Stop Toying With Me – when gimmicks in board games have a purpose (Topic Discussion)

Some might argue that board games are basically just toys. Some games add to that argument when they play on the toy factor by including one or more components that are basically just a gimmick. These components could easily be replaced by something else without affecting gameplay. Yet, some games are accused of capitalising on the attraction of gimmicks when these playful components are actually an integral part without which the game wouldn’t function. In this article, I want to look at this a bit more closely.

Vital Gimmicks

I have previously talked about the toy factor in board games, but I wanted to revisit the topic after playing I C E by Bragou and Samson F. Perret from This Way !. If you don’t know this game, it is about digging into an ice field to find ancient artefacts. During setup, you create five layers of overlapping hexagonal tiles. As you play, you remove tiles to slowly work your way deeper into the ice field.

You could argue that this is just a gimmick to draw people in and yes, it’s what attracted me to I C E in the first instance. However, when you play the game, you realize that the overlapping layers are integral to the gameplay. Maybe there is another way of implementing this mechanism, but it probably would have made the game a lot harder to play.

In a similar way, the messy pile of cards in Gold n’ Grog by Jake A Smith from Next Adventure Games creates a similar experience. In this push-your-luck game, you draw cards in the hope of finding treasure. If you don’t stop in time, you risk losing everything. However, instead of a simple draw deck, the cards in Gold n’ Grog are spread out on the table, to create a mini pirate treasure island. You can take any card you like, even digging into the pile to get to the card you want.

you're literally digging for treasure among the pile of cards
you’re literally digging for treasure among the pile of cards

Gimmicky Gameplay Experience

Now while it probably feels very gimmicky to have the layers in I C E or the spread-out cards in Gold n’ Grog, it hugely changes the gameplay experience. Every time you “dig up” a hex tile in I C E, you wonder what the tile itself has to offer and what you reveal underneath. What is usually a simple act of taking a new tile turns into a magical and exciting moment. Similarly, when you choose which card to take in Gold n’ Grog, you feel like you’re in charge of your own destiny. Not only that, you feel like a real pirate digging for treasure. The experience is completely transformed. Instead of simply drawing another card from a deck, you are in charge.

Saying that, the effect on the gameplay experience is what most gimmicks have in common. They enhance what players feel when they play the game. Whether it’s drawing marbles from Potion Explosion‘s dispenser, enhancing your dice in Dice Forge or sleeving cards in Mystic Vale, what seems like a superfluous gimmick that could have been replaced with something simpler and probably made the game less expensive in the process, is actually really satisfying when you play the game. Sure, I’m glossing over the pain of unsleeving cards after playing Mystic Vale, but you get the idea.

Making your favourite game even more fun to play is probably what we all secretly wish for. After all, the large aftermarket of upgraded components speaks for itself. Metal coins or poker chips instead of cardboard or paper money is my favourite example. Luxurious cards with linen finish are a lot more fun to play with than those that are cheap and from low-quality card stock.

Gimmicks at the Core

There are also games that really focus on the toy factor. While in all of the games I have mentioned so far, the gimmick at their core could probably be replaced by something simpler and more cost-effective, even if that makes the game harder to play, in Viking See-Saw you really cannot remove the core component: the see-sawing Viking ship. Maybe it could be simpler, but without some sort of component that tips one way or the other as it’s loaded with more items, the game wouldn’t be what it is.

Additionally, the components that you place on the ship as you play the game were chosen quite intentionally. Again, having plastic jewels and weighty golden cubes wouldn’t have been necessary and choosing standard wooden components in their place may have reduced the cost of the game. However, having items that are all roughly the same size, but weigh quite dramatically differently, while also being quite different in shape, is what makes this game so interesting and fun.

The toy factor of Viking See-Saw takes me back to popular family games from my childhood, like Mouse Trap or Game of Life. However, while those childhood games didn’t actually need those gimmicks, removing the ship from Viking See-Saw would break the game. Yet, all of these games are attractive and playful because of the gimmicky components.

a hand trying to place golden cube onto the Viking See-Saw
as items are stacked on top of each other, Viking See-Saw gets even more difficult

How About You?

Now I wonder what you think of board game components that seem like mere toys and don’t actually feel like they add anything to the gameplay experience. Can you think of any games where you thought the gimmick was superfluous? Are there any games you played where the gimmick actually really enhanced the enjoyment of the game? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below. It would be great to hear what you have to say.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Music: “Shade” by AShamaluevMusic.
Website: https://www.ashamaluevmusic.com

Playlist

These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this topic discussion article: