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The mechanism that makes the game
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Like a subtle introduction of a seasoning that elevates the flavor of a dish, some games really benefit from a single rule or system that makes the entire game "work". This geeklist is about those little rules that make the game.

It is not intended to be about "macro" or "core" mechanisms. So, "Dominion -- deck building" or "Pillars of the Earth -- worker placement" wouldn't be good examples. Instead, this list is trying to focus the attention on the little systems or rules that make those games shine. To use a musical analogy, this list isn't about the main melody, it's about the arrangement.

Not every game necessarily has a clever twist like this. But the ones that do are worth acknowledging. Add your favorite examples of little rules and systems that do this!
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1. Board Game: Escape: The Curse of the Temple [Average Rating:7.08 Overall Rank:395]
Jeff Warrender
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Black masks

Escape's real-time dice-rolling is a neat mechanism that works just fine, but the black masks, which lock up until "released" by gold masks, really enhances the "problem" of the game. If it were just "roll until you get what you need", the mechanism probably would have worked, but the additional effect of some of your dice locking up, of needing other players to come "rescue" you, works extremely well to heighten the time pressure of the game.
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2. Board Game: Puerto Rico [Average Rating:8.08 Overall Rank:14]
Jeff Warrender
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Trading house

It's tough, for a game brim-full of clever mechanisms, to pick just one that makes the game shine, and I'm torn between the trading house rules, and the combo of "can only place one type of good per ship"/"unshipped goods rot" system.

Puerto Rico is about indirect interaction, and while the role selection mechanism is central to the game, these two little rules create the context in which the role selection brinksmanship becomes so interesting. I gave the nod to the trade house, in which only one of each type of good can be sold, and only four slots are available, because cash flow is so important to the game and the trade house is the gate through which any money strategy must pass.
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3. Board Game: Acquire [Average Rating:7.36 Overall Rank:191]
Jeff Warrender
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Buy three blocks of stock

As with Puerto Rico's trade house, it's a limitation that makes Acquire interesting. In a stock acquisition game, the richest player can buy the most stock and easily run away with the game. Acquire, by limiting your buys to only three per turn, prevents this, but more importantly, it introduces some important timing considerations into the game. If you're sitting on the tile that can merge two chains, you don't want to drop it until you have enough stock to come out favorably, but you also have to watch the other chains you're working on, as other players might be able to merge those. The original agonizing decision!
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4. Board Game: Lost Cities [Average Rating:7.15 Overall Rank:287]
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Discard piles

Lost Cities is another game where timing is everything -- you're spending a lot of the game stalling to see if you can get the cards that will fill in gaps before you drop your higher number cards. Discarding cards lets you relieve some of the pressure that builds up in your hand, except that doing so makes the discarded cards available to your opponent, meaning that you can accidentally give them something useful.
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5. Board Game: War of the Ring (first edition) [Average Rating:7.80 Overall Rank:72]
Jeff Warrender
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Nazgul are the only leaders

This is another tough one, as War introduces many clever systems and agonizing decisions.

To me, the most interesting one is the fact that, for the Shadow player, his only source of Leader re-rolls are the Nazgul, but if they're in a battle, they're not out creating problems for the Fellowship. Nazgul move freely enough that one is tempted to shuttle them between roles -- now moving to a battle, now moving to occupy the last-known space of the Fellowship -- but actions are precious; but on the other hand, the Shadow does have lots of dice; but on the other hand, dice used on actions aren't helping with the Hunt... Lots of great considerations here, and the dual role of the Nazgul really elevate the decisions surrounding whether you'll focus on military or the Hunt.

(I fully expect there will be differences of opinion about exactly which mechanism is the one that "makes" War of the Ring!)
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6. Board Game: Kingpins [Average Rating:9.00 Unranked]
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Tie breaker bid uses time

This game may not be as well-known as the others, but it's a fun closed-fist bidding game for the Decktet in which players have 10 meeples, which are your bid currency. When you win a bid, you choose a card and place the meeples used in the bid on the card, and return one to your hand each subsequent turn.

But, if you tie another player, you and that player have one or more subsequent closed-fist bids, and this time you bid "time cubes", with the winner adding his meeples AND all time cubes he bid to the card, but time cubes are removed first. This means that the harder you fight to win a card, the more time your bidding power is going to be "locked up" for future turns. Really a great mechanism.
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7. Board Game: Lord of the Rings [Average Rating:6.78 Overall Rank:675]
Jeff Warrender
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Life tokens

Again, lots of interesting stuff, but to me the most interesting thing about this game is the way that different player counts give an entirely different feel, and the central ingredient in that comes from the Life tokens. Each player needs one of each, but the game only ships with 3 each of two types and 5 of the third, meaning that, the larger the group, the less likely you are to get all three, and the more painful it becomes when one player acquires two of the same type. Similarly, for events that require discarding life tokens, this is less painful in small groups when it's more common for players to have extras. This one system goes a long way to balancing the experience across player counts, while at the same time really changing the "vibe" of the different counts, an impressive feat.

To me this is the gold standard design for getting the different player counts to feel different. It can be said of so many games, "well, it works with 3 but it's really best with the full group of 5", or "you can play with 6 but you really don't want to!" LotR is the rare game in which every count "works".
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8. Board Game: Heroscape Master Set: Rise of the Valkyrie [Average Rating:7.42 Overall Rank:257] [Average Rating:7.42 Unranked]
D Conklin
United States
Texas
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Order Markers

There are tons of "dudes on a map" games and Heroscape is on the easier end of these as far as rule sets go...mostly attributable to it being a mass-market game. Nevertheless for many true gamers, this filled a nice "gateway game" niche.

One mechanism that seems to differentiate it from so many other IGoUGo miniatures games is the use of order markers to designate which miniatures will act in the upcoming turn prior to the initiative being determined and the turn being started.

Having to pick a subset of your force to go each turn, glancing over the board to see which figures your opponent will be using, stacking one character to take all the actions, leveraging character "bonding" to get extra moves, and maybe even doing some mild bluffing...all build excitement in the game through this surprisingly subtle mechanism.

As a bonus, it seems to keep the game from bogging down and becoming a slog-fest. Truly an innovative addition to miniatures skirmish games.
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9. Board Game: Age of Steam [Average Rating:7.70 Overall Rank:101]
David Gibbs
Canada
Ottawa
Ontario
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Auction

Age of Steam is about network building, and pickup & delivery -- those are the main things going on in the game. But what really makes the game tense is the auction for turn order that happens at the start of each turn. This auction causes cascading effects on the variable powers, the pickup and delivery, the money-management, and the network building parts of the game.
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10. Board Game: Thebes [Average Rating:7.17 Overall Rank:362]
Chris Dugas
Canada
Toronto
Ontario
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Time as currency and drawing from bags of mixed treasure and sand

These two mechanics combine to enhance the theme beautifully. Of course using more time gives you more opportunity to dig at the archeological sites, and of course all the digging in the world may just result in sand instead of treasure.
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11. Board Game: Expedition: Northwest Passage [Average Rating:7.08 Overall Rank:1040]
Chris Dugas
Canada
Toronto
Ontario
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Sun token

The sun token moves around the board on each round, giving a line above which everything is frozen and below which water is still navigable. If you don't time it right, your ship can end up icebound or your sled can end up stranded on an island surrounded by water with no way to get back to the ship.
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12. Board Game: No Thanks! [Average Rating:7.04 Overall Rank:394]
Kurt
Canada
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Turns End Only When Rejecting a Card

No Thanks! is a tight package of cleverly interlocking rules, but one of the most important is easy to overlook: a player's turn only ends when they decide to reject a card.

Players are attempting to have the lowest point score at the end of the game, with each card adding an amount of points equal to its value. Players can only pass a limited amount of times, based on the amount of red chips they have remaining. On their turn, a player looks at the current card up for offer, and either takes it (and all red chips previously used to pass on said card) or passes (using a red chip of their own).

The twist comes from a key wrench thrown into things: if a player decides to take the card up for offer, they are forced to flip the next one and make another decision. In this way, a player is unable to pass without making a conscious decision to do so. This mechanic also enables players to "press their luck," seeking cards to add to their selection in order to create a run-- one of the few times players actually want cards in the game. Very clever rules in a tight package.
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13. Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates [Average Rating:7.71 Overall Rank:63]
Kurt
Canada
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All Players Draw Tiles at the End of Everyone's Turn

Tigris & Euphrates (1997) is a tile-based, deeply euro war game. Players can cause conflicts both between themselves and other players by placing tiles. These tiles, kept behind a hidden screen, are also used to bid strength towards the results of battles.

Players draw tiles at the end of not just their own turn, but everyone's. This prevents any one player from being caught completely unprepared after a big battle. However, there is some risk: because several battles can happen on a single turn, it is possible to consciously weaken a player, or have them fight someone else, before moving in to finish them off.
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14. Board Game: Morels [Average Rating:7.07 Overall Rank:555]
Kurt
Canada
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Ignored Cards Enter the Decay

In Morels/Fungi (2012), two players attempt to forage and cook the best mushrooms. Every turn, one card passed over by the players enters the Decay, a temporary discard pile.

Normally, players are only able to take a single card each round. Instead, they may take all the cards collected in the Decay. In a game with strict hand limits and some negative cards, taking the Decay can be a lucrative move or it can clog a player's small hand. When a 5th card would be added to the Decay, the whole selection is discarded. This makes the Decay always just palatable enough to be an enticing option.
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15. Board Game: Bohnanza [Average Rating:7.06 Overall Rank:359]
Dan Wojciechowski
United States
Aurora
Illinois
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The requirement that your hand of cards must be played in order without rearranging is what drives the need to negotiate trades, often even at a loss

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16. Board Game: Carson City [Average Rating:7.30 Overall Rank:313]
Kyle A
United States
Norfolk
Virginia
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Dueling

Competing over spots in most worker placement games usually means grabbing that 1st player spot/token/whatever. With this game, you can duel over a previously claimed spot, and give yourself a chance to win even if you didn't get there first.
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17. Board Game: 7 Wonders [Average Rating:7.82 Overall Rank:39]
Nathaniel Grisham

Indiana
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Neighbors

The way that players interact with their neighbors really drives a lot of the decisions in this game. A player might pick a resource that they know a neighbor needs in order to make some profit from it. Or they might let that resource slide, while picking another card, believing that the resource can be purchased, later. While building on your wonder, you can bury a guild that your neighbor would benefit from. You could enter the arms race last minute for a surprise swing in your score, relative to one or both neighbors.
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18. Board Game: Small World [Average Rating:7.34 Overall Rank:163] [Average Rating:7.34 Unranked]
George
United States
Austin
Texas
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I love the mechanism of having to pay a VP/coin on each race that you pass over when you're choosing your next race, meaning you have to pay to get the 'better' race. Then, if you select a race with VP on it, you get the VP. If people are passing over races that are less appealing, this mechanism makes the passed-over races more and more appealing as the game progresses. It's a wonderful balancing mechanism so the players who go first don't simply grab the best races - they have to, in effect, pay other players for them.

Because you choose new races throughout the game, and not just at the beginning, this mechanic is integral with and crucial to the game.
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19. Board Game: Kingdom Builder [Average Rating:7.01 Overall Rank:440]
Matthew Purcell
United States
Columbus
Ohio
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Adjacency Requirement

having to build next to your existing settlements if at all possible, really makes this game interesting/challenging.
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20. Board Game: Twilight Imperium (Third Edition) [Average Rating:7.92 Overall Rank:42]
Michael Brettell
Australia
South Turramurra
NSW
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Command Counters

There are so many small mechanics in TI3, but the crucial one to me are the Command Counters. They limit your fleet size, how many actions you can take in a round and how many secondary actions you can perform. It's a dangerous play to concentrate on other goals and ignore your dwindling counter supply.
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21. Board Game: Mr. Jack [Average Rating:7.08 Overall Rank:400]
Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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Escape only when hidden

The detective is trying to identify Jack and guard the exits against his possible escape. However, the limitation that Jack can only escape if he's hidden puts additional pressure on Jack, which balances against the fact that it's relatively easier to cluster characters than to keep them all separate.
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22. Board Game: 51st State [Average Rating:6.91 Overall Rank:871] [Average Rating:6.91 Unranked]
Dave Lartigue
United States
Springfield
Massachusetts
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(Also applies to The New Era)

The Rule of Three

Threes play a big role in this game, but the main one is the rule that a card which generates VPs can only do so three times. After that they're more or less useless. When the upcoming new edition of the game seemed to drop this mechanism, fans rioted.

The Rule of Three is clever because it limits "engines" in the game. For a post-apocalyptic, scavenging setting, it means you can't rely on any one thing to bail you out. Things break down. Once a VP card "fills up", you build over it. The fact that you can only send workers to activate a location twice means you can't fill up a space immediately. And on the flip side, destroying a location (in New Era) is a tough call, since it will eventually lose its power anyway.

It adds a neat dimension to the game, and is so well integrated that I didn't even realize how much it informed the game until it looked like it was going away.
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23. Board Game: Whack & Slaughter [Average Rating:7.14 Unranked]
Kai Scheuer
Germany
Eppelsheim
Rheinland Pfalz
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Dice Building

Before sending your Hero onto the battlefield you reconfigure your dice:
By assigning colour coded pips at your discretion to the faces of a die, you can alter the propabilities for certain effects (such as X melee damage or Y defense).
This mechanic allows you to use any fantasy miniature already in your possession!
 
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24. Board Game: Button Men [Average Rating:6.33 Overall Rank:2874] [Average Rating:6.33 Unranked]
Kai Scheuer
Germany
Eppelsheim
Rheinland Pfalz
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Dice = Life

Let's face it: Button Men is a dicechucker with a pasted on theme.

However, dice are more than just randomizers here: Each die on your hand is 1 Lifepoint of your fighter. Lose a die, and your fighter becomes weaker due to lack of options.
Lose the last die and you lose the battle.
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25. Board Game: Forbidden Island [Average Rating:6.84 Overall Rank:565]
Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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Hand limit

It seems silly to praise something as mundane as a hand limit, but in this case, it's crucial to making the game work. It's essential to exchange cards with other players, and the movement system of the game makes this challenging enough, but if there were no hand limit, the movement would impose the only obstacle and the game would be relatively easy. The hand limit forces you to coordinate the order in which you'll do things, to identify which player will hoard which cards, and sometimes, to dump cards you don't want to dump, throwing them back into the draw pile where they might come out early or they might come out after "waters rise" card(s) mess up your careful plans.
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