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The Trouble and Frustration of Game Mechanics
by Andrzej Marczewski on 05/06/13 09:36:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


A while back I did an article on what game mechanics actually are. It was meant as a guide for gamification people who were talking about the wrong things when they spoke about them.  Interestingly, some people in the games design business also showed an interest and it got me thinking more about the games side of it all. I was looking for a good example of how a mechanic can change a game – and then yesterday I found it.

FrustrationEnter the board game Frustration (Trouble in America I believe). My daughter had it for her birthday and I must say, it is a great fun game.  However, I could not help but think it seemed familiar.  It turns out that the game was around when I was a kid (launched around 1965 actually), it just looked different and had been given a new game mechanic since then.

The idea of the game is to move your four tokens around the board and into your “home”. You roll a dice, in the original using the Popomatic dice roller, now using a little paddle. Roll a six and you can put another piece on the board. Land on another player and you send them back to their start position. 

There were some tactics involved, which piece do you move, do you sit on your opponents “spawn” point to prevent them getting more pieces on the board, do you land on a spot they are sat on to send them back, that sort of thing. Simple, but fun.  However, the new version added a brand new gameplay element – the Genie.  Now there are two dice in the roller, the second one dictating when you get or lose the genie. When you have the genie you are safe from people landing on you and sending you back to the start. Simple enough mechanic, but one that adds a new layer of emergent gameplay – a new dynamic to the game.

This simple addition gets you thinking about how nice to be to other players. If you have pieces in the lead, do you use the fact you are invulnerable to take out other players, or do you still just go for the quick victory. If you lose the genie, have you upset other players enough to try and go for you? Whilst it may be chance that dictates if you have the genie (another mechanic), it is up to you how you play when you have it.

One simple new mechanic and the game changes a great deal.

It is funny really, when you strip games back to core mechanics you begin to see how little things have moved on in some areas.  Take Call of Duty.  Strip away the look of the game, and concentrate on what you are doing at its core.  You shoot at bad guys, they shoot back.  You can move to avoid enemies and you can hide behind things to protect yourself. Sure there are different guns and powerups, but the core is move, shoot, hide.

Lets look at space invaders for a moment.  You can move left and right, so not quite freely (you need Galaxian for that). You shoot at bad guys and you avoid their shots. You can also hide behind the shields.  Move, shoot, hide.

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Kyle McBain
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Could it be argued then that "move, shoot, hide" is the mechanic at play. The extra guns and power ups that you mention correlate with the genie from Frustration. That the genie in of itself is not a mechanical aspect but more of a power-up. The game is still the same.

Darren Tomlyn
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Game mechanics are the application of rules - one of the primary elements games require to exist (within its definition).

As such, what the term represents is still very basic and therefore encompasses everything that affects and defines all actions and interactions within a game.

Precisely because game mechanics are so general, however, we usually should (and need) to make a distinction between what the rules and associated mechanics actually apply to, how and why.

The fact is, is that there merely a few very basic games - types of basic behaviour/things that happen with the most basic rules and associated mechanics possible - that all others are derived from, so any basic similarities should be unsurprising.

Andrzej Marczewski
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@Kyle Personally I would say no, but I see your point. The genie offers changes to the core rules. Different guns don't really offer totally new core rules, they still do the same basic thing - shoot. They do add new dynamics though. How you play with a grenade launcher will differ from how you play with a knife.

Andrzej Marczewski
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@darren that is sort of the point I'm making. This is a follow up to a deeper article on mechanics that was aimed at gamification folks (such as myself). The real point is, mechanics are the core rules. Everything else are dynamics, aesthetics, tokens etc. It just seemed a neat example :-)

Axel Cholewa
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Funny that this game is called "Frustration", 'cause it's basically the same as the older german board game "Mensch ärgere dich nicht", which means somehting like "do not get annoyed, buddy" in englisch. For many germans this is THE prototype of a board game.