Innovation is Not Improvement

Last week, we talked about where new game ideas come from. This week, we'll continue the conversation about new ideas, but I'm going to make an assertion that some designers and reviewers may not like: New ideas aren't always a good thing or the right thing for a game.

"Innovate to meet a need. Not to show off your ability to innovate."

"Innovate to meet a need. Not to show off your ability to innovate."

Last week, @RobinDLaws made a valid point in this simple tweet. Most designers would love to create the next worker-placement mechanic, deck-building mechanic, or perhaps revolutionizing roll-and-move. But the fact is, it shouldn't feel like a necessity to add in something new. We've all heard this phrase about a game, TV show or movie: "It doesn't do anything different, but what it does, it does really well." And it's true, sometimes it can be better to take existing ideas and make them even better.

Opportunity to Improve

If every game needed to develop a new mechanic or component or system, there'd be no chance to streamline and improve these mechanics. For example, Fantasy Flight's Imperial Assault took the same basic mechanics of Descent 2.0 and added a little more balance and efficiency to the game. In turn, Descent 2.0 further developed the mechanics of the first edition. Likewise, designer Carl Chudyk has been developing the core system of his Glory to Rome game with games like Uchronia and Mottainai.

Using existing mechanics and refining them is one of the great parts of the golden age of board gaming. Whether it's the same designer bring more experience to an old mechanic, or a new designer bringing fresh ideas to another designer's initial works, the opportunity to leverage ideas and make them better makes gaming better.

Introducing New Players

Using existing ideas isn't just acceptable, it's frankly a good idea when trying to bring players into a new game. Designer Geoff Engelstein has asserted on a few occasions that it's okay to introduce one innovation in a game, maybe two, but introducing too many new ideas will make a game feel clunky and unintuitive.

Existing mechanics are a great tool because players understand them. It's much easier to say, "This game involves drafting" than to have to explain a completely new method of distributing cards among players. With so many new games to play these days, you want to make sure your games are easy to learn, and leveraging mechanics seen in other games can help streamline the learning process.

A History of Success

If you want to see an example of wide spread success from taking a established set of components and mechanics, look no further than a deck of playing cards. For centuries, people have been developing new games with just 52 (or 54) cards in four suits and 13 ranks. Part of this comes from the abstract nature of cards -- because they're not tied to any particular theme or purpose, cards can be reused and repurposed for almost anything. Likewise, the scale of 13 ranks and 4 suits allows the cards to be combined in a variety of ways.

Many playing card games use the same mechanics: set collection (either the same rank, same suit or runs of ranks), outranking opponents, playing single cards from a hand or building an ideal hand, playing with a partner, hidden information, bidding. But these mechanics are combined in different ways to create games like poker, blackjack, bridge, hearts and cribbage.

We're trying something similar with our newest game, 8 Kingdoms. In it, we're using an expanded set of 8 suits and 21 ranks to develop 5 new and engaging games out of one deck. It is not an innovation in the gaming world, rather it is an evolution of the playing card system. It provides opportunities to improve on the structure, and makes it easier to introduce new players who are familiar with playing card games.

It also gives intrepid designers the opportunity to create their own games with the deck, but that's a story for another post.