Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms

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Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms

Geoffrey Engelstein and Isaac Shalev

CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-138-36549-0

“A game is a language… Each move you make is a way for you to express yourself to your partner – a way for you to make meaning”, writes Eric Zimmerman in the Foreword to Geoffrey Engelstein and Isaac Shalev’s new book Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design. Beneath the surface language of games, Zimmerman tells us, lies a hidden grammar and it is this grammar that Engelstein and Shalev’s book promises to reveal. It is a promise that the book fulfils admirably, providing – it might be fair to say establishing – an extensive game design vocabulary (the authors claim that they list close to 200 terms) that is illustrated by a wealth of discussion and examples.

The book is arranged in thirteen sections, each of which covers a single topic (such as “Actions,” “Resolutions” and “Economics”) under which headings the authors group related mechanisms. So, for example, in the “Resolution” section the reader will find entries on “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” “Voting,” and “Dice Selection” (along with many other terms). The entries themselves follow a set format, a brief description of the mechanism, a more extended discussion, and a short selection of sample games. This arrangement works well, combining the more factual description with an engaging discussion of the design implications of each mechanism. The discussion sections take the book well beyond the potentially dry format of an encyclopedia, offering a level of insight into the ways in which games work that reveals the real design pedigree of the two authors. The authors’ expert-but-conversational tone in these sections makes it entirely possible that (like this reader) you’ll find yourselves reading the book from front to back in a couple of sittings rather than dipping into it (though the arrangement and careful cross-referencing are clearly designed with the dipper in mind). One interesting outcome of these discussion sections is that the book feels very much like a snapshot (a panoramic one) of games in the contemporary moment, and the examples will, of course, date as new titles are released. As the authors suggest, this is a positive thing and we can “look to a future that continues to stretch, experiment with and reconsider what games can be in light of new innovations in gaming.” The book’s intention of inspiring and enabling new designs looks set to help ensure that this is the case.

To my mind, this book fills a useful gap, sitting on my own non-Dewey compliant shelves alongside David Parlett’s recently re-released Parlett’s History of Board Games, Karl Gutschera, Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias’s Characteristics of Games (this book’s closest competitor), and Stewart Woods’ player-focussed Eurogames. It’s a book that should appeal to game designers (established or newcomers), game players, and game educators, all of whom should expect to find something of interest, and who will likely use the book in different ways. At the end of the day, the book does exactly what its title suggests: it’s an encyclopedia of game mechanisms, but it’s also rather more than that – it’s an engaging read that’s packed with insightful comment and an invigorating invitation to think about the future directions of tabletop gaming.