I hear something quite often in reviews or dialogue that has bothered me for some time now. That is the type of comment like, “The game is good, but the mechanics are nothing new.” “Recycled mechanics” comes up or something to that extent. Or, “[such and such] stole the mechanics from...” I have heard this complaint repeatedly with Caylus, where many “standard” mechanics have been applied. These comments and complaints bother me because I think there is an unappreciated element of the creative process of game development.
Firstly, let me qualify that I am not a game designer, but a visual artist. However, all creative endeavors tend to follow certain patterns that I think I can certainly relate to and will describe here.
For me, mechanics are tools, tricks and techniques that a game designer can use to mold a larger product that is a game. Mechanics like auction/bidding, area majority, cooperative play, card pulling, die rolling, etc are such tools that have been created by designers. These mechanics exist to solve all sorts of problems from random generators to player order to hidden information and so much more.
Compare this to a painter who uses his or her tools and tricks to craft a work of art. There are fundamental tools of balance, contrast, color hues and color saturation – to list a few – as well as executional techniques like blending, washing, glazing, foreshortening, perspective, etc. Once in a while a new technique is developed, like the splattering of paint with Pollock, where the technique itself is the work of art. Most of the time, however, it is the particular combinations of tricks a painter uses that can make a work of art special or unique. Such artists look to achieve a goal, whether it be to create an emotion, an atmosphere, render on object in a particular way or perhaps do something completely new.
So then we have the game designers who begin with an overall goal, which may be to create a quick playing civ game, or perhaps to have a resource development area control game, or whatever it may be. From there, they have the many mechanics that have been developed as tools to paint the overall texture of the game. Occasionally, the designer, too, may come up with a new mechanic which may become the centerpiece of the gameplay. Most of the time though, it is the particular combination of mechanics, carefully crafted that can breath life into or, as Mark Johnson puts it, put “the spark of life” in the game. It’s that something we often can’t quite put our finger on, but somehow something magical happens to elevate a game above the combinations of stock mechanics. Such it is often for paintings. We may not know why we really like a particular painting, but it does something for us. What is really happening is the special combination of techniques which have been carefully exploited to create an overall effect are stimulating us often in a deliberate way.
As we are now in the exciting time of the rapid development of new mechanics, it's important to reflect that generally such inspired explosions of creative originality are followed by a decrease in such innovation. Instead, what follows is a period of time of great exploration of already established things. For example, in modern art, we had a huge explosion of newness around the turn of the century. While new innovations have continued, more and more creative energy is spent on refining, testing, refabricating, combining, reinterpreting etc techniques that have already been done to form something new. It is no surprise then that we see games like Caylus – or whatever they may be – borrowing from existing game’s mechanics. Here, we have the continued exploration and application of mechanics uniquely combined to form something new.
I submit that while new mechanics can be a delight, they are by no means a measure of what makes a game good or a game designer great. Instead, it is the careful crafting of a game, using all the tools at a designer's disposal that can elevate a game to great appeal.