Board Game Mechanisms: What Feelings Do They Evoke?
Random thought: Is there a unique feeling or experience that certain mechanisms tend to draw out from players? or does it entirely depend on how the designer wields that mechanism? If each mechanism does drive a unique type of feeling, is there a certain compatibility or non-compatibility between different mixture of mechanisms?
For example, let's take worker placement. This mechanism typically involves players having a group of workers they can allocate to different action spaces on the main board. Each worker completes a task for you to build your empire toward a common goal.
- It's evocative of a managerial role. There's a sense of control, organization/structure, and efficiency.
- The player's role is also one step back in terms of the degree of personal attachment to what's happening. The events in the game directly affect your workers, which then affects you as the "manager". The workers are a bit of a means to an end, I'm afraid.
Variable Player Powers and Asymmetry
Let's do one more, taking variable player powers and maybe even asymmetry. Like the name suggests, this involves giving each player an entirely different power he/she can utilize throughout the game, and typically assigns each player a unique character or faction. In the case of asymmetry, it's basically variable player powers, except with added chaos where each character or faction plays by its own rules.
- There's a greater sense of attachment to your character because it has a unique identity.
- In the case of asymmetry, you even end up thinking in the same mindset of that character or faction. This leads to players feeling naturally inclined to playing a specific character because it resonates with their personality and playing style.
- As a consequence, game events that impact your character also feel more personal. Will get into this more in the following section.
Case Study: Atlantis Rising 2nd Edition
The reason I bring this up is because of Atlantis Rising 2E. It's a great co-op game and my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But, there was one little part that bothered me just a tiny bit—lack of your own personal character—and I think it's mostly due to the combination of worker placement and variable player power mechanisms at play.
I had read before that some people claim this game to be Forbidden Island "but better" in every single way. And while I agree that Atlantis Rising is an excellent game with nail-biting tension, it was lacking in the character department, which is funny to say because in comparison, Forbidden Island's character cards barely have any character. It simply shows scuba diving gear for the "Diver," a helicopter for "Pilot," or a compass for a "navigator," and so on. Certainly not like these beautiful Councilor player boards illustrated by the amazing Vincent Dutrait.
This is where I felt slightly misled by those who claimed this game to be "Forbidden Island but better". Let's compare:
- Variable player powers - Each player takes on a role within a team of a navigator, pilot, diver, and other rather generic individuals. Each character comes with its unique power such as increased mobility or the ability to "shore up" the flooded island tiles at a faster rate.
- Point-to-point movement - Each player moves one character around the island tiles that are flooding away at an alarming rate. You are desperately trying to maintain foothold while collecting ancient treasures to escape the island.
Atlantis Rising 2E
- Variable player powers - Each player takes on the role of an Atlantean Councilor. Similar to Forbidden Island, the Councilors have unique, powerful abilities that encourage making cooperative decisions in order to construct the Cosmic Gate and lead their fellow Atlantean citizens to safety.
- Worker placement - Unlike Forbidden Island, players control not just the Councilor (the Leader worker), but also have numerous Atlantean followers to place on the board to retrieve crucial resources. Similar to Viticulture, the Councilor is like your Grande worker—a special worker you reserve to maximize your benefits. Players place their Councilors and their followers on the board to gain actions, but they're not able to complete their actions if the island tile ends up flooding away. When this occurs, the workers at the flooded tile simply go back to your supply of workers and just can't be used for the current round.
Going back to our look at the two mechanisms—worker placement and variable player powers—there's a tension between the feelings they create in Atlantis Rising 2E. In return for rewarding the players with a more strategically satisfying gameplay where you manage not just your character, but also another set of workers, your character takes a backseat and becomes a part of the puzzle. It's not the main character and is instead a stat booster to help other workers' probability of success for gathering materials for the Cosmic Gate. And when disaster strikes and an island tile that your workers are standing on floods away, it's a shame that you've lost your workers and/or your Leader for that round, but you'll have them right back for the next. This isn't to say that Atlantis Rising 2E doesn't have tension. In fact, it has plenty of brutal moments but the case I'm trying to make is that the characters have a bit of hollowness to them in comparison to the nice chrome.
On the other hand, Forbidden Island is a much simpler game with a small decision space and little ways to mitigate bad luck. But, it has one thing that it does really well—immersion. You and your friend feel like you're on the island. You feel like you're the diver of the group. You can feel the danger in a way that's more personal. In comparison, the danger you feel in Atlantis Rising 2E is not the safety of your character, but the end goal getting disrupted. There's a difference.
Again, I want to be clear. Atlantis Rising 2E is a great co-op game that deserves your attention if you love Pandemic-esque type of games. But as someone who tends to overthink and ponder these things while taking a drive, it's interesting to think about how mechanisms might play a heavy hand in shaping our feelings during gameplay.
With that said, what do you think about my thoughts? And what sort of feelings do you think are created by other mechanisms such as rondel, drafting, hidden movement, or others? Let me know in the comments below!