Mechanics and Flavor

I was thinking that I’d things off today with a game analysis, but I decided that it made more sense to start talking about the components of a game. There’s a key separation of elements for games that often gets glossed over, and it’s important to be able to think about a game from both sides. When I break down a game, the first thing I do is to separate the Mechanics from the Flavor.

Mechanics represents the hard, literal half of a game. Mechanics is rules, limitations and systems. The Mechanics are what make the game run. In the case of board games, the use of dice or cards, the rules and restrictions on each player, and the goal of the game. With video games, this also includes programming. Mechanics are what Mario move the way he does, but not what makes him ‘Mario’; it’s what makes Munchkin competitive, but not what makes it comical.

Flavor is the other half of a game, the soft half. Flavor is the story, the graphics, the feel of it. Flavor is what makes games feel more substancially different from one another. It relates to artstyle, primarily, and anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to make the game fuction, like names or descriptions. Flavor is what makes Magic: the Gathering a story in a card game (and in fact, the term Flavor I took from M:tG’s ‘Flavor Text’), and what makes most RPGs different from one another.

Some games emphasize Mechanics or Flavor, but no game (that I’m aware of) lacks either, at least to some degree. For example, a simple game like Tic Tac Toe is almost all mechanics — rules about what you can place and how you can win — but the fact that it’s x’s and o’s (traditionally) and the name of the game, while minor, are still flavor elements. Similarly, something like Live Action Role Playing may be focused on the idea of story and flavor, but it will still have some elements, like how to fairly settle disputes.

Tic Tac Toe brings up another major component, and that is how flavor and mechanics interact. Flavor often performs a simple mechanical function, like explaining terminology to the players in a way that is easy to remember, or making it easier to differentiate elements (like in Tic Tac Toe). Ultimately, the grey space between flavor and mechanics is interface.

This is a very important set of distinctions to keep in mind; while both Mechanics and Flavor provide entertainment value to a game, they provide different kinds of fun, and often fight with each other. Mechanics heavy games tend to be dry and mathematical, but clean and easy to play. Flavor heavy games tend to be overly complicated, but have a certain richness about them.

Additionally, if you have a set of Mechanics and Flavor that don’t quite mesh, there can be all sorts of distinct problems, but more on that another day.

So there you have it, an introduction to Mechanics and Flavor. We’ll talk about both much more in the future!

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2 Responses to “Mechanics and Flavor”

  1. Vinay Says:

    I disagree somewhat with the scope of what you define as ‘flavour’. It’s only safe to say that few to no games lack flavour for a very very broad description of of the term. Some games are so abstract that I’d say they basically lack flavour entirely. Tic-tac-toe is a fine example, as is Go. As for the example of Tic-tac-toe’s flavour, I’d say that the name of a game is only flavourful if it is meaningful to the one who hears it as something other than the identifier of the game. For example, there is no meaning (as far as I know) to ‘tic-tac-toe’. Contrast a game like ‘Bang!’, where the very title offers an indication as to what it is you’re getting. By the nature of games, it’s much more possible to have mechanics without flavour than the converse. Just a thought.

    • Greg Says:

      It is broad, but it’s kind of my point. We can break everything in three groups, mechanics, flavor and interface. Mechanics are the rules, flavor is the fluff, and interface is where the mechanics meet the flavor.

      In the case of Tic Tac Toe, it’s mostly mechanics; win condition, turns order, etc. The flavor is sparse, mostly because the game doesn’t have any depth to support it. Ultimately, the flavor left over (symbols) is relegated to interface, because while arbitrary, the flavor is necessary.

      Additionally, I agree; when the mechanics are gone, you’re left with entertainment that is not a game. This is part of the reason why I like to emphasize mechanics before flavor, as it ultimately the more required component (for a game).

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