Interview with Mechanica’s Designers
Wouldn’t it be great to get home, kick your feet up, and not have to worry about our household responsibilities? Instead, we could invest that time into our family and friends. Well, the folks at Resonym games have theorized about this exact scenario and have a solution: Mechanica! Adorable little robots we invite into our homes to do all the chores we can’t be bothered with. What’s the catch? Not much, just robotic world domination. I price I would totally pay for not having to either vacuum or wash the dishes ever again, wouldn’t you? We’ve invited Mary and Max from Resonym games to give us the scrub down of their highly successful Kickstarter:
I want to start off by saying that I was and still am a big supporter of this campaign. From the very first thumbnail I glimpsed, I was immediately invested in this retro-future landscape you’ve created. The colors, the voice, and the tongue-in-cheek humor have really resonated with me. What led your team to decide on this concept of adorable vacuuming overlords?
Mary: Thank you! I’ve always been fascinated by automation and its role in the world and the workforce. On the one hand it’s scary, but on the other hand I’ve noticed that we all really like our little robot vacuums, sometimes going so far as to treat them like pets (or even romantic partners!). We brainstormed lots of different ideas for what our factories could be making, and we all really liked household robots… Everyone’s familiar with the AI movie tropes where we invite robots into our homes for our own “conveniences,” but they eventually take over…those movies are always so menacing! Our design mantra was “cute, but sinister” for the robots, and as we were looking at potential illustrators, Ann-Sophie’s art just jumped out!
I think your team made the right choice! That concept of convenience is brought into the the components as well. I’ve seen plenty of “gimmick” hooks in board games that promise some form of innovation, but end up feeling forced and superficial. However, the genius of the Mechanica design is how just how well it ties in to this theme. The idea of making the box into its own form of factory, where each piece and card have a purpose and are arranged in the most efficient fashion for quick game setup, while also providing the games main shop mechanic is just brilliant! Was this part of the initial conception of the game or something that stemmed during its design?
Max: Surprisingly, none of the cool play in the box and market features were part of the initial conception! We started the design with the factory board and how your factory worked. Then we tried various forms of market, eventually settling on the market as it is now. Only then did we realize that the shop itself could rotate. Someone had the funny idea “what if the pieces literally fell into a hole when they made it all the way around.” We thought this was cool, so we made a version where the shop was on the back of the box, which you flipped over to play on. This was a fun but impractical pipe dream… but then we had the epiphany that it could happen in the tray and all of the play in the box features just fell into place!
That’s really interesting, as it’s one of the main things that caught my attention! Speaking of attention, there are a lot of moving parts in Mechanica (pun intended) to keep track of: the factory boards efficiency, the cycling improvements shop, the per-player robot conveyor belt and the interlocking improvements with varying effects. From a design perspective, how is the game designed to avoid overwhelming players?
Mary: ha ha! I always want to make sure that my games can be played by new gamers, so I pay lots of attention to curtailing unnecessary complexity. Shopping is a thing that everyone understands… and puzzle pieces are very approachable, because people can intuit how they fit together, and beginning to end assembly lines make a lot of sense! Beyond that, players can play even ignoring fancy mechanic details like blueprints and recycling. I’ve found that Mechanica does a great job of allowing players to discover new ways to build their factories the more they play, instead of overwhelming them with choice at the start. For example, new players will build quite simple factories with every improvement pointing down their assembly lines towards their trucks. As they play more, they’ll notice clever ways they can reorient their improvements to loop back on themselves and make cooler factories! I still find new tricks every time I play.
I like the idea of discovering something new every time! Through the Kickstarter page, backers have a great sense of how the game plays. The explanations are well represented and explained, and the live rules web page is an excellent resource to delve deeper into the mechanics. However, I’ve yet to see how players truly interact. Could you talk a bit more on player interaction and how players are kept engaged when its not their turn?
Max: Mechanica is, at its core, a game about building your own factory better than your opponents. The fun part is making something awesome! To this end, we never let players break other players’ factories. The main interaction is the shop: each turn, you have to think about what you want to buy, but you also have to make sure that you don’t let the next player buy something they need for their factory at a cut-rate bargain. Other than that, my favorite interaction comes from the Overactive Fabricator improvements which makes high value robots for its owner every turn. But it also makes a less valuable robot model for each of its owner’s opponents. It’s just fun for everyone—it makes great stuff for its owner, but gives free stuff to the other players—and I constantly find myself paying attention during other players’ to see what free bots I’m going to get!
While we’re on the subject of equity, Resonym and Tiltfactor, your game-research studio, go hand in hand when developing your titles. Where does Mechanica fall within your mission to create games capable of social change? What were your findings during development?
Mary: We didn’t conduct any formal research on Mechanica, but like all of my games Mechanica is socially conscious! We pay attention, from small methods of inclusion like pronouns used in the rulebook to the larger conversation around automation. Mechanica is a critique of profit focused mass production, and how when we get tunnel vision about making money, we can forget to question the morality and repercussions of what we’re making—in this case end up giving control of our world to overbearing vacuum cleaner overlords.
Good thing this is all fantasy! It’s not like that’s already happening in the real world. How vital would you say is Tiltfactor’s research in all of Resonym’s titles? What’s the interplay between both companies?
Mary: I started Resonym because we had designed games like Buffalo and Awkward Moment that had been shown through research to fight prejudice, but Tiltfactor as a research lab had no way to get them out into the world. Over the past few years we’ve learned a lot about game publishing and made Resonym into an up-and-coming publisher, but our designs are always informed by our now 15+ years of Tiltfactor research, and designs coming out of Tiltfactor always have a place in Resonym’s line.
I can tell your team has a multi-disciplinary approach to design. Which probably explains the incredibly interesting and rich professional backgrounds you all have, but how exactly did you come to work together and in the world of board games?
Max: I was introduced to the classic game Puerto Rico when I was 12, and I’ve loved board games ever since! I never thought I’d be able to make them, though. I majored in mechanical engineering in college, but I took an elective: game design with Professor Mary Flanagan. After that I volunteered working in Mary’s Tiltfactor lab, then interned in the lab, then I graduated and worked in the lab and now we collaborate on Resonym—and the rest is history!
Ha, I’m Puerto Rican, so seems like Puerto Rico keeps bringing people together, huh? Mary, you seem to be an incredibly prolific and imaginative creative. With so many ideas to explore and so many mediums within your toolset, what is your process to determine what to tackle first?
Mary: Oh gosh, it’s tough actually. Right now, I keep my collaborative design work at Resonym and my laboratory research in a separate category in my head than my studio art practice, but of course there are many many intersections… I spend time making things that seem urgent and timely, at least to me, and I keep making independent studio artwork at the same time as Resonym projects, so that I am always having an internal conversation about making: to satisfy my own voice, and to design great experiences for players and if we can, do some good. Some of the topics I work with in my studio would not make great Resonym experiences, and vice versa.
I think it’s wonderful you allow yourself so much space to create. When working in games that give players that same opportunity to create, like Mechanica, designers have the joy of experiencing their designs through new perspectives. From your playtesting, what has been the most creatively absurd factory that players have successfully created and managed to win with?
Max: Definitely the Teleporter factory! The Teleporter is an expansion element that moves robots anywhere in your factory. After many different attempts, one of our testers found that the best thing you could do was to have every improvement in the factory send its bots to the Teleporter… which meant that most improvements were point backwards in the factory! On a smaller scale, just like Mary said I find new tricks to building factories every time I play.
I hope they got bonus points for thinking outside the box! The artwork in Mechanica really screams Mid-Century Modern and the retro-60’s cartoon styles from animation giants like Hanna-Barbera. Were the Jetsons and other classic shows an inspiration for the game?
Mary: Definitely, but really in the background. I had actually been to the World Economic Forum at Davos and so many international leaders were talking about the impact of AI, and I’ve been writing about that. And we found the opportunity to have a different take on the AI/Robot conversation by going retro and approachable. Who doesn’t love a Tidybot?
Well, I know I do! Which is why I am so excited about the highly mysterious unlocked expansions for Mechanica. Any chance you could share a few details with us on what to expect?
Mary: The expansions are fun elements that add replayability to the game, while also giving something special that was made possible by the Kickstarter community. So there’s something beautiful and collaborative in that. The backers have funded both the Mega Improvements and Overlords expansions! The Mega Improvements add super cool and unique improvements that players can start with in their factories. The Overlords are your (completely harmless) robot bosses and liaisons to the Mechanica corporation—each one wants your factory to fulfill special conditions and gives you a bonus if you can do it!
Bonus question: Can robots truly be our friends?
Mary: Eventually! But if they can be our friends, then they can be our enemies too!
Mary and Max, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. We can imagine ARMAND-0 is not thrilled about giving time off to his most productive employees during such a busy time. Which is why we’re so grateful to both of you! Robots don’t keep grudges; right?
We’re grateful for having Resonym take the time to talk with us today while working on delivering this fantastic title to its backers. If you’re excited to welcome our new mechanic overlords into your home, join Resonym’s mailing list as they will be announcing how you can get a copy of Mechanica later this year. You can sign up here. Until then, we can recommend a long list of robot powered dystopian media to keep you busy.