Game Design is a challenging thing to pull off well. One of the reasons is that so many people ask and expect for a game to do so many things. The hardest job of the designer is to decide what they want to accentuate and highlight in their game, and what they wish to ignore or abstract away. To make it even harder, different consumers will have different ideas about where the focus of a game should be as well. As a designer, you have to stay true to your vision of what you want to emphasize.
Once you have a clear vision of what you wish to emphasize you use this as a guide to what rules and mechanics for resolution you want in your game. Ideally, a game should have a “Core Mechanic” that acts as the default setting for you game. For example, if you look at Force-on-Force the default mechanic is to roll a dice using the fireteams Troop Quality looking for a 4+ to be successful. The vast majority of times this test will tell you if you succeed or fail in the majority of situations. In Warhammer 40K it is to subtract your stat from 7 to determine your target number on a dice roll. For Frostgave it is to roll a d20 and add your characteristic to the result with higher numbers being better. You get the idea.
In a few of my reviews, you will see me reference “If This/Then That” types of rules. This type of rule states that in situation X you do Resolution Y typically in variance from the standard mechanic. For example, in a Horse and Musket game when shooting at a unit from a Line formation you roll 4+, but cavalry is 5+, and artillery is 6+. Typically, I see this types of rules as being a negative as anytime you diverge from the standard “Core mechanic” you have created a potential failure point in your rules. A failure point is any point where a player may misinterpret or not use the mechanic correctly due to deviance from the “Core Mechanics”. If a player does not remember or apply the rule then it is pointless to include it.
I typically find "If This/Then That" in three types of game situations. I call them:
1. This one time at band camp…..
2. It would be cool if….
3. There is no other way…
This One Time at Band Camp
This type of situation arises mostly in historical games. History is an amazing thing, and there are all sorts of weird and amazing things that happen. Sometimes, as a designer you can fall into a trap of trying to represent everything that happened in the period even if it was not the norm.
For example, Baron Von Munchausen’s men once jumped from a cliff and landed on goose feather mattresses in the siege of Krakow and stormed the cannon and broke the siege (I have no idea if this happened). This was the only time where this activity was ever recorded. However, since it was such a celebrated event designers try to make sure all of their rules for the period have a rule for jumping from castle walls and landing on goose feather mattresses.
It Would Be Cool If…
This one is much more common. Basically, the designer really wants to represent something that they think would be cool to do. Therefore, they make a convoluted rule that breaks their normal “Core Mechanics” in order to make it happen.
An example could be as simple as making rules for a model being able to intimidate another model in the game. Typically, the game has an opposed stat test, but in this situation the designer has a simple pass fail dice roll for the intimidating model to pass. This breaking of the Core Mechanic is what makes this an “If This/Then That” type of situation.
There is no other way…
I would like to be charitable and say this is the most common type of “If This/Then That” mechanics… but I can not say that. I find this most often happening in historical games as they try to struggle with how to represent actual historical events into their “Core Mechanics” this can be very challenging. With Fantasy and Sci-Fi you can bend the rules of the universe a bit to fit your game setting. That is a luxury that does not exist in Historical games.
The most common “If This/Then That” I see in historical deals with different types of units engaging with artillery via shooting or melee. There are all sorts of distinctions about when the artillery is limbered vs not limbered, travelling in the mud, a field piece vs and infantry gun, etc. Frequently, these rules then have to give various modifiers or situational rules for engaging between more traditional units and artillery.
|I got this great image from here:
Blah! I am not smart enough to keep track of all of that so I need “Core Mechanics” to follow.
As a designer, it is best to try to avoid “If This/Then That” style rules. They are inelegant and add needless complexity to your rulesets. Instead, try to work within your “core mechanics” to create the effects your game needs. This will help your game be easier to play, reduce barriers for entry, and reduce complexity. It is a mark of solid design when you avoid “If This/Than That” and can contain your rules within the “Core Mechanics” as much as possible.