Book review: Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms

I’ve been meaning to review more of the books I’ve been reading behind the scenes. Since Building Blocks first came out in June 2019, I was initially hesitant to buy this book, not because of the authors or the subject, but because of the price tag — about $50 USD. That buys a lot of sleeves or prints a lot of prototypes, especially in a world where most e-books are $5-$10 USD.

Fast forward to mid-September 2019, when I read the Board Game Geek announcement mentioning the systems and taxonomies used in this book would be used on the site, with the publishers blessing. The world of board games is still so new, and the taxonomy inside may quickly become the industry standard for a number of reasons. In any case, I wondered ‘How often does a published book change the systems used by the industry leading website?’, then quickly realized they must have had some great points to make.

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Crunch, not fluff

I should start this review by saying this is not what you might call a recreational read. It’s a dry, almost clinical, textbook like book with a near-complete lack of fluff. That said, the textbook like text is exactly what the industry needed at this point: an authoritative, essentially exhaustive collection of board game mechanics and actions used in modern board games, organized in an efficient taxonomy. If a board game is likened to a Lego-like building, these really are the building blocks that make up virtually every board game (and quite a few elements of video games).

Wait, what’s a taxonomy?

A scheme of classification, or a way of organizing information. Think of how animals are classified: first by kingdom, then by phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. It’s the structure of information that makes the information helpful or useful.

It’s that taxonomy used in the book that the Geek has imported for the site’s use in the site’s Mechanics section. As the book that creates that taxonomy, it quickly becomes a reference guide that becomes essential. Before, I would hear of a new mechanic some game uses and try to find a video that explains it or demonstrates it, hoping of course that game’s implantation (and the video) is a good one. Now, I can easily reference it, read a page or so of text, and get a curated list of games using it for further research.

So it’s a… reference guide?

Writers use a dictionary and thesaurus when writing to ensure their words are carefully and correctly chosen. Board game designers now have a authoritative reference guide to virtually every mechanic used in today’s games to guide their designs in this still young industry.

Beyond being a reference guide, the exhaustive nature of the mechanics means you’re virtually guaranteed to read about some mechanics that are novel to you. Sometimes this is because the game is before your time, or because it’s harder and harder to play everything coming out these days. Each description highlights examples of that mechanic, and many also have a tip (or caution) to designers about some element of this mechanic that makes it better or worse in a game.

This is not for the average gamer, or even the hard-core gamer. It’s specifically for the game designer, and for anyone that wants to be one. Sometimes books are written to the ‘newer’ game designer, or someone that wants to get into the industry. This is one of the rare books that is helpful no matter where you are in the journey.

Book review: Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms

The icons and graphic design are also excellent – giving a broad understanding of the concept or mechanics before it’s even talked about.

A weakness?

The book is long — which is both a strength and a weakness, since you want a reference guide to be as long as it needs to be. You wouldn’t just read it straight through in a single setting.

My only other issue is more of a technical issue — the e-book delivered by Kindle is a PDF, which doesn’t ‘reflow’ as normal Kindle books do. While this solves any pagination concerns between the two different version of the same book, this also means you’re not able to change the font, font size, or other benefits of the Kindle file format. This doesn’t affect the quality of the content at all, just a quality of life issue.

Overall

It’s a solid book with plenty of reasons to get it. Highly recommended.

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