Designer / Developer: Games With Gimmicks

One great issue that you may face when making a game is trying to come up with some really unique game element that will end up defining your game: a gimmick.  It is very satisfying knowing that your game will be easily be recognized with a description of the gimmick, but the main hazard of gimmicks is that a bad gimmick can be disastrous, completely ruining the game in one way or another.

Clear Cards: Dragonball GT Card Game Vs. Gloom

Both the Dragonball GT card game (by Score Entertainment) and the game Gloom used cards of clear plastic that can be put over other cards to change the values of those cards.  For Gloom, you try to make the members of your family miserable and then killing them off to score points (the most tragic family wins), in which you play clear-plastic cards with new descriptors and new point values over the normal family member card; this gimmick works because cards can replace one, two, or three stats and the overlay of the card makes it easy to see what the current value is.  What DBGT did was make some of their character cards (the “High Tech” HT cards) have blank values for the highest power levels, the ability, and the power-up value; you got to choose an attack to put under your character and have constant access to the attack and the power levels, etc. of that card (they attack would not be discarded when used like attacks from your hand).  Unfortunately, this caused a lot of weird situations and wasted space on attack cards: you could have a weak character (ex. Pan) suddenly jump up a few million power when they reach their blank levels since there was little restriction on whose attack you could put under the card (ex. put a Goku attack under them).  Also, every attack card with these bonus values has a lot of their card taken up by values that have no effect on the game unless you use it for this specific purpose.

Score Entertainment was fairly bad with their HT card gimmicks: they began by being thick foil cards (there were rules against putting HT cards into your deck – they can only be your base character that begins in play – so the thickness and other gimmicks wouldn’t affect shuffling the deck), then the foil gained a texture, and they eventually made a card that counted as 3 cards by having it fold out.  These gimmicks were very distracting, but didn’t hurt the game too much since you didn’t have to use them.

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Dread

I have discussed horror games before, and the difficulty in making them scary.  The game Dread uses a gimmick to build tension: to see whether you are successful, you have to play Jenga – making a pull for each action.  Eventually, the tower will become unstable and when it falls, something terrible happens; the tension builds as the tower weakens.  This kind of gimmick works well because it ties itself into the game well – linking the fear in the story to the fear of the tower falling.

Limited Run

The gimmick that you do not want to include is one that is one time only.  I have seen this for a variety of games:

  • A few video games have offered a $1,000,000 prize to the first player that does something (like pitching a perfect game) in the hopes that people will buy the game in an attempt to win the prize.
  • There is a very old card game (I forget the name) that had hidden values on the cards hidden by the same stuff on scratch tickets: as you play, you scratch to reveal the values for that game.  This creates some interesting replay opportunities until the card’s values are completely revealed, thus making the card unplayable.

Good Gimmicks

Here are some tips for coming up with good gimmicks:

  • Make the gimmick tie in with the game.  Does the gimmick make sense in the context of the game’s story, them etc. or does it act as a distraction.
  • Make the gimmick a lasting gimmick.  If the gimmick eventually runs out (either as a contest or as a limited resource), then what reason do the players have to continue playing it?
  • Make the gimmick unobtrusive.  If the gimmick makes the game too complicated, too slow, then it might be better to use a more common game mechanic.
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