In this edition of Meeple Speak, our guest writer is Dr. Wictz. They tackle the topic of designing a game based off of real life mechanics.
Welcome to a new edition of Meeple Speak. Much like our last article by Nat Levan, instead of a brand new exclusive article, we are reprinting one recently written by the Dr. Wictz for their written lecture series found at Dr. Wictz. The following article originally ran in three parts, but here on The Inquisitive Meeple, you can find all parts together as one whole article. The article has been edited some for spelling and grammar. We hope you in enjoy this article and find it helpful. Without further ado…
Real World Mechanic
by Dr. Wictz
The real world is fun. The real world contains a variety of ways to make strategic choices, dare I say game mechanics. These mechanics are games, but a lot of people do not realize they are games. If you sit a person down and try to teach them the concepts, they may think it’s too complicated, or get board and not pay attention. But if I sit that person down at a board game, teach them some rules with a win condition, they’ll pick it up quickly, and may even find their good at it. Odds are decent, they already have developed skills to utilize the mechanic because they unknowing use it already in their everyday life.
What does a real world mechanic look like? Let’s say you wanted to make a game about building a treehouse using Real World Mechanics. A real world mechanic would focus on the physical actions taken to build a treehouse, say hammering a nail in a 2×4. While building a treehouse is a wonderful theme, the mechanic of hammering a nail into wood does not excite me. Notice that when talking about Real World Mechanics I focus on the experience of building a treehouse, not the excitement of having a treehouse. I am bringing strategic decisions from the real world into a game, not necessarily the theme that goes with those decisions.
Inspiration for Real World Mechanics can come from any process. And there are fields of study devoted to translating human behavior in the world, like economics, and political science, which I conveniently like to steal from to make board games. The key thing I look for are processes in the real world where people make strategic choices with other people and porting that experience into a board game.
So what is an example of a real world mechanics I want in a board game. Here is one, mortgage backed securities. Wait, stop running away and hear me out. I have strategic information telling me who will survive and who will be swept away. I want to use that information to ensure I am the one who survives and others are left holding the bag when things come tumbling down. That is a tense, exciting, and competitive situation, which also happens to be a mortgage back security. As I said earlier, my goal is to provide players the experience of the real world mechanic, not necessarily the theme. I could have designed a game themed about mortgage-backed securities, but instead, I themed a game as life in the mob.
In New Jersey Syndicate you carefully place your goons in cities. Goons placed earlier in the city are less likely to be picked up by the FBI than goons played later in a city. Players are scouting the riskiness of each city while trying not to give away their inside knowledge on risk to their competitors in an effort to gain a competitive edge. Eventually, the game comes to a climatic end where players learn if they made a sound strategic placement of their goons or if the FBI is sweeping up all their goons, blocking them from becoming the new Don of the New Jersey Syndicate.
Nowhere do players think they are partaking in a game of mortgage back securities. New Jersey Syndicate lets the players experiencing the excitement that takes place within the mortgage back securities market without ever learning about the intricacies of the mortgage back security market. More importantly, porting a real world mechanic into the game enables me to provide players with a fun new game experience they have not seen in other board games.
Implementing a Real World Mechanic
Implementing a real world mechanic is hard for many designers because they are too tempted to keep too much of the real world in their board game. When designing, I preserve the experience of the mechanic in the real world, even though I do not always preserve the theme. In the real world, that mechanic is part of a larger more complicated system that can be too complicated to implement in a board game. When I implement a real word mechanic there is a particular aspect of the mechanic I want players to experience.
The first step to utilizing a Real World Mechanic is to distill the mechanics down to most basic components and purpose. This simplicity focuses in on the fun in the singular real world mechanic. Stock is a form of cooperation. Stock enables people to form partnerships that divide ownership within something that they can easily trade. Stock is also part of a larger financial system that interacts with banks, bonds, hedge funds, etc that complicates what stocks can do and is not part of the experience of stocks I want to partake in my board game design of Hoboken. Hoboken is about the experience of using stock to work together in a competitive environment.
In Hoboken players are hotel operators trying to build new developments along the waterfront of Hoboken. No single player has the cash on hand to construct these hotels and no means of obtaining new cash until a hotel has been built. The only way to get a hotel constructed is by forming partnerships with other players, splitting ownership and the potential income in future turns. By removing many other means of raising capital investment found in the real world, players in Hoboken focus on the fun of negotiating the price of a share, deciding how to divvy up ownership in a new construction, and who they want to form partnerships with to build their real estate empire. Players are not sidetracked from the core real world mechanic by unnecessary themes or actions.
Real World Mechanics Nessicate Innovation
An obstacle to implementing a real world mechanic is translating that mechanic into a functioning mechanic in a board game. Many real word mechanics have yet to be built into a board game design, so the problem of making rules and a board game interface is a key challenge for creating a real world mechanics board game. To successfully create a real world mechanic board game, the designer must innovate.
Take my game Bookies & Bettors. Bookies & Bettors is a horse betting game where players experience the thrill of making bets with other players in a betting market modeled on naked short selling. In the real world, a betting market’s primary purpose is to facilitate trading information. A bet communicates information between the bettors. One bettor has information a horse is going to improve and the other bettor has information the horse is falling back. A skilled player can watch other players’ bets to deduce what other players know and use the information to more accurately predict the outcome of the race. Having the most accurate prediction for the outcome of the race enables a player to make better bets to help them win the game.
At the onset Bookies & Bettors was crafted to implement the real world mechanic of naked short selling. The challenge with Bookies & Bettors was creating an interface and rule set that made the experience accessible to board game players. Since a naked short selling mechanic was not in other board games, there was limited guidance from looking at other betting board games or other market games. Nor, could I rely looking at how modern financial markets and betting markets operated in the real world since real world markets are lucrative enough to afford computer programs to track and handle the processing of bets.
I had to come up with an interface to reduce the complexity of playing and learning the game in a form that a publisher can afford to produce. Notice, there are multiple problems I had to solve. First problem, can an interface be created that players understand, can smoothly convey information, and operate without distracting from gameplay. Whew, that is a long list of problems to fix the “first problem.” but if you want to implement a real world mechanic, these are the sort of problems a designer must be prepared to tackle.
I want players to have a real ‘trading floor’ feel while they played the game. To make that happen the interface for making bets on the ‘trading floor’ needs to enable speedy trades without wasting time moving around fiddly bits to complete the bets. The solution was to create a betting slip the bookie handed to a bettor with all the information needed for the bettor to collect on their winnings at the end of the race. Initially, I had players hand write the initials of the horse on the betting slip. Writing initials meant players had to pause, make sure they wrote the right initials, and hope their handwriting was legible. Time was being spent administering the game and not playing the game. Simple fix, replace writing a horse name with circling a horse. Players no longer had to think what is the name of the horse and if the handing writing is legible. They just swiftly circle the correct horse, move onto the next bet, and keep playing the game.
Original vs Later Prototype of betting slip for Bookies & Bettors
Second problem, can the mechanic be taught in a reasonable timeframe to players. Coming up with a solution with the fiddly bits used to play the game does not mean you have solved how to teach players to play the game. In the early version of the game I had a table which let players track all of their bets they booked during the race. To use it, I taught players the meaning of multiple columns, how you should aggregate things, and the meaning of each row. While the setup made intuitive sense to an expert player, say the designer of the game, it was a complex and confusing element that extended the rule explanation and overcomplicated learning the game. Solution, get rid of it all together. Players, I later discover, already know how to make their own lists. Their personal tracking system they make up on the spot makes sense to them because they created it. Getting rid of the table also reduced the time to teach the game because I do not have to teach them the way I like to make a list.
Third set of problems, make the game affordable to publish. Having the greatest idea for a game in the world means nothing if you cannot deliver the game with components that are affordable for players to buy. Remember my betting slips I mentioned earlier? Well, I failed to mention they were disposable betting slips. You write on one once and at the end of the game you throw it away. Disposable betting slips, while clear and effective at making the game easy to play and learn, are an expensive nightmare for publishing the game. The innovative tools to solve my earlier challenges must be refined again. How about dry erase board slips. Dry erase markers are not cheap. But multi-colored clips on a card clearly communicates the key information from the old betting slips and is made from off the shelf cost-effective components.
Current betting slip of Bookies & Bettors, which uses colored plastic clips.
Patience is needed to address the problems of implementing a new real world mechanic. There will be multiple problems that will need to solve. In the case of Bookies & Bettors, I spent years solving how to make the game playable before I was able to spend additional years solving how to create a version with the right sort components to be economical to publish.
A Real World Mechanic is best used when a series of strategic choices people make in the real world is ported into a board game. Numerous real world mechanics are a powerful enough experience they do not need to be overshadowed with other mechanics that distract you from a new exciting strategic experience. Designers just need to make sure they understand what part of the real world mechanic they want players to experience and how to remove things in their design distracting them from the core experience. Refining a real world mechanic into a playable game will challenge designers, and requires patience to work through all the steps to develop a successful real world mechanic game.
If you like to read more articles written by Dr Wictz or learn more about some of the games they’ve designed, you can do so by checking out the Dr. Wictz page. You can also find them at twitter @DrWictz