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Book Review: Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design

Time can slip away from you, like water through your fingers.  That is how I feel when I look back and realize I have been working my way through Building Block of Tabletop Game Design (by Geoffrey Englestein and Isaac Shalev, 2020, first edition) for almost two years.  Two. Years.

Review

This book is unique in many ways and it is certainly not hyperbole to say it is groundbreaking.  It is a dense, semi-academic work, that catalogs most board game mechanics and takes a remarkable first pass at categorizing them all.  

This book took me so long to read, that a second edition (which I will have to buy and re-review) has come out and so much of this review may not apply or at least be inaccurate now.  As such, I want to emphasize this review is for the first edition of the book.

The book is broken down into chapters that typically cover one general mechanic.  The early chapters focus on the framework of games: the structure, turn order, action, resolution, and game end.  

Chapters 6 and 7 focus on high concepts, such as Uncertainty and Economics.  Though they are not specifically mechanics, they cover many mechanics such as Push-Your-Luck and Income.

The last 6 chapters deal with more standard mechanics, such as Worker Placement and Auctions.  However, the one of the last chapters is Set Collection, which seems to have a hodge-podge of concepts, such as Network Building and Tile-Laying. 

Summary

The Bad

I have several issues with the book as currently printed (first edition).

Mixing of Mechanics and Implementation

Coming from a computer science background, my thinking of mechanics may be different from others.  As such, this may only be an issue for myself.  However, I believe there is a hierarchy of concepts, such as Worker Placement being a subset (or sub-mechanic?) of Action Selection.  

Some people would say Action Selection is a mechanic, such as this book, which effectively destroys any attempts at creating a hierarchy of concepts.  But if worker placement is a mechanic, and action selection is a mechanic, what isn't a mechanic?  It renders the term almost meaningless.  BBoTTGD views these concepts as turtles all the way down.

For myself, I believe there is "the abstract mechanic" and "the implemented mechanic".  For example, a game has players select actions.  That is the abstract mechanic (Action Selection), but how is that done in a physical way?  The implemented mechanic would be Role Selection or Worker Placement.

There are many examples, such as choosing a card, or placing a meeple, or even just deciding which action to take.  I would have loved a discussion of specific implementations of a mechanic (such as how workers are placed in Lords of Waterdeep vs Caylus).  

How abstract must a mechanic be before it isn't a mechanic but a concept?  None of that is even acknowledged as an issue, but I believe that one day we will talk about game mechanics and design with a higher level of definition.  Right now, when I say "mechanic", there is no definition I can point to in this book that will clarify exactly what is and is not a mechanic.  For a book that subtitles itself as an "Encyclopedia of Mechanisms" this is an egregious failure.

Since there isn't an offered definition of mechanic, you see high level concepts given a chapter, such as Economics and then another chapter for Auctions.  Reading through, I could not figure out why Auctions were not in Economics.  From what I could tell, the authors simply promoted anything that would have sub-sections, up to the Chapter level.  

Even if you don't agree with my view, when I see a title heading for 'Economics' or 'Resolution', then see 'Worker Placement', I think "one of these things is not like the others".  For the chapters, I would expect each chapter to have a consistent level of abstraction, but this book is largely inconsistent. 

I feel a logical grouping of concepts would have made the work more cohesive and easier to understand.

Unshared Vocabulary

I have read a fair amount of academic or books intended for use in those settings (i.e. "Rules of Play", "Characteristics of Games", etc.).  Those books always define the first instance of a word and more often than not, have a glossary of terms. 

The authors use terms that span several different disciplines, for example 'isomorphic'.  Isomorphism is a concept in both Mathematics and Biology.  The definitions are different and significant, but without knowing the intent of the authors, it leads to great ambiguity and confusion.  Which definition are they trying to say applies, the mathematical or the biological?

Conversely, some terms are defined again and again, such as yomi, first introduced on page 211.  I was familiar with Yomi from other works, but the definition is a great example of "doing it right".  However, if you forget the exact word "yomi" or want to go over the definition again, you are out of luck.  There is no glossary, no index, no way to find it, other then by going through the 450-plus page book again, page by page, scanning for it (about 30 minutes until I physically bookmarked an instance of "yomi").  Again, this goes back to the frustration of not having a section of defined terms.

The authors also refer to Caylus as an "ur-game" which I originally took to mean "uber".  Google searches provided no other references for this phrase and it wasn't until months later that someone mentioned it might be a reference to the city of Ur, in ancient Mesopotamia.  This illustrates the exclusionary nature of the work and how it can be inaccessible to people who don't have the sum total of the author's knowledge.

Lack of Experience

The authors frequently cite games to illustrate or back up their arguments and statements.  It is clear they have a broad range of experience.  But with so many games, there are of course, some gaps, most notably during the discussion of Auctions (p. 283), but in other areas as well.  The authors will cite a game as an example, but the game may not actually support their argument.

For example, BBoTGD states that the only "open auction" game is Monopoly.  Open auction is defined (by the authors) as not having an auctioneer, citing the Monopoly rule about not having to purchase a property when landed upon.  The authors insist that Monopoly is an example of no auctioneer, and make the statement "Though the usual outcome is that the high bidder is the winner, no rule requires this outcome".  

However, anyone who has a game of Monopoly can look at the rulebook and immediately see that the banker acts as the auctioneer for the property auction (page 4 in my copy), selling the property to the highest bidder.  

The entire section of Auctions is built upon this mythical mechanic that isn't used in any board game I know of.  The authors use it as a sort of 'base auction', which most of the other auction mechanics are compared to.  This fundamental misconception reflects very poorly on the rest of the book and calls into question the foundations of the rest of the ideas presented in the book.

Further, their definition of auctioneer, includes an idea that the auctioneer always determines the next bid (starting bid, or jumps between bids).  The section is unclear, but seems to allude to an real life auctioneer who states a starting bid and once given that bid, states the next price.

However, I cannot think of a single board game that details auctions that way.  The rules would have to cover, "what if the starting bid isn't met?", and all other edge cases.  It can be inferred from the Monopoly rules that people just shout out bids until no one outbids the highest bid.  The banker conducts the auction in the sense that they hand the property to the winner, collect the bid, and place it in the bank.

It underlines the format of the book, which I hadn't noticed until that point.  The first entry in a given section (the -01 entry) is meant to be the base or default, with the following entries being a variation for the most part.  However, I don't think that is how most mechanics work.  I think each variation should be explicitly defined and discussed.  

In order to define a mechanic, the non-changing, minimum requirements should be stated.  However, delayed execution for example (from Worker Placement, resource gathering) isn't even given it's own entry.  This does not seem to be a  misunderstanding but rather a desire to push their own view of the material, regardless of the reality of the board game rules.

Opinions Without Discussions

While BBoTGD usually takes the stance of presenting facts without bias and opinion, there are a lot of opinions given off the cuff, without any explanation or discussion.  There are many examples but the one that particularly irked me was the claim that gaining the resources upon placing a worker is an improvement over claiming them all later (p. 329).  

There are no citations or evidence given, or even examples of how many games in the last few years favor one strategy over another.  I would say it really depends on the the experience the designer is crafting.  One definitely leads to a feeling of planning and working toward the next round, the other allows players to build within the same round.

The authors claim this leads to faster play, which is demonstrably false.  You are physically doing two things, placing a token, then grabbing resources from the supply.  In what world is doing only one of those things slower?  Again, the authors don't clarify or expand on their thinking.  I could certainly see an argument about getting immediate resources lets a player use them more quickly.  But there are many games with delayed worker execution, such as Stone Age that work just fine, as the payment is delayed but allows the players to chose the order of worker resolution.

General Lack of Polish

There is a general feeling that the book is only about 90% finished.  There are typos referring to one section instead of another, which makes arguments confusing.  There are also no footnotes or citations.  Also, as noted before, no glossary, no index, or a reference section.

Some mechanics are very straightforward and well covered, others will spend 3-6 pages covering variant after variant (such as Push Your Luck or Hidden Roles).  It is unclear to the reader what makes a variant worthy of it's own sub heading as a mechanic, and what makes it a variant of another mechanic, even with significant differences between the variant and original mechanic.

General Grievances

I feel that a list of examples will explain some of the issues I have this book.  Note that these aren't the worst issues, but they are examples of numerous other instances.

Betting (p. 209)

The book calls Tichu a betting game where you predict the number of tricks (it literally says you are claiming a trick number) - which is flat out wrong.  Calling 'tichu' isn't the number of tricks, it is about going out first.  You could say you are betting who will go out first, but the betting is optional.  A betting game should have betting as primary mechanic.

Trading (p. 245)

The book makes a statement that when trading goods, "the value also needs to be difficult to precisely determine".  No justification is given and nothing is explained.  Just seems to be something they made up.  It is clear from a game like Settlers of Catan, that the value is precise to each player.  Every player knows that a wood is used for building a road, building a settlement, etc.  

Worker Placement (p. 334)

This is something that happens again and again in the book.  The authors will make a claim and then not back it up or even given the barest of reasons for the belief.  In this chapter, they claim that in Stone Age there is a starvation strategy that is viable in Stone Age, but having played the game many times, this seems implausible to me.  Even a google search reveals controversy about if this is a winning strategy.  Simply, the author's rarely show their work. 

In a book like this, particularly the first of it's kind, it is crucial to back up your arguments.  Without reason or rhyme, readers cannot gain insight or learn.  While opinions can be informed and well thought out, an opinion without any articulation is objectively weak.  Particularly when that opinion is presented as a statement of fact.  

If someone says they prefer blue hats, I do not expect any more information.  People can have opinions.  But if someone says Lords of Waterdeep worker placement mechanic is superior to Stone Age's implementation, then that is a statement of fact.  The authors even make this statement and they just skip along with nary a supporting reason.  This book is over 460 pages, it certainly doesn't need the padding of opinions.

Resource to Move (p. 361)

The book has a pretty consistent issue with defining mechanics and deciding what is a variant of the main mechanic.  A very obvious one is the chapter "Mov-05 Resource to Move".  It is less than a page of text, but somehow doesn't count as a variant on "Mov-04 Movement Points".  There is no discussion on how the Movement Points are not themselves resources or how the two mechanics differ, really.  

Territories (p. 410)

In a section about Territories and regions, the book defines territories as being made up of spaces.  Then the very next section says "... set of Regions that compose a territory."  Meaning that the containing entity is now a territory, composed of regions.  

But then in the very same paragraph "... regional control offers some natural hooks for designers…"  It is clear that regions are now the container holding zones, spaces, territories or what have you.  

Region makes sense as a term in that it is a wider area, but the authors didn't seem to either edit this properly or care enough to be consistent.  The book at least is mostly consistent going forward.  This carelessness again, makes me double-think or even doubt areas of a book that I read, that seem reasonable or factual.  I now have to contend with the fact that the authors may not be making a point I don't understand, they may not actually be saying what is printed.

Sets (p. 423)

TBBoTGD calls out The Settlers of Catan as a 'set building' game, but does not justify this classification.  In the section about Sets, the book argues that the defining characteristic of sets is that the set itself grows in value with additions, it is more valuable than the sum of it's parts. Per the authors "... sets do not increase in value in a linear value."  This is a practical and definite criteria which is supported by most of the other chapters in this section.

Returning to Catan, the value doesn't increase as more cards are added to set.  The values are based on rarity of a given resource type, so that in one game Bricks might be very valuable, commanding 2 to 1 trades, while in the next, they are common.  

Using Catan as an example of set building is confusing at best, as resource cards do not increase in value beyond the value of each card.  A group of resources used to purchase something may well be a literal 'set' of cards, but it shouldn't cause confusion with "Sets" as defined in that section.

This book is similar to bad science fiction stories, in that it does not follow it's own rules.  Part of the purpose of a book like this is to define what is meant by each and every category and classification.  I feel that a good part of this book may have been written with a kind of 'gut' understanding of what a particular mechanic is, instead of an actual definition.

The Good

This book is the the book I have always wanted to read and own.  It is a fairly exhaustive catalog of game mechanics.  I may have issues with how those concepts are organized, but there is no denying that much of the 460 pages contain information that has never appeared in print before, certainly not in one book.  

That is one of the reasons I am particularly critical of how the concepts are arranged and presented.  In the future, if two people are discussing worker placement mechanics, this is the book they will pick up and reference, this is the documentation, of our (well, the author's at least) current understanding of many, many game mechanics.

This book does a very good job of referencing specific games for each mechanic presented.  There are no 'abstract' mechanics mostly, that have no basis or implementation in reality (aside from open Open Auctions).  Almost everything presented in this book has a specific game that is referenced.

Again, one of the book's strengths is just how comprehensive the list of concepts is, whether it is a mechanic, variant, or something else.

The Conclusion

After reading and reviewing this book, my biggest complaint is the authors themselves.  They don't have a definition of mechanics themselves, rather they are presenting arguments and support via examples of games.  

Rather than defining what is worker placement, vs pawn movement, vs action selection, etc. they list games that they consider "worker placement".  I can't help but feel they might have gained a deeper understanding themselves by articulating definitions for each mechanic.  This book is still very much in the "I know it when I see it" phase of discussing game mechanics.

It is easy to look at this review and notice how the bad section is quite a bit bigger than the good section.  With this blog, I am simplifying in calling something 'good' and 'bad'.  At the end of the day though, there is literally no other book that does what "Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design" does, or even attempts to do.  I cannot commend that enough.

Who Should Buy This Book

Anyone who is interested in game design and a formal definition of elements and concepts of games, in general.  Much of these concepts are independent of analog or digital implementation.  A 'deck builder' in either a physical game like Tyrants of the Underdark, or is conceptually identical to a video game such as Slay the Spire.  

I think anyone that considers themselves a game designer or develop, would do well to read this book and consider the material presented within.

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