Mechanics Study: Drafting
While in our heads we may be slaying dragons, conquering nations, and rebuilding civilization amongst the stars, all games really have us doing is pushing little plastic bits around a cardboard map. Good games are like a good pizza, and a mess of ingredients are necessary to bring out the best flavor. The mechanics of a game are its crust, and without it you just have a red slop of cheese filled with dead fish.
Mechanics are more than just the rules, and they are not set in stone from game to game. While a six-sided die can tell you how much lumber you produce in Settler’s of Catan, it can also mean the difference between an arrow in the shoulder or one between the eyes in Dungeons and Dragons. Lately, the gaming concept that has intrigued me the most has been drafting. A phrase common to professional sports, it has had an interesting showing in some of my favorite games this year.
Drafting refers to a limited amount of resources with which all players take a turn selecting from to form a pool of actions. Where many games feature a pool of resources (money, materials, etc), drafting resources create the “hows” of play. An example of this are Fate Dice in the Age of Conan strategy board game.
In Age of Conan, the first player rolls seven dice that are separate from the combat dice. These create an action pool, where each player selects a die from the pool depicting what action they may take on their turn. Once the pool is depleted, a player rolls again. What I love about this system is that it creates chaos and order all at once. You may have spent your last turn building up a vast army and you may be planning to make an all out attack. Once the last military action is deplete though, you must rethink your strategy mid-game. At the same time, you know in advance that the military actions will be running out, and you have time to think of the best economic or diplomatic solution. The hidden sparkle in this type of system is that you can take an action you don’t need just to prevent an opponent from benefiting. Vikings is a game that shines with this type of play.
Vikings features little in the way of direct competition, and what little combat that exists is abstract and solitaire. If you have not played the game or read our review, the core gameplay centers around an auction wheel. Tiles and workers are pulled at random and centered around the wheel. More valuable and risky pieces are placed at the end of the cycle, but will decrease in price as players purchase the cheaper sets. The tiles are specific pieces of land, and the workers have different functions. It takes careful planning to perfectly build your colonies, and when an opponent takes that last warrior you needed you will find whole sections of your board rendered without any score. Efficient money management and treachery are necessary to succeed in this game.
Dominion, released earlier this year, thrives on the mechanic of drafting. The game features no board, just stacks and stacks of playing cards. These are arranged by type and set in the middle of the table. Each turn, players draw a few cards and create their deck. As the game progresses, your deck becomes larger and more versatile, while the supply diminishes. It is very similar to a collectible card game, but neatly self contained. Each turn, you must decide whether you need more action cards, more money, or more points. Misplay can result in all the low cost points being depleted, yet you may not have enough gold to buy points that are more expensive. Dominion may be one of the best examples of a drafting game because it features so prominently.
The important thing to note about drafting games, as far as I have defined them, is that the resources are face up for everyone to see. Carcassonne is a classic game of everyone sharing the resources, but I feel that the strategy inherent in this design philosophy does not exist when the pieces are hidden from everyone. It is important for game designers not to mimic other successful games, and that is why I love drafting. It is obvious that Age of Conan, Vikings, and Dominion are very different games, and it shows how this basic idea for gameplay is so versatile. With the breakout success of Dominion and its recent expansion, I’m sure we will be seeing more and more games incorporating these ideas.