On the surface, this mechanic might seem like a large abstract concept used in games more than just a simple mechanic. If you feel that way then you are not alone. Some game designers (and most people) use “terms for ideas” interchangeably or use the same term for several different ideas. This can muddy the waters when those terms are discussed. Mechanic is one such word.
Therefore, Area control is a mechanic made up of other sub-mechanics working together. While the term mechanic does describe things that are simple ideas like Roll & Move, as discussed in my article on Dice Rolling. It also gets used for bigger ideas like Area Control, and in some games, area control might mean several seemingly independent mechanics all working together to form a system of area control. So, is area control a system or a mechanic?
The short answer is they are both correct ways to describe what area control is. In the world of game design mechanic is just a big word. This means sometimes you just have to try your best to decipher how the word is being used in context.
One reason for confusion on the topic of area control in game design is that it is not the same thing as an area control mechanic in a game. Anytime you use area control in the design it does not overtly become an area control mechanic in the game. However the opposite is also true. You can include an area control mechanic without a second thought to area control design as a design concept.
Area control as a mechanic can mean simply having more cubes in a space than any other player. In this case you dominate or control that space or area on the board by virtue of having the most forces in that space. This is the core basis for much of the area control mechanics use in games.
Note: It might be easier to think of small mechanics as mechanisms (one gear in a clock), and a group of mechanisms as mechanics. This would then make a group of mechanics a system. Whatever you end up calling area control is is a wonderful thing in games!
Where to start?
One important thing to understand about area control is just how subtle (invisible even) or how overt (easy to see) it can be in games.
Example: The Board Game Geek page for Monopoly lists 6 primary mechanics as being used. It does not list area control among the mechanics, nor do I consider it an area control game. However, there is area control in the game and it does play a larger part then you might think at first glance.
Consider the set collection mechanic of monopoly. The sets of property represent an area or zone on the game board. A byproduct of owning one complete set or area of the game board is that it gives a player an economic control over that area. The game does not however have a lot gaining and losing this control over the areas on the board and as such the game is not about area control. I point this out only so that you will see that the idea of area control is not always at the front of your mind when thinking about a game. However, it does play a role in almost all games to some degree.
Normally when people talk about area control they reference games like Risk, Small World, Go, or Carcassonne. These are in fact all great examples of area control used overtly in games as a mechanic.
So what are the main parts of this as a Mechanic?
- An area or areas in need of some control
- A Force (or forces) able to control the areas
- The power to change things
It is really that simple you ask: “Well yes and no.”
On one hand: If you have just those three things you will indeed have an area control mechanic or even a complete area control game. But as I pointed out in the start of this area control as a design concept is more than this.
Example Game: We have 2 players each with 8 cubes, and they take turns placing one cube on a board with 5 spaces. Once all of the cubes have been placed the game ends. The player who “controls” the most spaces wins! (Control in this game would mean the player who has the most cubes in a space controls that space). On the surface this is all quite simple.
This example was an area control game that used only basic rules and mechanics. The rules are nothing more than an explanation of how to do things in the game and how to know when the game is over and who won. The mechanics involved are area control, worker placement, and taking turns (I bet you never thought of taking turns as a game mechanic).
Here are the three parts of area control used in the example game: The board with 5 spaces servers as the areas in need of control. The component of cubes serve as the force that can control the spaces. And the player’s only action to place a cube on their turn is the power to change things.
Now, before you say that I am oversimplifying things, just ask yourself: How simple are the rules to the game of “Go”? (see google for more information on the game of Go)
If you already knew about “Go” or you looked it up as suggested above, you can see that this mechanic really can be just that simple. There is not much more to the game of “Go” than what I have listed above in my simple “example game”. Some of the greatest games in the world are very simple when it comes to what mechanics, rules, and pieces are included, and yet they provide a level of complexity beyond human levels of comprehension.
On the other hand: It may be simple to just add these three parts of area control to a game and call it good as a stand alone mechanic. However, it is not as simple to truly understand and know how to balance the area control design concept in a game’s design.
There are many other types of area control games (not even referenced in this article) that you as a designer might want to use, or you might just want to include or manage the byproducts of area control as a sub-mechanic in a larger game. To move deeper into the use of this as a design concept you will need to understand that:
Wise sage in our heads:
“The outcome of having the power to use force is control.”
This is intended only as “Food for Thought”. Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.
“Remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!”
“I want to help you embrace the bright hope for your future.”