The Newcomer’s Guide to Board Game Genres and their Mechanics
Thanks to the global pandemic that has kept the world indoors, the gaming industry saw a massive boom. As with any new hobby, there’s a lot to learn. It’s a deep dive journey that I went on myself several years back. With so many newcomers to the hobby, we thought that it would be helpful to compile a list of all the genres and common game mechanics.
4x: “4x” is the abbreviated term for “Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate”. These are arguably some of the most in-depth games on the market. 4x games pit players against one another as they represent different organizations, cultures, or species as they seek to gain power by expanding their geographic, economic, and technological reach. In order to do so, players A staple of the genre are the inclusion of technology trees that grant additional abilities and ways to obtain resources.
While some games in the 4x genre might include militaristic options, they are always the least efficient route to victory since the core focus of the genre is challenging the players’ ability to manage a multitude of paths to victory. 4x titles tend to be some of the lengthiest and most complex games available, the most notorious for length being Twilight Imperium.
Abstract: Abstract games are precisely what they sound like. It is possible for these games to have a theme although all aspects of the game must be purely informational. Chess and checkers are great examples of abstract games where the board and all player pieces simply convey the board state and possibilities of an otherwise very mathematical game. These games are heavily tactical, but minimal in their core mechanics.
Area Control: Also affectionately referred to as, “dudes on a map”, but also known as “area majority” or “area influence”. Area control games feature a map that multiple player controlled factions compete over. Most games grant players influence over an area when they have the most number of pieces in a given space. More often than not, the different factions have passive abilities that give them advantages over their opponents. The most well known area control game is Risk.
Campaign: Campaign games are a more recent emergence, but they very quickly became a favorite of mine. These games have a singular ongoing story divided up into chapters that can be enjoyed over multiple sessions. It’s not uncommon for these titles to have branching narratives where player actions determine the outcome of the story. Sometimes the narrative outcomes change based on player choice, but other times, the outcomes of player efforts will determine the narrative path. Character building is a staple of the genre where players will have the opportunity to develop the stats and abilities of their playable characters either by achievement, story progression, or experience points. The number one game of all time (according to BoardGameGeek), Gloomhaven, is an excellent example of a character-building campaign game.
Deduction: Deduction games take game night and turn it into a night mystery and puzzles. These games present players with a problem and gives them clues in small doses throughout the experience. It will be entirely up to players to solve the challenge by gathering clues together. Deduction games are commonly social in nature, similar to children’s games like Mafia where players are trying to deduce who in the group is a traitor. Other deduction games, like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases put players on the same side against the game itself.
Dexterity: While most board games provide a mental challenge, others focus on challenging physical dexterity and coordination, not unlike finger football. These games are often focused on balancing objects or hitting a mark with a target. Dexterity games aren’t complex and have very few rules and make for excellent family games. Jenga is without a doubt the most commonly known dexterity game.
Dungeon Crawler: For anyone familiar with fantasy games of any sort, they’ll more than likely know what a dungeon crawler is. While dungeon crawlers are not exclusively fantasy themed games, they quite often go hand in hand. These games are scenario based and send players through winding labyrinths battling monsters and collection treasure. Despite the fact that Dungeons & Dragons is not classified as a board game, but rather a tabletop role-playing game, D&D helped popularize the genre. In recent years, dungeons crawlers have made a resurgence, but have placed a greater emphasis upon ongoing campaigns and have found massive success.
Euro: The term “Euro game” refers to a genre of games that are heavily mechanical and mathematic. A key characteristic of euro games is that they have little to no luck involved which is arguably one of the reasons why it’s become such a popular genre. Euros are more abstract than dungeon crawlers and war games, but less so than the abstract genre. They tend to have economic or historical themes where each player is trying to gain the most points by carefully utilizing the few resources in their possession. Often times Euro games have multiple resource tiers that are harder to obtain at higher levels. Player interactions can either be direct or indirect.
Party Games: Social in nature, party games are better in large numbers. These games are designed to have as few rules and pieces as possible to make them easier to teach and more accessible in group settings. Party games typically focus on group think, humor, or acting.
Real-Time: Most board games follow a turn structure that’s either based on a set number of actions or a series of phases. Real-time games remove that structure and make time the constraining element. Players will take their actions as quickly as they can while the clock is counting down. Given the added pressure that the real-time elements introduce, gameplay often isn’t as complex as it is in other genres.
Trading Card Game/Collectible Card Game: Arguably one of the most recognizable genres for anyone who grew up in the 90’s, when intellectual properties like Pokémon made their debut. Some times publishers of CCGs will sell starter sets that help new players get their collection off the ground, but more often that not, new cards are obtained by purchasing blind packs of cards where consumers are never quite sure what they are getting. The player experience is as much about purchasing and collecting cards as it is constructing a deck and playing against opponents. CCGs often have regular expansion releases that make it cost prohibitive to stay up to date with.
While new cards can be made available in large retail-size boxes or small packs of ten to fifteen cards, the uniting characteristic is that each of these packs are blind. Consumers purchase packs of new cards without knowing what cards are contained within. Since consumers never know what they’re purchasing, it’s entirely possible to spend money on a pack of cards that they already own. The term “trading card game” comes from the community interaction of trading to obtain the correct cards for their desire decks.
After the purchase of cards comes the game itself. TCGs and CCGs are most commonly head-to-head games where players use decks of thirty to sixty cards they’ve constructed around a theme or mechanic to duel each other.
Wargame: The wargaming genre is one of the few that’s even more involved than CCGs. In its original form, wargaming was used as a way to teach military strategy or plot out tactics. Since then it’s developed a large hobbyist community who play a variety of variety of wargame subgenres, like skirmish or historical wargames. In war games, players command groups of units over a large area and use their positioning, skills, and the environment to their tactical advantage to eliminate an equally sized opposing force. A common part of the experience of wargaming with miniatures is designing, building, and painting each player’s custom army and terrain to make for an exceptionally immersive experience. While some wargaming maps may feature grids, wargames typically use included tools like rulers to determine the distance units can move or attack by.
The term “game mechanic” refers to a system or function of player interaction with the game or each other. These can be as simple as a set of rules that determine what players are and are not allowed to say in a guessing game, or they can be as complex as selecting a team of characters that have a strong composition of powers. While the above genres are helpful tools in understanding what types of games you might enjoy, it’s not quite enough. Each of the below game mechanics are the building blocks of what comprises the broader experience. Understanding different types of game interactions, be it with other players or the game itself, will be a helpful tool in identifying what types you enjoy most.
Acting: Requires players to mime and perform in a certain role. Most people will be familiar with this from Charades.
Action Points: The action point system is a way of limiting what players can do on any given turn. At the start of each of their turns, players will be given a set number of action points they can allocate how they please. It’s a common function that more valuable actions will cost more points to conduct. In Middara: Unintentional Malum – Act 1 players get three action points to spend per round. Most actions cost players only one of those points, but attacking will cost two.
Action Queue: The idea of an action queue is that players select their actions ahead of their execution. It’s common in these instances that the board’s state will change before players will have the chance to take their pre-selected actions, forcing players to adapt how they use those actions to the new circumstances.
Area Majority/Influence: Also referred to as Area Control, which is also listed above as a genre. Technically it’s closer to a game mechanic than a genre, but as area influence is such a dominating aspect of any game it’s present in, I’ve included it in both parts of the article. Area influence games pit players against one in another in competition for the same spaces. Whomever has the most pieces/units in said space is awarded control and often bonuses for having said control. The nature of the game mechanic’s function makes it a popular inclusion for military themed games.
Auction/Bidding: Auction and bidding games have players bidding with in-game currency or point in order to obtain different resources or points. Each player will have the opportunity place a bid before the item(s) being auctioned is awarded to the highest bidder.
Bluffing: As one might expect, bluffing games require players deceive their opponents into believing something untrue as a method of winning. In order to function properly, bluffing games must have an element of hidden information.
Character Development: Most common in role playing or narrative-centric games, character development is the growth of playable characters’ that improves base stats as well as unlocks new abilities. Growth opportunities are commonly made available to players by spending experience points that are either earned over time or by achieving particular feats. Character development can occur over the course of a single session or a campaign.
Communication Limits: Some games, especially deduction games, would be far too easy to solve if players were able to openly communicate every piece of information. Communication limits are imposed on players to reduce the chances of them giving away hidden information or coordinating in an otherwise game-breaking manner.
Deck Building: It’s common in board games to give players a deck of cards they use in order to execute their action selections. In deck building games, these action determining card decks are modified over the course of the game in order to optimize their function for the player’s goal. This is done by the additional and removal of selected cards over game rounds, letting players customize their decks to better reflect their goals by both adding new cards and removing irrelevant ones.
Deduction: Often social in nature, deduction mechanics provide players with clues that they’ll use to discover the game’s hidden information goal.
Dice Rolling: It may seem obvious that dice are made for rolling, but not every game that includes dice require players to roll them. In some instances, like Merchant Cove‘s coal dice are only used as counters. Games that require players to roll dice will often direct them to utilize the results of those rolls to acquire resources, determine the success of an action, or influence movement.
Notable examples include: Dice Throne and Too Many Bones.
Drafting: Traditionally, cards are dealt to players and they will either need to work with what they have, or discard and redraw a select number of cards. Drafting is a different method of distributing components where they are distributed through a selection process. Card Drafting may take the form of all players selecting cards from their hand and then passing the rest. In Nemesis for example, character selection is conducted by having the first player draw the top two character cards, select one, shuffle the other back into the deck, and pass the deck to the next player so they may do the same.
Grid Movement: Grid movement refers to the spaces on the board and how players move from space to space. Games that include grid movement, often dungeon crawlers, give players movement across an area where each space is measured in number of areas on a grid. These spaces can be squares, hexagons, or triangles.
Hand Management: Hand management refers to the economy of the cards within a player’s hand, as well as how and when those cards are used. The goal may be to use the cards in a particular order or combination to optimize their effects. In the Century series, players spend cards from their hand in a particular sequence to upgrade and exchange the the gems they have in front of them in order to collect a certain combination. Since gems can only be upgraded in a certain order, players will have to use the cards in their possession in a specific sequence to effectively get the gems they need.
Hidden Movement: Some games are a one vs. all format where players are trying to find a character or object. However, the position of said character or object is hidden from those seeking it out and not represented anywhere on the board. Instead, the player controlling the objective item will have a separate board or a piece of paper that denotes where they are on the board. By hiding the movement, it creates a game experience similar to that of hide-and-seek where players will need to coordinate their efforts or effectively utilize clues to find their target.
Hidden Roles: The function of hidden roles is to either create suspicion amongst players such as in social deduction and semi-cooperative games. Roles are randomly assigned to players at the start of the game which will determine what their objective is. In social deduction games, players will be divided into teams or there will be a single player with the role of the antagonist, like in a game of Mafia. In semi-cooperative games, it’s possible that all or no players have roles that undermine the group objective.
King of the Hill: King of the hill games are similar to area control in that players are vying for control over certain spaces on the board. However, where it differs is that king of the hill games have players control only one or two characters as opposed to a whole army and compete over a limited number of areas to award points or special benefits.
Legacy: Legacy games are one of the most recent additions to the industry. All legacy games are campaign games that take place over multiple sessions and are permanently altered by player decisions or outcomes. For example, in Pandemic Legacy Season 1, cities will be permanently altered and left in worse condition whenever an outbreak occurs. To represent the change in condition, players place stickers on the board that will never be removed. Most legacy games will have a campaign of ten to fifteen chapters before concluding. Some legacy games will be unplayable once the campaign is over, but the final state of some others are perfect for playing in a casual mode with all the challenges of the board’s alterations (like Betrayal Legacy).
Mancala: The mancala mechanism is an incorporation of a system that was created by the original Kalah game. In this mechanic players pick up all of the tokens in one space and allocate them all to different spaces in sequence. The last token placed will trigger an action associated with the space it’s placed in.
Map Reduction: Whether it’s triggered by player action, card draw, or a regular part of the round sequence, the playing space is reduced over time.
Market: Games that include a market mechanic give players the opportunity to buy or sell new resources or cards.
Measurement Movement: Typically featured in war games, measurement movement is the method by which players determine how far on a board their pieces may move. Where grid movement uses the spaces on the board to determine how far a piece can move, measurement movement has players use rulers to determine the movement distance.
Modular Board: Common in scenario based games, modular boards are playing spaces comprised of multiple tiles and or cards. By using multiple components to take the place of a traditional board, game creators are able to provide a greater number of possibilities to create more strategic opportunities or support the needs of campaign games that demand a wider variety of setups.
Narrative Choice: Many storytelling games provide players with chunks of narrative at the beginning and end of a scenario, as well as interspersed throughout triggered events by the completion of various objectives. Narrative choice is when players are given the opportunity to choose between different outcomes during any of the story sections. The players’ decision can have an immediate effect and grant rewards such as experience or items or potentially have long-term impacts on the overarching narrative.
Negotiation: Negotiation focuses on deals made between players. These agreements can be related to trade, actions, territories, or alliances and depending on the game can be binding or non-binding.
Pattern Building: Often going hand-in-hand with tile placement, pattern building requires players to arrange components into complex patterns in order to trigger effects or gain points.
Pick-up and deliver: Not too unlike fetch quests in video games, pick-up and deliver games send players off to a different location to retrieve and item and bring it back. The difference between fetch quests and pick-up and deliver is the latter requires players’ careful planning and forethought and is far less tedious. Upon delivery of the target goods, players will earn currency that allows them to improve their operation, or points for end game scoring. Pick-up and deliver games are often euro route building games.
Player Elimination: More common in competitive games, player elimination permanently removes players from the game. This typically means it is no longer possible for the removed player to win. In games like Clank! , the goal is to be the last player standing, whereas games like Gloomhaven may include player elimination, but only as a function of failure rather than a collective goal.
Push Your Luck: A luck based mechanic where players will need to assess the level of risk they are willing to take. Players can either settle for their existing score/gain or push their luck by taking an action (i.e. die rolling, drawing a card or drawing a token token) to increase their gain at the risk of losing what’s already in their possession.
Race: The first player to achieve the objective is the winner. These objectives can be as simple as the first player to ten points is the winner like in Catan, but they can also be a more literal race like in Flamme Rouge.
Rock-paper-scissors: Named after the game that inspired it, rock-paper-scissors mechanics provides a minimum of three possible options, with each one having an advantage over the other in a circular fashion.
Role-playing: Role-playing has two different interpretations, both of which we’ll cover. One type of role-playing has players take on the role of a character by controlling their piece/components on a board where player decisions are the decisions of the characters they’re playing as. The other more involved interpretation of role-playing has players acting out the dialogue and actions of their characters which is quite common in tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. In both instances, experience point based skill and stat development is quite common.
Roll/Spin and Move: Popularized by early board games such as Chutes and Ladders and Monopoly, roll and move is one of the most recognizable systems in the industry. In order to advance on the board in a roll-and-move game, players roll a set number of dice (usually one or two) and move a number of spaces forward equal to the result of the dice roll.
Roll-and-Write: Roll-and-write is a term that some may not have heard, but are likely to be familiar with in function. The concept behind roll-and-write is that players roll dice and record the result somewhere on a score sheet. Typically the dice results could be applied to multiple scoring criteria, but can only be used once. Once the results are written on the score sheet, they can’t be changed, even if a player rolls a better scoring opportunity later on. These mechanics were made familiar to many by Yahtzee. In recent years, this mechanic has been adapted to work with other devices other than dice rolls.
Rondel: Represented by an action wheel, players move their token forward a set number of spaces on the wheel. The more spaces players advance, the more it costs them. Players execute the action of the final space their piece lands on.
Route Building: Also known as network building, these games are all about building connections between areas to trigger an effect. Thematically these are often train or trade routes of some sort.
Secret Unit Deployment: Another form of hidden information, secret unit deployment refers to when units (cards or other components) are placed into the play area with some type of secret information. The unit’s information is hidden to all players other than the player who is in control of the unit. The information hidden to opponents can be the type of units, its stats, or its location on the board.
Semi-Cooperative: In semi-cooperative games players are generally working together toward share goals, but will also have secret objectives that they must also meet. In some instances the secret objectives will simply provide additional goals for players, while others will actively undermine their allies. A player will lose if the common objective conditions met, but their secret personal ones were not. Nemesis is my personal favorite semi-cooperative game. All players are working together to ensure the two of the three of the space ship’s engines are working and that the ship is headed to Earth. However, players may have objectives that reroute the ship to a different planet, set the ship on fire, or even ensure they are the only surviving character.
Set Collection: Most often presented in the form of cards, set collection focuses on rewarding players for gathering sets of cards based on the size of set, variety, or rarity. Typically, the larger the set the greater the rewards.
Simulation: These games simulate real events experiences to the best of their ability. It’s not uncommon for simulation games to be based on historic events. They can also have elements of role playing.
Simultaneous Action Selection: Applied in either cooperative or competitive games, simultaneous action selection means that at some point in the round structure players will secretly select their actions for the round at the same time. After all players have selected their actions, they are revealed simultaneously. This method will of action selection will often also determine turn order.
Tableau building: In tableau building games, players each set up their own playing area with publicly visible components that they alter throughout the game. These components (tokens, cards, tiles, etc.) will remain in play and active throughout the game unless they are intentionally removed by player actions. These components will influence what resources, actions, or points are awarded to the player.
Take-That: Considered one of the meaner board game mechanics, take-that refers to actions taken by one player to have a direct negative impact on their target. Those actions could be stealing resources, forcing a player to discard, move back a set number of spaces, lose a turn, etc. Take-that effects are instantaneous or short-term and rarely have an ongoing long-term impact.
Tech Trees/Tracks: Any one familiar with RPGs would be familiar with character skill trees. Tech trees function in a fairly similar fashion. Over the course of gameplay, players will be able to upgrade their tech tree and unlock additional actions or upgraded versions of their existing actions.
Tile Placement: In tile placement games, players add new tiles to the play area (either a personal one or shared one) to gain points. Those points are often awarded based on pieces being placed adjacent to others of a set or covering special locations. Some cases, like that of Betrayal at House on the Hill, tile placement is used as a way to construct a map/play area.
Traitor: Traitor mechanics take the notion of of semi-cooperative and take it one step farther. Games with traitors are often cooperative or team games where one player is assigned the hidden role of traitor and is actively trying to undermine other players. Traitors typically win by ensuring the other players fail.
Trick-taking: Trick-taking games are centered around a hand of cards that are played one round after another. Each round concludes with its own scoring. The play area is then cleared resets for the next hand and scoring (known as a trick).
Variable Player Powers: One of the most common mechanics in modern board games are variable player powers. These are abilities that are unique to the player control character or faction.
Worker Placement: A popular subset of action drafting, worker placement is a themed method of action selection. Each player has a set number of components that act as their workers. During the action phase, each player places one of their workers onto an action space and then resolves its effects.
There are many subgenres and variations of these mechanics, so we’ve far from covered them all. Our goal is to provide a good foundation for new players who might not be familiar with these terms or an outlined definition for those that may not have had the words for it. If you feel we’ve missed an important one and incorrectly defined a term, let us know and we’ll revise!