Interesting Board Game Mechanics
We live in the golden age of board games (so far). It’s impossible to keep up with every new hotness on the market, but I keep finding as I play new games they’re often continually improving on old concepts, adding interesting twists and innovating in ever more fun ways.
Instead of a “favorites” list, I thought it’d be more fun to talk about some of the most interesting mechanics I’ve come across, stuff I’d never quite seen before. I do enjoy all these games, but that’s not why they’re picked. I’d love to hear about yours in the comments!
Galaxy Trucker is a game where you assume the role of, well, a galaxy trucker. Your job is to deliver some goods safely across space, whatever happens. First, though, you’ve got to get yourself a vessel. In the first phase everyone assembles their spaceship from a big pool of modular parts, trying to balance things like offense, defense, technology, storage space, and speed, and making sure things are configured in a way that you’re ready for whatever gets thrown at you.
Next, you take your weird mish-mash of ship-parts to the space-way (or such) and weather a series of random events. For example, aliens might come at you from the left - let’s hope you managed to build some lasers pointing that way! There are all kinds of ways to be surprised, so building the perfect spaceship is never going to happen. There’s environmental hazards and loot to gather if you have the storage space to increase your payouts, but resources are limited - every choice you make in this game is tough.
It was actually tough to pick just one Vlaada Chvátil game. He’s got a bunch of wonderful games, impressively across a wide range of styles and genres. I think Mage Knight actually sits higher on my “favorite” list, and Codenames makes it to the table way more often, but Galaxy Trucker stands out to me as the most unique gameplay.
The app version is very well done if you want to check it out for much less money.
A little darker in nature, Letters from Whitechapel brings us back to the Jack The Ripper murders. One player assumes the role of cold-hearted butcher Jack, kicking off the game with Gristly Murder #1. The remaining 1-4 players assume the role of four constables scrambling to locate the killer before he gets to his pre-selected secret hideout. While any number of players works, it’s really a two-team game, and I believe works best with 2 or 3 people.
The board is a map of Whitechapel in East London, with two separate overlapping grids. Jack moves completely separately from the constables, in between buildings and down alleys while the constables move intersection to intersection. They start where the murder occurred and then can try to sniff out at each intersection if Jack has sprinted through there.
Jack’s player is sitting there at the table, silently listening to the constables strategize to find them, trying to outwit them by plotting a course they haven’t thought of that still gets them home in 15 turns. At any point, all they need to do is correctly identify that they are standing next to Jack, and call out the number to win. Playing this one really does feel thrilling, and I find the game to be equally thrilling in either role - Jack always feels as if imminent capture is just a turn away, but the constables often spend the whole time feeling clueless as they pursue a track only to lose the scent entirely, letting Jack slip inside unnoticed. There’s nothing like the poker face situation when you’ve got a constable who thinks they’re close standing adjacent to you, not sure if they want to attempt the arrest or not.
The next night, Jack’s back at it but the hideout space doesn’t change, only the murder location, so the constables can use knowledge they gained from the last run to try to do it again. All in all there are four chances to catch Jack before he slips away for the last time winning the game. Each time gets a little easier for the constables and a little harder for Jack.
No two play-throughs of this feel alike, and it’s another one I haven’t played anything else quite like.
Gravwell is a smaller, quicker game, which is part of why I love it. The rules are very simple. It’s a race game where everyone is a spaceship trying to get from the center all the way around the spiral and out of the gravity well. You play numbered cards to determine your movement.
There’s just one simple catch: instead of “forwards” and “backwards”, you’re working with “towards” and “away”. Each ship is it’s own little gravitational body. When you play a 5 movement card you’re going 5 spaces towards the closest ship, which may be behind you! Each movement card has a letter on it and movement order is resolved alphabetically, so the board may re-arrange before you have a chance to take a turn. You’ve got to anticipate how your opponents will play if you want to pay a higher letter-ed card.
This game becomes a little mechanical with just 2 players, but with 4 the chaos really becomes apparent. Turns can go in wildly different ways than you expect even after you’ve played several rounds. There are also a handful of cards that push you away instead, and two that don’t move you but instead pull everyone else that many spaces toward you, and it can be very satisfying to use those to your advantage.
It’s quite simple to learn, which makes it a great choice to bring if you need something lighter that’s quick to teach people and get going with.
In Escape The Curse Of The Temple, you and your buddies are Indiana Jones-style action-archaeologists trapped in a tomb, to nobody’s surprise. To get out, you’ve got to roll dice to pass checks which can get you loot, acquire gems to weaken the curse blocking the door, or solve traps and other bad effects that can happen.
The catch to this one is that it’s real-time. It comes with a soundtrack. When the music is playing you’re all running around the board at the same time, rolling simultaneously trying to get the combinations you need without getting your dice trapped. Twice, a gong will sound and everyone has to run back to the center before the door shuts no matter what they were doing or they permanently lose a die for the rest of the round. After ten minutes there’s a final gong. If your crew hasn’t managed to weaken the curse and roll their way out the door, you lose.
It’s not a complicated game mechanics-wise, but it can’t be - you don’t have a lot of time to think! You have to split your time between looting, solving the curse, and exploring to find the door, and there isn’t a lot of extra time to mess around. I like how well the real-time mechanic works, it really gets you in the game and each round is so fast. Of course, people have made alternate versions with other music, so check out YouTube to spice it up. The only way to make this game any more stressful is replacing the post-gong urgency music with Yakety Sax.
Pyramid Arcade is a pretty cool box of stuff. It’s not a game so much as an idea. This designer has been messing around with this same set of interlocking pyramids for decades, and he and his friends have come up with a variety of games using this same set. They sell you sets of these pyramids and a big book full of different things to do with them.
The book is a mixed bag, to be completely honest. There are dozens of games, which is awesome, and we’ve so far tried about half. We’ve found six or seven that we come back to over and over again, which isn’t so bad, and another five or six we liked but aren’t, you know, instant classics or anything. They do cover the gamut from simple to complex and helpfully tell you what to expect. Some trend closer to “activity”, but some of the games are surprisingly engaging. There’s even one in particular that’s so complicated we haven’t even tried to learn it yet, about space colonization. It looks like a full-blown 4X strategy game using nothing but multi-colored pyramids.
We specifically like one with a “volcano” mechanic that feels a little like… checkers, I think? Only with a depth component, and more planning ahead required. It’s a lot of fun. There’s a quicker swapping logic game I like too, and a worker placement sorta thing that’s neat. More than enough to keep coming back to, and we’ve still yet to try each idea.
It’s from the folks who also made Fluxx. Whether or not you enjoy Fluxx has no bearing at all whatsoever on whether you will enjoy this. I mean it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it.
Gloomhaven is a beast. If you’ve heard of “legacy” games, where each playthrough changes mechanics permanently for subsequent playthroughs, this is that to the extreme. This is basically DM-less tabletop RPG in a box, or at least as close as you’re gonna get. You take characters from the box, of which there are a ridiculous amount, some you’re not even allowed to touch yet, and venture forth on a campaign. Each sit-down is a few hours and comprises a “scenario”, and successive scenarios follow a thread and features side quests and secret quests and all kinds of other random events. Your results from each scenario might influence what paths are available to you. You have to travel on roads and resolve events to get between scenario locations, which your party’s make up may affect. There are over 100 scenarios. It’s a really really huge game.
I’m especially recommending it as a two player game. It absolutely works with more, but starts to really take a long time. It also specifically fits for us a two-player game. We love playing Dungeons and Dragons but we’re also adults, so we’re happy to get our group together once a month, and often can’t. This is a great alternative for just the two of us if we have an afternoon to spare just ourselves. It simulates the combat portion of a DnD session with automated enemies. It’s also very easy to insert another player into an already-in-session campaign for a one-off session, there’s instructions for character creation at the appropriate level to participate.
The hilarious thing about it to me is that a lot of the bulk comes from all these differently themed tiles. And, like, that’s awesome. The art is amazing, and really draws you in to the scenario. But from strictly a game standpoint? One 6x3 hallway works just as well as another. Yes, it is cool that there’s lava and sunken ship and adobe and dungeon and all that, but that box is just silly big. There’s also all manner of detritus, and all of it just means “obstacle”. A computer game doesn’t take up more physical space on your self to pack in those textures. A board game does not have that luxury:
That said, I meticulously use each and every proper tile in the scenario setup as prescribed. I’m not a heathen. Yes, it can take a while to set up a scenario. No, we have not been able to close it since we opened it the first time. Yes, it’s worth it.
Every gamer is different, so this is not everyone’s preference by far, but one thing I tend to dislike in games is luck. I prefer strategy and control, and don’t like when my plans get foiled by a series of unlucky rolls.
Everything that Risk is, Diplomacy isn’t. It’s superficially similar, with military units moving around on a map, but you will find not one die in the box.
Instead each player will submit a list of orders every turn, one for each of their units. These orders really just boil down to “Move” or “Support”, and boats can help move armies across water. All orders from all players are resolved as if simultaneous. Battles happen when two units attempt to move into the same region, and whichever movement had more support wins. If there’s a tie, neither gets it and they both bounce out - which can have a cascading effect on other other orders, too.
To prevent this, before submitting orders there is a “negotiation” phase. The players can talk among themselves, one on one or in small groups. You either set a time limit or wait for a consensus on “ready” - doing the latter, I had a full game last 72 hours once before we finally called a draw.
While you can talk and plan and scheme together, all orders are submitted privately and then resolved together in public. So, you know, people lie. You can promise a support but then move out of the way instead, or suddenly move in and take advantage of a weak spot your ally had a non-aggression pact with you about. The tables turn quickly - the number of units you command always equals the number of starred territories you control, so as you capture more you build more and more units, and your opponents lose theirs.
The backstabbing is ruthless. This game is not for the weak of heart, and truly works best with a group of exactly seven which is tricky, but is a worthwhile experience if you don’t care about keeping your friends.
Parcheesi is a classic game wherein players must roll dice to free pawns from their start and advance around their board to the home.
It is about 2000 years older than any game on this list and holds up, dangnabbit.
It’s a dead simple set of rules, but gameplay stays tense and makes you hate your friends. It’s brutal, absolutely brutal. Early leads aren’t always significant, late comebacks aren’t always successful, and it often comes right down to the wire. Go play some Parcheesi.
This is more of an Honorable Mention because I have not played this game. I would very much like to, though.
Captain Sonar is another real-time game that pits two submarine crews against each other. Each player assumes a different operational role, and they must work together covertly and simultaneously to find and destroy the other team while evading their attacks.
It says it can be played with 2-8 players, but it seems to be designed to shine with the full 8, with teams of four.
I obviously can’t talk too much about it but it just sounds so cool.
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Photo by Christopher Paul High on Unsplash