5 Genre-Definitive Games (and 4 Ways to Subvert Them)

There are some games that so completely define their genre that any other games with similar mechanisms (or themes) will inevitably be compared to them. As I've pursued a more ambitious game design schedule, I've noticed some games casting long shadows over their genre. This is just my own perspective, based on my own game-playing experience. These are not necessarily the "first" games in the genre, they're just the most prominent.

In an effort to subvert these definitive games, I don't try to "fix" them. That way lies frustration and bitterness. Instead, I try to find another flavor of fun that can emerge from that genre if I apply different constraints, or remove existing constraints, or draw new mechanisms from a different theme.

But most importantly, if you're going to design a game in any of these genres, you pretty much have to play these games. To avoid doing so is to have a glaring blind spot in your own gaming career.


Tile-Placement: Carcassonne
Every time I start a game with tiled (or even cards) to form roads, cities, or any kind of loosely themed map configuration, I can't help but ask "How is this different than Carcassonne?" Especially with all its expansion packs and reimplementations, it's hard not to draw comparisons to this classic.

Deck-Building: Dominion
One of the rare games in recent memory that can be considered most literally genre-definitive. Any later deckbuilding game seems to be a response to, or a variation on, or a retheme of Dominion.

Trick-Taking: Chronicle
This is a little more obscure, but Seiji Kanai specifically aimed for a trick-taking game that incorporates every single trick-taking mechanism or victory condition, then added variable player powers and game conditions. And somehow, it all still works. Consequently, any future trick-taking game seems like it's just a sliver or an off-shoot of the broader scope of Chronicle.

Collectible Card Game: Magic: the Gathering
The genre has evolved quite a bit over the past few decades. For a time the genre was synonymous with a certain business model, but the rise of Living Card Games and all-in-one games like Seasons has made that connection a little more blurry. Still, if you're making a game with lots of inter-related cards and customizable decks, Magic: the Gathering is the game you have to acknowledge at some point in development.

Dice Games: Yahtzee
Whether it's mulligans or scoring sets of results, it's hard to make a dice game that doesn't draw some mechanisms from Yahtzee. Sure it has its problems, but it's still the great grandparent of any modern dice game.


The trick with working around these big gorillas is to accept that you're probably not going to topple them. Find your own twist on the genre and if you catch lightning in a bottle, great, but you gotta moderate your expectations. That said, here are four simple ways to start down that path.


1: Add Constraint
Limit hand sizes, limit public information, limit tactical options, limit the types of components, or limit the variety within those components. Usually this will make a faster game, but you must also allow avenues for player-creativity within those constraints, otherwise it's a recipe for frustration.

2: Reverse Goals
What happens when you're trying to avoid building complete features in Carcassonne, or deconstruct your deck in a deck-building game? Plenty of new player behaviors manifest themselves in that situation, which in turn can offer you some interesting new design space.

3: Merge Archetypes
Sometimes the merger of two prominent definitive games can produce some interesting results. For example, 7 Wonders is more or less the definitive drafting game of today, while Carcassonne is the definitive tile-placement game. Merge the two together and you get Among the Stars. What might a trick-taking tile-placement game look like? Blend two of these games together and see what pops up!

4: Change Components
Take an existing archetypal game like Magic: the Gathering, but replace the cards with dice, or tiles, or pawns, or sticks, or some other physical component. How do the new physical properties affect gameplay? Are there different ways to hide or reveal information? Do the physical dimensions of the component affect strategy?


A note of caution: If you try too many of these twists at once, you might get a weird chimera that is at once too familiar to be interesting and too different to be accessible. The happy medium is being able to say "Yep, it's kind of like Dominion, except _____." Or "this is like Carcassonne, but ______." Try this out and see where it takes you.

(Image Credit: My wife is now making sets of glitter meeples in a variety of metallic colors. Check out her store Hard Boiled Megg for more!)


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