Board game mechanics 101


You may have played some board games here and there, or you may be deep into the hobby, but have you ever thought about the inner workings of a board game? What constitutes a genre, or what makes a board game one type and not the other? Heck, how does any of it even work? Let us give you a crash course into the world of core gaming mechanics!

Board game mechanics 101

Now, rarely do games only limit themselves to one mechanism only, some games are complex engines that rely on quite a few things to make its gears run smoothly. As a rule, heavier games have more elements, or more mechanics, while light games are simpler in their design. Let’s have a look at some of the more prominent mechanics seen in the majority of popular board games available.

Area Control

This popular game mechanism revolves around the idea that Board = Value. Players strive to occupy the space and get benefits proportional to the area they control. This mechanic can be seen in games like Carcassonne, where your board presence gives you victory points.

Grid Movement

Have you ever played Chess? Grid Movement is as old as the concept of board games itself! Of course, in the modern times there’s more to it, but the general concept is that the pawns move from one segment to another, be it a square or a hexagon, and that drives the game forward. This mechanic is especially noticeable in games that incorporate combat and “dungeon crawl” elements, like Gloomhaven or Descent: Journey in the Dark.

Hand Management

Managing your hand means optimising your card play, depending on the circumstances. The same card can wield different results depending on when it is played, what cards are already in play or what the consequences are. Generally speaking, there are two main kinds of Hand Management – aggressive, when you are trying to beat your opponents with the cards you play, or as part of resource management. This mechanic is one of the most common ones and can be seen in such board games as Raiders of the North Sea, Race for the Galaxy, and Brass: Lancashire.

Modular Board

A modular board changes every time you play the game, adding to its replayability. Usually it is made up of different tiles or incorporates a scenario that can be randomised. This mechanic is at the core of Catan, one of the world’s most popular board games. Modular Board is also seen in games like Istanbul and Spirit Island.

Tile Placement

This mechanic generally comes in two forms. The first is when players draft tiles and place them as part of building the board, on which the gameplay will occur. This can be seen in games like Betrayal at House on the Hill. The second is when the tiles are drafted and placed as part of scoring points and are a principle way of winning the game, as seen in Azul or Patchwork.

Worker Placement

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Players send out their workers (whatever they may be) out onto the board to complete different types of actions, which vary depending on the context of the game. This mechanic is especially prominent in games like Caverna or Stone Age, where the emphasis is on resource gathering, and in Lords of Waterdeep, where your “workers” are in fact characters for hire that you can send on missions and gain victory points, as well as scythe where workers are placed to gain resources for other actions.

Card Drafting

One of the most common mechanics, card drafting is when players collect cards from a limited source, usually a common pool of cards, and either gain advantages or use the cards to assemble a hand to meet an objective. This mechanism is at the core of many games, such as Agricola, 7 Wonders, and Lisboa.

Co-operative Play

Teamwork is at the core of these games. Rather than competing against each other, players collaborate to reach a mutual goal. It could be any number of things, like solving a mystery, beating a common foe, achieving a complex task, or simply surviving the numerous perils thrown at them. Popular co-op games include Pandemic, Mansions of Madness, Tiny Epic Zombies, and Elder Sign.

Deck Building

Deck building is both a mechanic and a board game genre. If the game has deck building in its core, card acquisition is of principal importance. Players seek to improve their card decks as they progress through the game. This category also covers Bag Building, Pool Building, and related mechanisms. It is at the core of such games as Dominion, and Clank!, as well as in various collectable and living card games, like Magic: The Gathering and Legend of the Five Rings.

Dice Rolling

Dice are used in a board game for several reasons, be it to add the element of randomness or as counters. Dice can be a game in itself, but in most, it serves as an engine element; particularly in wargames like Risk or dungeon crawlers like Escape the Dark Castle, where they reflect the results of a battle.

Hidden Roles

Simply put, one or more players are assigned roles that are not revealed to the rest of the group. This is a classic traitor scenario, like in popular social deduction party games Coup, Ultimate Werewolf, and Secret Hitler. It can also be seen in more complex games, like Legendary Encounters: Alien.


We hope our rundown of these mechanics will help you have a better understanding of how a lot of popular board games work, so that you will be able to discern what elements will appeal to you the most and help you in identifying your next game night contender! Happy hunting!

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  • Gumnut Team
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