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Game mechanics come in a wide variety of flavors. Some of them, like worker placement, are extremely abstract. Actually, tile placement is pretty much exclusively abstract. Is there any place other than games where you use place tiles? I mean, at least worker placement does imitate delegating work and assigning jobs.
Ahem, getting back to the topic that I haven't even started yet, there are some mechanics that are 'real world' things that are hardly changed at all when added to game play. And one of the most obvious ones is auctions.
Auctions have been a part of gaming for close to a century. Among other things, auctions are a part of that old classic/scourge (depending on who you ask), Monopoly. Not that I have met anyone that has used that rule but it is there. 3M had a pure auction game, High Bid. (It is on my list of playing all e 3M bookshelf games but I haven't managed to do that yet)
That being said, auction games have come into their own in a whole new level as a part of the Euro revolution. It is practically a sub-genre of Reiner Knizia, with games like Modern Art and Ra. Auctions also play a vital role in many games like Power Grid or the Steam games where they are only one of the mechanics. Heck, auctions even show up in some decidedly non-Euro games, like Risk 2210.
So, what is it about auctions that have made them such a fixture in games?
Well, in addition to creating a great deal of tension and brinkmanship, I think that part of the appeal to auctions is that they are also a part of non-gaming life. From traditional stock auctions that often really do have a mile-a-minute auctioneers to e-bay, auctions are a part of many people's lives, one way or another.
Indeed, for some people, auctions are a big part of their careers and how they make a living. You could say that this is just another form of gaming. After all, I know people that earned their rent money with poker when times were tough. However, I don't think the people who keep a roof over their heads would agree that it is a game.
So I think part of what makes auctions so powerful is that they have the sharp edge of reality. I don't think you are going to learn how to win auctions playing For Sale or High Society. For one thing, the resources exist in a much smaller environment and are much easier to calculate. For another thing, the risks that people are willing to take for fake money are very different an when their own savings are on the line.
Still, auctions are a part of our history, our economy and our culture. Many people who have never heard of our hobby understand auctions very well. They are an economic engine that has jumped from 'real life' to the game board. The weight of their heritage is part of what makes auctions such a popular and powerful mechanism.