Awhile back I talked about the importance of Theme. In it I said I would talk about Mechanics, so here's that discussion.
If theme is what draws someone to a game, mechanics are what keeps someone coming back. Let me take a step back here and define game mechanics. Game mechanics are what makes a game work. They are the things that players do on their turn, and the things they must do in order to win. In a very simplistic take, they are the rules of the game. Some general mechanics in games are dice rolling, worker placement, set collection, auctions, trading, and resource management.
So that's what mechanics are, but I still haven't addressed why they're important. Mechanics are what make a game tick. If there isn't much there, you have Candyland, or any of the mindless dribble that fills your local box box store with the release of some big movie.
Let's look at some well known games. I'll start with Ticket to Ride. The mechanics are rather simple, either draw cards, play cards, or take more tickets. Even though they're simple, there are options. Do you use that wild card to take a route now, or do you chance it one more time? Can you afford to risk more tickets? Those choices keep the game interesting, and give it a lot of replayability. It's an excellent example of a game that doesn't have deep mechanics still using some simple concepts to be great.
Another popular game to look at is Dominion. In Dominion players create a deck of actions money and victory cards. At the end of the game, you want to have the most victory points. However, you can't accomplish this by only buying victory cards, you have to use action and money cards to build an engine that allows you to buy more expensive cards. The basics of Dominion are rather simple thought. Play cards, buy a card, discard everything, draw 5 new cards, next player goes. All the mechanics come from the cards themselves. Each action card does something different, and with close to 200 cards currently, and only 10 in each game, there is a lot of replayability.
Simple mechanics can create a great game system. They allow for the game to add complexity in different forms. Sometimes it's with modules or different expansions. Other times the depth is created by the players. Regardless of how things are accomplished, a game without good mechanics is doomed to the bargain bin and dust collection.
Great mechanics alone do not make a game, but they sure go a long way in people coming back for more. Theme is great too, but mechanics are the great necessity.