels – This is a wheel shaped action selection mechanic where a player’s choice of action is limited by moving around the rondel in a certain direction, usually clockwise. Rondels often act as a Time Track as well. Check out Shipyard if you love Rondels.
Route Building – This covers games where you connect points on a map with an emphasis on creating the longest chain and/or connecting to new areas. See almost every train game ever.
Scenario-Driven – Before starting each game, players pick a specific scenario to play. This may be part of a Campaign Game or it may not. Gloomhaven is the current hotness in this area.
Set Collection – Points are awarded for collecting sets of things. Points usually go up the more of each thing you have. This is an extremely common tabletop game mechanic. Gin Rummy is a simple card-based version and those same mechanics are also a big part of Ticket to Ride.
Simultaneous Action Selection – Players have a variety of options each turn. They chose these secretly and everyone reveals their choice simultaneously. In my opinion, you can’t top Race for the Galaxy here.
Social Deduction – Players need to use social cues to determine facts about the other players. This often involves hidden roles and having to lie to the other players. I don’t enjoy most of these but did like The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 when I reviewed it.
Stocks – Board Game Geek calls this game mechanic Commodity Speculation. It’s when players buy stock in commodities whose value changes during the gameplay. The most popular example of Stocks games would be the very popular 18xx series of train games. For a much lighter look at Stocks in games check out San Francisco Cable Car or Biblios.
Take That – This refers to games where you can make moves that directly adversely affect another player or impede their progress. Specifically, games that use this as the main form of entertainment in the game. The very popular Munchkin is a great example.
Tile Placement or Tile Laying – This includes games where the board/player area grows during the game through the placement of tiles or the opposite, where players have to place tiles into a constrained area. It could be the main mechanic of the game, like in Carcassonne or Patchwork, or it could just be a part of the game, like in Terraforming Mars.
Time Track – This cover games where players select actions along a track, with the player in the last place going next. There are a growing number of games that use this system with Tokaido being a very pure example of the mechanic.
Trading – This includes games where players can exchange resources either between each other or with an in-game “bank.” Catan just isn’t Catan if you can’t get wood for sheep.
Trick-Taking – This is a very common card game mechanic. Players each play a card (or cards), once all players have played that set of cards is a referred to as a trick, and the rules of the game dictate who wins the trick. Usually, this is the highest card in the trick, which card is considered highest is what makes each card game unique. In some cases taking tricks is bad. For a cool modern trick-taking game check out Diamonds.
Variable Player Turn Order – This is used in any game where the order of play does not start with one player and just progress clockwise around the table. The actual order players act in can be randomized, but more often the player order can be manipulated by the players. Scoville does this during the auction phase, with players deciding what position they want, whereas player order in Clans of Caledonia is based on what order the players pass and end their turns in.
A simpler variant of Variable Player Turn Oder is when there is something a player can do to take the first action in the next round. While the start player each round moves, the order of play continues clockwise from that player as normal. Tzolk’in uses this to great effect.
Voting – At some point the players in the game vote. Players may get one vote each or it could be based on the number of some in-game resource. The vote may be all or nothing or choosing an effect. The result of the vote may change the in-game state or prevent it from changing. I personally love the voting in Twilight Imperium.
Worker Placement – This is a version of Action Selection where players select from a limited number of actions by placing a maker, their worker, on a space denoting a specific cation. Often when a worker is on a space that space cannot be used by any other players. Some games do include spots that can hold multiple workers or ways to bump workers. To me, worker placement does not include every game where you place a marker to indicate a choice. The worker being present must, in some way, affect further use or availability of that action. Caylus is often credited with being the first true worker placement game. Orleans is an example where you play on your own board instead of a common board.
Some games also use workers as a resource allowing players to place multiple workers on a single spot, adding an Area Control element to the game. For an example of this see Keyflower.
I told you there were a lot of different mechanics out there! I’m certain that I missed a few. So please let me know what I’ve missed in the comments below. I’m thinking I may convert this into a living document, as is it could be a very useful resource for gamers new and old.
You may also want to take a look at my Giant List of Board Game Types, if you’re looking for more board game terms and definitions