Had a good meeting today with my research group this morning. I feel so lucky to be associated with a group of such people. I hold each of them in high regard. Anyhow, that's sort of beside the point of this post. As I presented and we discussed the current status of my work we came back to one item several times. What is a board game mechanic? For some of you, this may seem like a silly question, and in some respects maybe it is. I can tell you only of my own personal experience with this topic.
Over the last 15 or so months I have often pondered this question. I have found several definitions during that period of time. Few of them agree and none of them really satisfy my itch.
There is of course the Wikipedia definition — "Game mechanics are constructs of rules intended to produce a game or gameplay." The Wikipedia entry goes on to outline all kinds of rather muddled and confused concepts. While there is good information here, it seems to never really satisfy my definition of a "definition."
On BoardGameGeek.com there are all kinds of lists of mechanics and discussions about mechanics. But, where is the definition?
I have perused quite a few very fine books on the topic of game design. Most of them use the term but never provide a definition. I presume it's assumed the reader knows what a game mechanic is. And indeed most game designers regardless of their level of experience could rattle off a list of game mechanics. Most could also describe what the point to each mechanic is or how it might be used in a game. But, I'm less convinced that each would corroborate each others actual definition of what a mechanic is. Being able to list examples of a type of thing is not the same as being able to provided a definition of a type of thing.
Lewis Pulsipher offers a definition in his book "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games." And it's a fine definition. As you might guess... I'm still not satisfifed. Pulsipher's definition is much like Wikipedia's. "game rules..." "methods..." and "for example..." Why am I not satisfied? Well, I guess these only seem to hit at the surface. Again referencing rules and listing examples.
In his book "Eurogames," Stewart Woods offer perhaps the most useful discussion of mechanics that I have found. And indeed Woods states quite clearly that even amongst the experts there is not much of a consensus. Woods uses terms like "semantic confusion" and "in a vague sense." So, it seems that I am not alone in my quandary.
This is likely to be a long and off/on pleasant journey for me. I like ambiguity. I wouldn't be much of a designer if I didn't. I know what my personal definition of a game mechanic is. But, I'm not going to share it... hehe. Oh sure someday... and maybe soon... but not today. For today I will wrap myself in this lovely robe of warm fuzziness that is ambiguity and ask you... what exactly is a game mechanic?