Yesterday, we began our look at innovative mechanisms that have been introduced in gaming over the years and which designers first created them. Today, we finish our look at these familiar concepts, beginning with the early 90’s and continuing up to the present day.
Innovation: Multiple Trump Types
Karl-Heinz Schmiel – Was Sticht? (1993)
Most trick-taking games include trumps and traditionally, it’s cards from one suit (either a set suit or one chosen by the player or team winning the bid for the hand). In Karl-Heinz Schmiel’s Was Sticht?, though, one of the ranks of cards (4’s, for example) can be trumps, in addition to there being a trump suit. This was the first game to extend the idea of trumps like that. This led to games like Doris & Frank’s Mu (1995), which includes multiple trump suits (one of which ranks over the other), and other trump complications.
Innovation: One-way Tracks
Reiner Knizia – Tutankhamen (1993)
Virginio Gigli/Flaminia Brasini/Stefano Luperto/Antonio Tinto [Acchittocca] – Egizia (2009)
In a game with a one-way track, the players are able to advance their marker forwards on the track as many spaces as they wish. But they are forbidden from moving backwards. The tension comes from deciding whether to jump ahead by a large number of spaces, to obtain something valuable before your opponents can grab it, at the cost of missing out on the stuff available on the spaces you skipped over, or moving slowly, allowing you to visit more spaces, but possibly losing out on the goodies on far-away spaces. The first game to feature this was Reiner Knizia’s Tutankhamen, a fast-playing set collection game of perfect information from 1993. This was well regarded enough to snag a couple of Game of the Year nominations. Probably the most popular implementation of this innovation is in 2009’s Egizia, which, coincidentally, is also themed around Ancient Egypt. It was created by four Italian designers who go by the group name of Acchittocca. Heaven & Ale, one of the leading titles of 2017, also uses this mechanism.
Innovation: Area Control
Wolfgang Kramer/Richard Ulrich – El Grande (1995)
You see a lot of different kinds of games described as “area control” (which is also sometimes referred to as “area majority”) and in many cases, the classification is inappropriate. To clarify things, we’ve defined “area control” to be a game in which awards are given based on having the most pieces in an area, but in which there is also a spatial aspect and the adjacencies of those areas matter (for example, in shifting pieces from one area to an adjacent one). According to this definition, games without that geographic aspect are just simple majorities game. It seems likely that there was an area control game prior to El Grande’s publication in 1995, but we can’t find an example of one. Certainly, the Kramer/Ulrich classic made the concept very popular and there have been many examples of such games over the past 20 years.
Innovation: Variable Turn Order – Action Based
Francis Tresham – Civilization (1980)
Wolfgang Kramer/Richard Ulrich – El Grande (1995)
Back in simpler times, players took their turns in clockwise order, with no changes in turn order throughout the game. Francis Tresham’s iconic Civilization played with that concept, as the player order for different phases depended on where they stood on the scoreboard, how many cities they had, and some other factors, and the players could often take advantage of that. But the first game to make this a central part of its design was El Grande. In one of its many innovations, the Power Card the player plays each turn determines when in the turn they go, with an earlier turn order coinciding with fewer units to work with. These days, there are many variations on this idea, with some games simply changing the start player each turn, to having turn order determined by which actions players choose, or which they win in an auction. But the breakaway from a simple clockwise turn order all began with El Grande.
Innovation: Variable Cost Card Display
Dirk Henn – Premiere, 1996
Dirk Henn – Showmanager, 1997
In this innovation, players select cards from an open display. But the cost of a card is based on where in the display the card is. The most recently exposed card is the most expensive, while cards which have been in the display for a while cost the least. This reduces the luck of the draw (so that if the newly exposed card is a really good one, at least it will cost the active player a lot to grab it) and encourages the purchase of less popular cards, which keeps such cards from clogging up the display. This has proven to be a very popular and important innovation and is found in many games. It was first used by Dirk Henn in 1996 for Premiere, a self-published game in which the players try to do the best job of casting their theater productions. The following year, the game was reprinted and released by Queen as Showmanager (with improved artwork) and the latter game is much better known.
Innovation: Unchanged Hand Order
Uwe Rosenberg – Bohnanza (1997)
Uwe Rosenberg was a totally unknown designer when his Bohnanza burst upon the scene, over 20 years ago. It has gone on to become one of the best selling games of all time. The game’s most noticeable, and audacious, feature is that the players aren’t allowed to sort their hand of cards. This was a mind-blowing concept back in 1997. Instead, the players must use trades or other kinds of actions to manipulate their hands in a way that lets them optimize their score. This innovation is occasionally seen in other games, but it will probably take a very long while before it isn’t totally identified with Bohnanza.
Innovation: Worker Placement
Richard Breese – Keydom (1998)
Jeroen Doumen/Joris Wiersinga – Bus (1999)
Martin Wallace – Way Out West (2000)
William Attia – Caylus (2005)
Like “area control”, “worker placement” is a much overused term in gaming, with many applying it to any title that features pieces called “workers” in any form. We define a Worker Placement game as one in which players place pieces (workers) on spaces to reserve or carry out actions, and where there is either a limit on the number of times these spaces can be used per turn (most often, only once), or where selecting a space hinders future placements there (for example, making them more expensive). This gives players access to a wide variety of actions, while increasing the amount of player interaction in the game. The history of worker placement games actually precedes the usage of the term. The general consensus is that Richard Breese’s 1998 design Keydom (the second of his “Key” games) was the first example of what would eventually be called worker placement, even though the workers placed often served as bids in a multiple item auction, rather than the more typical WP usage. (Keydom was redesigned as Aladdin’s Dragons two years later, and that version had a much larger print run than the self-published original.) Splotter’s Bus and Martin Wallace’s Way Out West, released closely together soon after Keydom made its appearance, are somewhat more traditional WP games. However, the design that really popularized the mechanism (and led to some unknown individual coining the term “worker placement” to describe games of this sort) was William Attia’s Caylus, a smash hit from 2005, whose massive success led many more designers to explore this concept. Today, worker placement (even when more narrowly defined as we have done) is among the most popular mechanisms to be found in new designs.
Innovation: “On the Fly” Trumps
Uwe Rosenberg – Schnäppchen Jagd – 1998
In Uwe Rosenberg’s Schnäppchen Jagd, rather than there being a set trump suit, any card that is not of the led suit can be declared to be a trump or not, at the playing player’s discretion. This is one of several innovations that mark Rosenberg’s design and was part of a general renaissance in trick-taking games during the nineties, in which many of the standard notions behind these games were altered. (The game can be more easily found as Bargain Hunter, a virtually identical reprint first released in 2010).
Innovation: Sweetening Leftover Items
Philippe Keyaerts – Vinci (1999)
Andreas Seyfarth – Puerto Rico (2002)
This innovation involves adding money, VPs, or some other desirable to an item or a role not selected in an earlier turn, to make it more attractive. Basically, it’s an extension and
generalization of the concept behind Dirk Henn’s variable cost card display. Philippe Keyaerts’ Vinci, a game of conquest that was his first design (and which served as the basis for his very popular Small World a decade later) was the first game to use this idea. Puerto Rico‘s system of adding coins to unchosen roles is probably the best known early usage of this concept and, according to designer Andreas Seyfarth, was inspired by Vinci.
Innovation: Communal Buildings
Jeroen Doumen/Joris Wiersinga – Roads & Boats (1999)
Normally, when a player constructs a building in a game, they are the only ones who can utilize the abilities of that building. However, in Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga’s Civ-like game of Roads & Boats, buildings are truly communal and anyone can use one, no matter who built it—provided they can transport the required resources to its location. Other games have used this concept, although in some of them, such as Caylus or Le Havre, the non-owning players have to pay a fee to use another player’s building. Still, it’s often first come, first served, and the owner has no greater chance of getting to use the building they constructed than any other player.
Innovation: Pie Splitting
Alan Moon/Aaron Weissblum – San Marco (2001)
Jeff Allers – …aber bitte mit Sahne/Piece o’ Cake (2008)
“Pie splitting” comes from an inspired method of dividing a treasured item (like a yummy piece of pie) between two greedy children. Make the first child divide the item into two parts and allow the second child to have first choice. This ensures Child 1 will take pains to make the division as fair as possible. Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum decided to make this the central mechanism of their area control game San Marco. Players divide cards into two or three stacks, with other players taking the one they want and leaving the last for the dividing player. It was a very original application of a well-known, non-gaming algorithm. An even more popular usage of Pie Splitting came from Jeff Allers, whose set collection game …aber bitte mit Sahne (which was the name of a popular song in Germany—it translates to “But with whipped cream, please”) had the players literally dividing pies into pieces. Later editions of the game switched the food to be divided to cake (Piece o’ Cake) and pizza (NY Slice).
Innovation: Simultaneous Auctions
Philippe Keyaerts – Evo (2001)
Reiner Knizia – Amun-Re (2003)
Typically, this means that one item is available per player (sometimes, there is one less item than the number of players) and each player bids for exactly one of them at a time. Players can shift their bids between items, by raising the current high bid at the new item, and this continues until each item has only one bidder. This system saves a lot of time when multiple items are auctioned each turn and, consequently, it has become a very popular feature in auction games. The first game to introduce the idea was Philippe Keyaerts’ Evo, an evolution-based design in which the players are bidding for upgrades to their dinosaurs. In fact, for a while, these were called “Evo-style” auctions. The concept was later refined in the Egyptian-themed Amun-Re by Reiner Knizia (who has stated that he developed the idea independently of Keyaerts) and other designers have put their own spin on it. But the basics of these auctions remain unchanged since Evo introduced them in 2001.
Innovation: Magic-style Drafting
Satoshi Nakamura – Fairy Tale (2004)
Antoine Bauza – 7 Wonders (2010)
The name comes from the booster drafts used in a popular kind of Magic: The Gathering tournament. Each player would open a booster pack, pick a card, and pass the remaining cards to the left, a process which continued until all the cards were drafted. This way, decks could be built on the fly, rather than using pre-constructed decks, which added spontaneity and excitement to the tournaments. Passing the decks around eliminated much of the luck of getting an unusually juicy booster pack, as well as rewarding players for having a good memory and planning ahead. Satoshi Nakamura, one of the first Japanese designers to have a game available in the West, created the short, but punchy, set collection design Fairy Tale, the first non-CCG game to be built around this concept and it excited quite a lot of people when it was released. Since then, this has become a standard way of drafting cards; not only does it lessen the luck factor, but it allows the players to see a large percentage of the cards used, so that there can be a good number of choices without requiring an enormous deck size. The game that’s best known for using Magic-style drafting is Antoine Bauza’s multi-award winning 7 Wonders, so much so that the process is often referred to as a “7 Wonders draft”.
Innovation: Variable Turn Order – Time-Based
Tobias Stapelfeldt/Peter Eggert – Neuland (2004)
Peter Prinz – Jenseits von Theben (2004)
Peter Prinz – Thebes (2007)
With this innovation, each of a player’s actions has a certain amount of time associated with it. The total time used by each player is tracked. The player who has used the least amount of time takes the next turn. This player continues taking turns until their total time surpasses that of another player, at which point this other player takes the next turn. The introduction of this concept is an excellent example of parallel development. In 2004, two games appeared, at practically the same time, both of which featured this advance. In Stapelfeldt and Eggert’s logistically-oriented Neuland, transferring resources and constructing buildings cost time. In Peter Prinz’s archaeology-themed game of Jenseits von Theben, it takes time to dig for artifacts and to travel between cities. The two games have an entirely different feel, but the time-based turn order works identically in both. Theben was a self-published game with only a tiny print run; it was redesigned as Thebes, by Queen in 2007, and this is the version that truly popularized the concept.
Innovation: Cards as Currency
Andreas Seyfarth/Tom Lehmann/Richard Borg – San Juan (2004)
Tom Lehmann – Race for the Galaxy (2007)
Traditional card games have the players forming melds and creating sets from their cards. Then, more ambitious games came along, which included cards that conferred abilities to the owning player; for them to be activated, these usually had to be paid for with resources, cash, and the like. In San Juan, though, the cards themselves are the currency—you can either use a card for its ability or use it to help pay the price of another card. The game is billed as the card game version of Puerto Rico, even though they play quite differently. PR’s designer, Andreas Seyfarth, is credited with San Juan, but the cards-as-currency innovation came from two other designers, Tom Lehmann and Richard Borg. That pair did the original design work on San Juan, before Seyfarth, who had said he had no interest in working on the game, changed his mind and took over from them. (The rules to San Juan acknowledge the efforts of both Lehmann and Borg.) The story has a happy ending, though, at least for Tom. He took the design work he had done on San Juan, including the cards-as-currency concept, combined it with a CCG he had worked on previously, and took it in another direction. The result was Race for the Galaxy, a smash hit, which cemented the innovation in the minds of the gaming public, as well as providing Lehmann with a nice amount of paper currency of his own.
Innovation: The Rondel
Mac Gerdts – Antike (2005)
Mac Gerdts – Imperial (2006)
There are few innovations so associated with one designer as the rondel. There is no question that it was invented by Mac Gerdts and the majority of his games (and all of his early titles) utilize it. In a rondel game, all of the possible actions the players can take are arranged in a circle. Each player on their turn advances their marker from its previous position on the rondel to the new action they wish to take. The number of spaces that the marker can be advanced is limited (although longer moves can sometimes be made at a cost). Thus, all the actions are available over the course of the game, but only a subset of them can be used on any given turn and the players have to plan how they wish to carry them out. According to Gerdts, he created the rondel around 1982. His game of Imperial was first designed not long after that, so it’s possible that it, and not Antike, was the first of his designs to feature the concept, at least in prototype form. However, Antike was the first published game to include the rondel and so it gets credit as the true innovator.
Innovation: Traitors in Cooperative Games
Bruno Cathala/Serge Laget – Shadows Over Camelot (2005)
Interest in cooperative games starting blossoming around the turn of the century, with designers seeing how far they could push the envelope on this “new” concept in gaming. One of the more dramatic additions to the co-op designer’s toolbox came when Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget introduced the concept of a traitor in their popular Arthurian-themed game Shadows Over Camelot. With this innovation, rather than having all the players working together to achieve a goal, there is now the possibility that one or more players might be secretly working against the others. Often the number of traitors is unknown and it’s possible that there may be none. The traitor is the principal innovation in Shadows and was considered a major addition to cooperative (or rather, semi-cooperative) gaming, greatly increasing the number of things that could be achieved in such games.
Innovation: Dice as Action Selectors
Stefan Feld – Roma (2005)
Sebastien Pauchon – Yspahan (2006)
The last ten years could be called the Decade of the Dice, as our love affair with those cubic randomizers continues. A major recent trend has been using dice to determine which actions are available for the players to use on their turn. The first game to do this was Stefan Feld’s first published game, Roma, which appeared in 2005. This requires the players to figure out the best way to use their personally rolled dice each turn. It was an auspicious beginning, since over the years, Feld may have created more innovative dice mechanisms than any other designer. However, the game that really established the dice as action selectors concept was Yspahan, by Sebastien Pauchon, which came out a year later. Here, there is a pool of rolled dice and the players, in turn, choose a pip value that determines the nature and strength of their action. Despite the randomness that the dice add to these games, there is paradoxically often greater skill required, since the players need to adjust to a changing and unpredictable environment.
Innovation: Specialized Workers
Acchittocca – Leonardo da Vinci (2006)
Glenn Drover – Age of Empires III (2007)
In the first worker placement games, all the workers were identical and could accomplish the same things. This innovation introduces the concept of different kinds of workers, with differing abilities or individual specialties. In Leonardo da Vinci, created by the Acchittocca quartet of designers, each player’s workforce consists of several apprentices and a single maestro piece. Maestros are worth two apprentices when determining majorities at action spaces. In addition, maestros can be added to an existing group of that player’s workers at an action space, but apprentices cannot. Players can also build mechanical men, which count as two apprentices when carrying out work in a lab. So some specialization, but not much. The game that really embraced this concept was Glenn Drover’s Age of Empires III, which came out the year after Leonardo. This design has four types of specialized workers (missionaries, soldiers, merchants, and captains), as well as the boring generic workers. Each specialist has additional abilities when used to carry out their tailored actions, making them more powerful when used in this way. Specialists have to be acquired and not every player will have the same collection of workers; coming up with the appropriate mix is often the foundation of a player’s strategy. These concepts can be found in quite a few modern WP games, making AoE III the true trailblazer for this innovation.
Innovation: Dice as Workers
Andrea Chiarvesio/Luca Iennaco – Kingsburg (2007)
Tory Niemann – Alien Frontiers (2010)
Stefan Feld – Bora Bora (2013)
Nuno Sentieiro/Paulo Soledade – Madeira (2013)
Worker placement continues to be very popular in the games of today and one recent innovation is using dice as workers. The first game to utilize dice in a WP setting was 2007’s Kingsburg, by Chiarvesio and Iennaco, in which the players rolled three dice and used the sum of one or more of them to claim action spaces. This idea got quite a bit of attention following the game’s release. The next step came from Tory Niemann’s Alien Frontiers, in which the dice are allocated a little bit more like workers, but the players still have to meet requirements at the action spaces (such as two dice of equal value or a minimum sum) which are more dice-like than worker-like. The first games in which each individual die served as a worker came out in 2013: Stefan Feld’s Bora Bora and Sentiero and Soledade’s Madeira. The former was released in February, while the latter came out in October of that year, so the Feld game has precedence, but given the concentrated time frame, this is probably a case of parallel development.
Donald X. Vaccarino – Dominion (2008)
In deckbuilding, the players purchase or draft cards to add to their personalized decks. Each card has its own attributes, such as conferring an action or providing VPs. The players cycle through their decks multiple times during the game, so that cards added to the decks form the central part of the players’ strategy. Essentially, the players are designing their own action set. According to this concept’s innovator, Donald X. Vaccarino, the first prototype for Dominion was created in 2006 and was based around the kinds of deck-building carried out by fans of Magic: The Gathering, and other collectible card games. This on-the-fly deckbuilding was a radical new idea. Dominion created an entirely new genre of games when it was released and the concept remains extremely popular.
That takes us to the end of our list of mechanical innovations. If you can think of any we’ve omitted, or can think of earlier appearances than the games we’ve listed, please leave a comment to let us know. Tomorrow, we’ll finish the series off with the designers whose innovations were so impactful that they led to entire new genres of games.