As game designers, we are always searching for inspiration. I love to start a new game with an idea of a mechanic. Sometimes the mechanic pops into your head, fully formed and other times, it needs some help. Here is an exercise I use to encourage new mechanic ideas to pop into my head.

This idea started when my brain made an unlikely leap while listening to a board game podcast in my car. The host referred to a civilisation-building game as a ‘civ game’ while talking about a completely separate game. It was just an in-passing comment, they weren’t discussing that game, just referring to it. While I’m very familiar with the phrase ‘civ game’ and know what it means, my brain heard it as ‘sieve game’. I hadn’t heard of a ‘sieve game’ and started wondering what the sieve mechanic would do. Well, it would stop big things getting through but allow small things to pass of course.

By the time I got home, I’d mapped out a whole flip-and-write game using the sieve mechanic. In the game, each round, four cards are flipped. The cards show polyomino shapes of different sizes. All players start with a large sieve size, where all shapes fall through and must be drawn into the grid on their page. As the rounds progress, players can choose to reduce their sieve size before cards are revealed to only place smaller pieces. 

Of course, nobody is going to add my sieve mechanic to the Board Game Geek mechanics list, but that doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. This experience got me thinking… it was my assumption that the mechanic existed that got me inspired. Maybe I could replicate the experience by assuming other words/phrases appeared in the list.

Since then, I’ve used this technique multiple times and it’s resulted in several games. Of course, it’s hard to trick my brain like I did the first time. But new mechanics do get invented, so I pick a name and work from there. Usually I just open a book at a random page and point and whatever word it lands on is the name of the new mechanic. Then I create a spider diagram from this word to start the ideas flowing.

Sometimes no idea emerges.

Sometimes a stupid idea emerges. 

Sometimes an idea that is not closely related to the original word emerges and grows. Here, I started with the word ‘relative’. The game that came from this idea is a social deduction game where all players are moving components around while trying to do separate tasks based on their role. If you’re interested, you can see the sizzle reel here and the sell sheet here.

And sometimes a game that embodies the original word emerges. 

The game I’ve created from the word ‘Impossible’, is still very much in development. Cards show the relationship in size between two monsters. Flipping cards quickly in succession, players must deduce the relationship between all monsters. When you know which monster is the biggest, the smallest or when an impossible logic loop is created, slap your hand on the last card and shout out your deduction. 

Of course, many games are initially inspired by the theme, and this exercise is a good way to get thinking about mechanics that might fit brilliantly with a theme. Want to create a game centred around walking-the-plank on a pirate ship? What would the walk-the-plank mechanic look like? Working on an idea about hibernating creatures? How would the hibernation mechanic work?

Have a go and let me know how this works for you.