What is the “core mechanic”? And what does it have to do with game design?
The core mechanic of a game is the thing that players do over and over during a game. It’s the main action or the main task.
Sometime’s the core mechanic is a single activity:
- Jump (Super Marios)
- Shoot (Duck Hunt)
- Draw a Card (Candyland)
And often, a core mechanic is a combination of activities:
- Run, Jump and Shoot (Quake)
Without the core mechanic, you wouldn’t be able to play the game. Many games are designed around one core mechanic and as the game progresses, you learn to do more and more complicated things related to the core mechanic.
A good way to think of this is through the “core diagram” – a diagram created by Charmie @ Funstorm.
In this model, the core mechanic is the center piece of your game. Everything revolves around this mechanic. Additional mechanics add upon the core mechanic for increased complexity. As you get better with the core mechanic, the game progresses to match your skill. Everything is then wrapped together with a narrative / theme.
For example, this is the core diagram(s) for Monster Zoo.
Since Monster Zoo is a deckbuilding game, one of the core mechanics is a very familiar one – playing cards. You essentially play cards to gain more cards, which then allows you to buy even stronger cards (progression). You’re doing all of this to build out your deck which will help you win the game.
At the same time, there exists a second core mechanic – moving Monsters into your Zoo. As you move Monsters into your Zoo, you earn points and possibly access more abilities/effects. These effects help you earn even more points by moving more Monsters into your Zoo. And you’re doing all of this to build your Zoo faster than your opponent to win the game.
When I’m thinking of developing new cards for Monster Zoo, I try to refer back to this diagram and make sure the card is makes sense with the core game mechanic. Is this card in some way related to the core mechanic of moving Monsters or playing cards? If not, I’d better have a good reason for introducing a brand new core mechanic.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room to expand on a core mechanic, just that it’s useful to keep the core mechanic in mind during development.
Here are a few specific examples from Monster Zoo:
Flo Boogly is a pretty straight forward card. It has no play action, but if it’s in your Zoo, you get to draw an extra card each turn. This hits on both of the core mechanics of the game: playing cards (by drawing more cards) and moving monsters in to your Zoo (because Flo Boogly provides benefits when it is in your Zoo.)
Chompo Oogly is a bit more complex. You can either play the card for 2 Food resources OR if it’s in your Zoo (and can’t be played normally) it will give you 1 Food every turn. So you have an interesting decision, that again lines up with both core mechanics of the game. Earning more food will help you buy more cards, which helps you play stronger cards later on. Moving Chompo into your Zoo will give you a reoccurring effect that provides a long-term benefit.
What are some of the core mechanics and core diagrams of your games?