Board Game Mechanics for Music

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Useful pages about game mechanics on Wikipedia and at Board Game Geek show chosen solutions for board game rules. Only a few of them involve sound, but they may serve many different functions in music games, so here are a few examples, judged.

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Most important reason why music games cannot benefit from every development of board game design is scale. Comparing to regular board games, music games have a different spatial organization and they usually have to consider the presence sound equipment of different sizes. This will be our main criterion of usefulness in this article, but as designers, we'll have to consider all practicalities.

You can work the size problem around with having some players serve a Constructor role — they may play a regular-sized board game, while musicians interpret the board situation from distance. Another way of not troubling musicians with manipulating the small pieces is enlarging any component (and maybe let participants themselves serve the function of game tokens). Both these ways might let you end up with great music games, nevertheless below we will consider possible mechanics that allow for direct, peer interactions between all participants and operate in medium scale (which also makes them not too demanding for domestic production).

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Mechanics overview

On the aforementioned lists of game mechanics. Notice first that very popular modern mechanics of tile-laying, worker placement and resource management are usually implemented with small pieces. Generally, it's not a problem with obtaining these components. Some of them (especially tiles) are made for specific game title, but e.g. cubes are stock game pieces relatively easily available for purchase. But it's often that the amount of this type of components is more of a problem, and precision with pile sorting will be difficult while playing an instrument.

You might pay more attention to other classics like capturing or action points which most often need less tokens and might even be followed in memory. Notice that typically "spatial" mechanics of capturing and movement might not require physical space but may be easily projected to tones or even rhythmic patterns (such an abstract space may also mediate for fighting situations). Mechanics on Wikipedia and BGG lists that are based on traditional components include: rule cards, dice or time-tracking devices - you can get or make these in different sizes for musicians' convenience.

Some standard mechanics on lists are very general, but with that, these might be useful for inspiration. The most popular are: game modes (perfect for adjusting difficulty), rock-paper-scissors (in a general meaning of three-side strength balance), risk-reward (viewed by Jesse Shell in Art of Game Design as the sole universal all-games mechanic). If you use explicit victory conditions of any kind (to be considered in competitive games) you can always use a catch-up (possible to realize in one of many different ways).

Scale-independent mechanics like voting or bidding cause musical downtime so they tend to be useful for composition games category rather that improvisation games, although you might make it work in both. Interestingly at BGG there is also singing mechanics, unfortunately right now this category rarely covers games that let you create music. Rather, games with that mechanic reward you for suggestive humming of some hit song, assumed to be well known by all players.

Arguably greatest potential lies in turns mechanic, as it is seemingly already present in so much music (that is not supposed to be inspired by games). Best example here would probably be (regular) jazz music where musicians "take turns" for soloing and trading.

In our library

Check out Sound Collage Game Board for a take on turn-based game where board serves as a partiture.

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