The Innovators: Mechanical Innovations, Part 1

The great scientist Isaac Newton once said, in reference to his discoveries, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.  This concept no doubt applies to all forms of creativity. Nothing is created in a vacuum; invariably, any accomplishment builds upon the ideas and techniques of those who came before.

This is true of game design as well.  The great designers of the past have laid the groundwork for the practitioners of today.  There is a toolbox of techniques that every game designer has available to them and mixing and matching these, together with combining them with some truly original ideas, is how the vast majority of games are created.

But where did these building blocks come from?  Which designers, which innovators, are responsible for these concepts which are so commonly found in games today?

That’s the question that the OG writers decided to pursue.  We came up with a list of 36 standard mechanisms, all of which are frequently found in today’s games, as well as 17 gaming genres that can be traced to a single source.  We then did some research to figure out what the earliest instances of these mechanisms or game types were and which designers were responsible for them. In many cases, the answers aren’t straightforward ones and there are often multiple individuals who can reasonably claim credit for the innovations.  We tried to flush those cases out as thoroughly as we could.

This series will span three days.  Today, we’ll look at the mechanical innovations in our list through 1990, in chronological order (beginning with the ones where the mechanism’s first appearance had the earliest publication date).  Tomorrow, we’ll consider the mechanisms which appeared after 1990. And Wednesday, we’ll list the game genres and the titles and designers who set those in motion.

We’ve done our best to check our facts, but there’s been an awful lot of games produced over the years and it’s quite likely that we’ve missed some that could claim to be the originators of these innovations.  So if you can think of anything that would make this article more complete, please feel free to post it in the comments section. We’d also love to hear about other innovations and genres that you think we may have missed.

So let’s get things started, by setting the Wayback machine almost 90 years in the past, all the way back to the Roaring Twenties…

Innovation:  Card-based Actions

William Storey – Sorry! (1929)
Uncredited – Eddie Cantor’s Game (1932)
James Cooke Brown – Careers (1955)
Sam Spencer/Peter Murray – Broker (1961)
Sam Spencer – Jockey (1973)
Wolfgang Kramer – Tempo (1974)
Wolfgang Kramer – Niki Lauda’s Formel 1 (1980)

The innovation is using cards played from players’ hands to carry out actions (including moving pieces on the board), instead of relying on random elements like dice or spinners.  Interestingly, while this seems like a terrific concept, it took over 50 years for it to become popular. The story begins with Sorry!, an old favorite derived from the classic game of Pachisi, with cards (some with special abilities) replacing the dice.  It was first published by Britain’s W.H. Storey & Co. in 1929; Storey himself filed for the game’s patent.  The standard way of playing is to draw a card and use it for movement, but one of the game’s official variants is to deal each player 5 cards and have them choose one to play each turn.  So that sounds pretty innovative, but it was only included as an “advanced” variant, and there’s a good chance that few families played that way. A few years later, Eddie Cantor’s Game, an uncredited racing game from Parker Brothers, featured card-based movement as its standard rules, but even though it had three separate printings, it’s little remembered today.  James Cooke Brown’s Careers, which is well known, includes some card-based movement among its many innovations (players can use their Opportunity or Experience cards to move around the board, rather than roll dice), but as clever as this concept was, it still only happened on a minority of the player turns.  The path toward the modern usage of this concept begins with Broker, a stock market game from 1961, where the cards played by the players cause stock prices to rise or fall deterministically.  Designers Sam Spencer and Peter Murray were a pair of American college professors who self-published the game in the U.S.; the print run was probably pretty small.  However, the title was later reprinted by Ravensburger in 1967 (under the title Das Börsenspiel) and became quite popular in Germany.  The card-based mechanic must have had some impact, because a few years later, Spencer employed it to create Jockey, a horse racing game in which players play cards to move the horses.  At just about the same time, Wolfgang Kramer released Tempo, his first published game; it’s an abstract racing game (with betting) that also allows the players to move the pawns by playing cards.  Kramer then reused the idea in Niki Lauda’s Formel 1 and that was the game (which launched a series of similar car racing games in both Germany and the U.S.) that cemented the idea of card-based actions in the hobby.  So the temptation is to credit Kramer with popularizing this advance, and his role was no doubt critical. But both Das Börsenspiel and Jockey were popular enough in Germany to have multiple reprinted editions, so we shouldn’t ignore the efforts of Spencer and Murray, as well as all of the earlier efforts which featured this innovation.  Thus, card-based actions, which are found in so many games today, have a long and colorful history.


Innovation:  Majorities

Oswald Lord – Game of Politics (1935)
Sid Sackson – Acquire (1964)

You don’t often hear the term “majorities” used like this, but it’s an important concept in gaming.  Basically, it means that the rewards for the players’ positions are based on which player has the most, which has the second most, etc., of an item, rather than a set amount being awarded per item owned.  This complicates the valuation of items, while also increasing the level of player interaction. Lord’s Game of Politics, which simulates an American presidential election, obviously qualifies, because that’s how electoral votes are won in states in the actual election.  Acquire, the masterpiece of the brilliant Sid Sackson, is the more significant title here.  It uses stock majorities to determine the ownership (and payoffs) of the hotel chains and this really popularized the concept.  There may be earlier examples than this in a mainstream game (and we’d love to hear about these in the comments section), but were any of these other titles truly popular?  In the absence of any other evidence, we’ll go with Acquire, and Sackson, as the main innovator here.

Innovation:  Area Movement

Albert Lamorisse – La Conquête du Monde/Risk (1957)
Allan Calhamer – Diplomacy (1959)

The earliest wargames had a grid (either of squares or hexes) superimposed over their mapboards and these were used to regulate movement.  With area movement, however, military units reside in, and move through, geographic areas, giving the games a different, and often geopolitical, feel.  La Conquête du Monde (The Conquest of the World) was created by Albert Lamorisse, an Oscar-winning filmmaker best known for the classic short The Red Balloon.  The game was published in France in 1957 and became the first design to feature area movement.  Two years later, the rights were sold to Parker Brothers, which made a few small changes and released it as the classic game Risk.  Allan Calhamer actually came up with the idea for area movement earlier and used it, in 1954, in the first prototype of Diplomacy, but the game wasn’t published until 5 years later.

Innovation:  Programmed Moves

Allan Calhamer – Diplomacy (1959)

With this innovation, players secretly write down their moves prior to each turn, without knowing what their opponents will do, and then reveal them when it is their turn to play.  It’s a key feature of Diplomacy, allowing the backstabbing for which the title is renowned (and sometimes reviled).  Prior to its appearance in Calhamer’s masterwork, it was a part of many Kriegspiel-style wargames, military training exercises which date back to the 19th century, although not usually with the preceding diplomatic phase that is the centerpiece of Diplomacy.


Innovation:  Random Scoring Periods

Olaf Helmer/Lloyd Shapley – Summit (1961)
Sid Sackson – Venture (1969)
Alan Moon – Airlines (1990)

Rather than scoring occurring during a specified period (like at the end of a round), this innovation involves having it be triggered by some random occurrence, usually the appearance of a card shuffled into a deck.  Summit, released by Milton Bradley in 1961 and created by a pair of mathematicians named Olaf Helmer and Lloyd Shapley (the latter, a Nobel prize winner), was an unusually adult game for its time and was clearly inspired by the Cold War.  It’s the first game we’ve found that includes random scoring. Random scoring periods were also used in Venture, a business themed card game, part of the storied 3M line, and one of Sid Sackson’s many games that was well ahead of its time.  Given the relative popularity of the two titles, it’s quite possible that Venture had more influence on future game designers than the lesser known Summit.  However, the idea didn’t become mainstream until it was used by Alan Moon in Airlines, one of his earliest designs.  This game was later revised by Moon to create Union Pacific (1999) and Airlines Europe (2011).  After 1990, games with random scoring appear fairly regularly, particularly in Germany (where the triggering cards were usually labeled “Wertung”, German for “scoring”), so it seems appropriate to give credit to Moon for popularizing the concept.

Innovation:  Hex-based Maps

Charles S. Roberts – D-Day; Gettysburg (2nd edition); Chancellorsville (1961)

The first wargames divided their maps into squares to regulate movement by the pieces.  Covering the map in hexagons (almost always called hexes) is superior, though, since it allows pieces to move in six equally spaced directions, rather than just four.  Legend has it that Charles S. Roberts, the father of modern wargames and the founder of Avalon Hill, read an article about the RAND Corporation, a leading Cold War think tank that worked closely with the U.S. military during the 50’s and 60’s.  The article included a picture of a RAND mapboard that used hexes rather than squares. Shortly thereafter, the vast majority of all AH wargames switched to using hexes. D-Day, Chancellorsville, and the revised edition of Gettysburg were the first to utilize this innovation in 1961.  Interestingly, the concept eventually made its way to non-combative games, with Settlers being the best example.

Innovation:  Action Points

Donald Benge – Conquest (1972)
Gérard Delfanti/Gérard Mathieu/Pascal Trigaux – Full Metal Planete (1988)
Wolfgang Kramer/Michael Kiesling – Tikal (1999)

Each player has a set number of “Action Points” to carry out different activities on their turn and each activity costs a different number of APs.  It’s possible that there were some games prior to the seventies that permitted the distribution of movement points to a limited extent. But Donald Benge embraced the concept in Conquest, a Chess-like design with multiple kinds of military pieces, as each player has 20 movement points per turn and can distribute them as they see fit.  The game was originally self-published during the seventies and earned a cult following. Full Metal Planete, a combat-oriented mining title from France that was very popular in the late eighties, extended the kinds of things that APs could be spent on, as well as adding a real-time aspect.  But Tikal, Kramer and Michael Kiesling’s archaeology-themed classic from 1999, was the game that really cemented the AP concept and the number of different kinds of activities in the game was considerably greater.  Tikal won all three major Game of the Year awards and spawned the designers’ Action Point Trilogy (the other games of the triology are Java and Mexica; their SdJ-winning Torres, which also uses Action Points, is often considered to be part of the AP game family as well).


Innovation:  Player Powers

Bill Eberle/Jack Kittredge/Peter Olotka/Bill Norton – Cosmic Encounter (1977)

Cosmic Encounter, one of the most celebrated games ever created, was first self-published by a company called Eon more than 40 years ago.  It was the product of the wild imaginings of the three main Eon designers–Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka. Bill Norton also contributed to the design, but left Eon soon after Cosmic was released.  CE has had numerous reprintings and remains very popular today.  Its principal innovation is that it gives each player a power which allows them to break the rules of the game.  (Incidentally, an earlier, but very obscure game which did something similar to this was Dynasty, published in 1969.)  This concept has proven to be extremely influential and is now a staple of modern game design.  In fact, Richard Garfield is on record as saying that Cosmic was a major inspiration for Magic: the Gathering, the first collectible card game.

Innovation:  Secret Identities

Bill Eberle/Jack Kittredge/Peter Olotka – Hoax (1981)
Dmitry Davidoff – Mafia/Werewolf (1987)

Eon didn’t sell all that many games during its brief lifetime, but just about all their designs featured interesting innovations.  Hoax, their playful take on roleplaying, introduced the concept of secret identities.  There are six roles in the game, each with its own special ability. These are secretly dealt out to the players at the start of play, but during the game, each player can claim to be any of the roles and use its power!  Correctly accusing a player of lying keeps them from using that role again, but if they were telling the truth, they win, so an opponent needs to be sure before they point the finger at someone. Even though Hoax has been reprinted a couple of times, its influence was not great.  However, the secret identity idea did anticipate its use in one of the more popular new genres of the last 15 years, that of social deduction games.  The first of these was Dmitry Davidoff’s Mafia, created just a few years after the release of Hoax, in which players’ goals and abilities depend on the role they are secretly assigned at the beginning of the game.  We’ll talk more about social deduction when we discuss innovative genres in a couple of days.

Innovation:  Random Starting Board Positions

Bill Eberle/Jack Kittredge/Peter Olotka – Borderlands (1982)
Klaus Teuber – The Settlers of Catan (1995)

The Eon designers’ final effort was a game of conquest called Borderlands.  Among its many innovations is the fact that the setup of the board (in this case, which territories produce resources) is randomized prior to the start of play.  This guarantees that no two games of this will play the same. Borderlands is not well remembered today (Gearworld, FFG’s 2013 redesign, was a flop, possibly because gamers viewed it as a Eurogame, rather than a combat-centered design), but it was still an influential game.  In fact, no less an authority than Bruno Faidutti called it “the forgotten father of Settlers”, because of all its innovations that would later appear, in modified form, 13 years later in The Settlers of Catan.  One of these is the randomization of the Settlers map prior to play, and this boost to replayability was such a success that random starting positions are frequently found in games today.

Innovation:  Resources

Bill Eberle/Jack Kittredge/Peter Olotka – Borderlands (1982)

By “resources”, we mean items which are obtained from player actions that can be used to build things that improve the player’s capabilities or scoring potential.  The idea is completely ubiquitous today, but where did it come from? Summit allowed players to build items with a single resource type, as did some 4X games from the 60’s and 70’s.  Sid Sackson’s Bazaar (1967) had five colors of chips that could be traded for other chips, but there was no real building, nor does this meet the usual definition of “resources”.  Borderlands, on the other hand, featured five types of resources (coal, iron, gold, and such) and different combinations of them were necessary in order to build different items.  Was Borderlands the first game to use resources in the manner that is so recognizable today?  Quite possibly; earlier games used resources for trading or deliveries, but not for actually building structures or units.  Whatever the case, there are quite a few games that appeared soon after Borderlands that utilize resources in the modern fashion, so the time was clearly right for such an innovation.  This is another case of a mechanism from the Eon design that was featured in the much more popular Settlers years later.


Innovation:  Variable Ending

Julian Courtland-Smith – Survive! (1982)
Sid Sackson – Kohle, Kies & Knete/I’m the Boss! (1994)

The concept here is that the game end isn’t fixed, but happens probabilistically, keeping the players from “artificially” altering their strategies based on their foreknowledge of when the last turn will occur.  It’s somewhat related to the idea of random scoring periods, particularly if the last scoring period coincides with the end of the game. A variable ending is one of several innovations in Survive!, a madcap escape from a doomed island that was well ahead of its time—so much so, that the 2010 remake was a big seller.  The mechanism’s use in Sackson’s negotiation game Kohle, Kies & Knete—better known as I’m the Boss!, the 2003 remake—probably had a greater impact, and it’s been used in quite a few games since then.

Innovation:  Identical Draws

Peter Burley – Hextension (1983)
Peter Burley – Take It Easy (1994)

In games like these, each player has their own display and tiles or cards are placed on them one by one.  One player randomly draws from a set of the tiles and calls them out, Bingo-style, and each player adds the called tile to their display wherever they wish to place it.  This way, all the players are working from the same set of tiles, drawn in the same order, and the one who does the best job of placing them will win.  Peter Burley’s Hextension, which plays like a skillful version of Bingo, was published by Spears in 1983.  It was remade by F.X. Schmid in 1994 as Take it Easy and that’s the version everyone remembers and which popularized this concept.

Innovation:  Hidden Player Colors

Wolfgang Kramer – Heimlich & Co. (1984)

With this innovation, each player is secretly assigned a color at the start of the game.  Anyone on their turn can use any of the player colors throughout the game, so the trick is to keep your own color identity secret while figuring out your opponents’ colors.  Kramer first introduced this idea in Heimlich & Co., a very straightforward adaptation of the concept.  The ’84 version of Heimlich was by Perlhuhn; the ’86 reprint by Ravensburger won the SdJ.  Subsequent editions used the names Under Cover and Top Secret Spies.  The original game is also credited with introducing the “Kramer track”, a common score track, so that everyone could see each player’s scores at all times, which became hugely popular in Germany and can be found in the majority of board games today.

Innovation:  Open Card Display

Alan Moon – Airlines (1990)

Traditionally, in games in which the players have a hand of cards, they would replenish their hands by drawing from a face-down deck.  Sometimes, they would also have the choice of choosing the top card of a face-up discard pile, but that was the extent of it. Naturally, this represented a significant luck factor.  However, in games with an open card display, each player replenishes their hand by choosing cards from a group of several face-up cards, instead of blindly drawing cards from a deck (although taking “mystery meat”—i.e., the top card of the deck—is often an option as well).  Sid Sackson dabbled with an open display in Venture, where the players could claim corporations from a display, but they still replenished the cards they worked with from a face-down deck, so the effect was limited.  The first popular game we can find where a display was used for hand replenishment is Alan Moon’s Airlines.  It’s possible that it may not be the first game to include the mechanism, but Moon really embraced the concept and used it in many of his early games.  It is now ubiquitous in modern game design.

Larry grabs the microphone:  “I’ve always thought that the open card display was a hugely important innovation and represented a major difference between the family games of the eighties and earlier, and the more sophisticated designs of the nineties and beyond.  Giving the players this kind of choice really revved up the skill factor in games, at a very low increase in complexity. Moon’s role in featuring the mechanism in so many of his early games seems vital and very influential. It’s something we all take for granted now, but I think it was a real turning point in game design.

“Okay, I relinquish control back to the full group.”

That’s enough for one day.  Tomorrow, we’ll look at the rest of the mechanical innovations in our study, taking us up to the present day.  And remember, if you have any additions or corrections to what we’ve written, please post a comment and let us know!

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21 Responses to The Innovators: Mechanical Innovations, Part 1

  1. Chris Sjöholm says:

    Identical draws -> Bingo, Duplicate Bridge (and other duplicate games – Duplicate Scrabble is popular in France, for instance)

  2. Eric Brosius says:

    Random Starting Board Positions is present in Magic Realm, from 1979.

  3. Fraser says:

    A lot of mentions of Eon :-) I am still very sad about the loss of my copy of Hoax due to rain damage many years ago. The Eon Cosmic Encounter was undamaged thankfully.

    I presume for resources you mean producing particular resources and then using them to build something else? A number of grand strategic level war games of the 70s had BRPs (or “burps” as we used to call them), Usually you had control of hexes that had factories and/or natural resources, so X natural resources + Y factories would equate to Z BRPs (Building Resource Points) and you would then spend your BRPs to place units on the production spiral (a wonderful invention of itself) for future units. This is more abstracted than a wood and a brick builds you a road I will grant you, but a similar concept. Games I am thinking of that used this back in the 70s include War in Europe and Global War.

    • Eric Brosius says:

      What about SPI’s After the Holocaust from 1977? It was a game about post-nuclear war societies. You had Labor Points, Food Points, Metal Points, Fuel Points, and so forth, which were combined to create the things you needed.

      I haven’t played it, but it seems quite similar to the way the economy in Settlers works.

      • huzonfirst says:

        Very interesting question, Eric. As near as I can tell, the different kinds of commodity points in After the Holocaust came from how you allocated your labor force that turn, as opposed to which spaces you occupied. Perhaps a subtle distinction, but again, I’m certain today’s gamers would rebel against the AtH approach, while Borderlands’ would seem familiar. I think AtH was very much a spreadsheet game; unfortunately, spreadsheets hadn’t been invented yet!

        • Eric Brosius says:

          Your description of this mechanism is this: “By “resources”, we mean items which are obtained from player actions that can be used to build things that improve the player’s capabilities or scoring potential.”

          There’s nothing in your description that talks about spaces you occupy. So if this is what you’re thinking about, you ought to clarify your description. After the Holocaust does fit your original description.

          • huzonfirst says:

            That’s a fair comment, Eric. I guess to me, Holocaust doesn’t seem to fit the “I know it when I see it” *feel* of a resources game, but I can certainly see that others could claim it does. The ideas were definitely floating around at that time, and many games dipped their toe in the water. So Borderlands may not have represented a huge leap, but at the time, it certainly felt like a significant innovation.

            • Eric Brosius says:

              You should be careful, Larry, to avoid giving the impression that “Borderlands is one of my favorite games, so I’m going to interpret the rules so as to make sure it gets an award.” I haven’t played either Borderlands or After the Holocaust, so I can’t make any judgements based on the “feel” of the game.

              • huzonfirst says:

                Understood. It’s just when it came out, it seemed so remarkably innovative (which is one of the reasons I liked it so much). So I think it’s on merit, but I’m aware of a potential bias. Besides, I’m not alone–Bruno agrees with me! :-)

    • huzonfirst says:

      It certainly seems like designers in the 70s were playing around with the resources concept. I think Third Reich had something very similar to what you describe. But since these represented a single currency used to buy things, it’s really no different than what Summit gave us back in ’61. These days, that seems a bit old fashioned, while Borderlands, with its multiple commodities and items to be purchased, would fit right in with the games of today. As Faidutti mentioned, it very much anticipated what Settlers would do a dozen years later.

  4. Gary Jackson says:

    In terms of creating resources, what about Titan (AH 1980)? Here you are recruiting (building) creatures based on the creatures in your stack. Not directly the same, but conceptually?

    Love the idea and appreciate the research!


  5. Martin Higham says:

    The first Open Card display I remember wax New York New York, 1989. Just looked it up on bgg and I’d totally forgotten the designer was Wolfgang Kramer

    • huzonfirst says:

      That’s very cool, Martin! As was mentioned in the article, it seems likely that there were games with Open Card Displays prior to Airlines, but we haven’t been able to find anything that might be a first case. New York, New York is now the earliest instance, but it might have been something that just gradually came into existence. I do think it was a major innovation, but sometimes those start with a whimper and not a bang. But thanks so much about the lead about the Kramer game. Looks like time for a little more research!

  6. Greg says:

    It seems we have a similar situation here that the Ludology podcast had with its “Most Influential Games” list a few years ago. I feel the terms “innovative” and “influential” are sometimes used interchangeably and sometimes not. Since the list is about who innovated a mechanic (that’s how I read the introduction) shouldn’t the first designer to use it be credited?

    For example, Alan Moon seems to be given the credit for innovating Random Scoring Periods because his design was more influential even though the article claims Helmer/Shapely did it much earlier.

    I think there is a distinct difference between innovative and influential.

    That said, the article is extremely interesting and does list the apparent “firsts” so all the info is there. It’s just that the premise is a bit incoherent because of the inconsistent use of terms.

    • huzonfirst says:

      There are indeed two things being referenced here, Greg, but we felt it was necessary. The true focus of the series is on innovations that influenced future designs, so both innovation and influence are considered important. Maybe I design a game with a great, groundbreaking element, but if only three people ever play it, what’s the point? We tried to cite both the earliest appearance of the innovation, as well as the game that made it influential, to provide as much information as possible. So yes, Richard Breese is rightly honored with coming up with the first Worker Placement game, but very few people would have cared about that if William Attia hadn’t made the mechanism hugely popular with Caylus, years later. By citing both, as often as we could, you can choose which innovator is the most important to you.

  7. bggdeacondavid says:

    Francis Tresham’s Civilization (1980) could be considered to have resources in the trade goods.

  8. Pingback: Review of Hanamikoji (Deep Water Games) | The Opinionated Gamers

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