A story theme I enjoy in science fiction is when a supreme species gives a lesser species a technology to wield. The lesser species doesn't understand the technology. They can't recreate it or repair it. They just know how to use it and often, with disastrous consequences.
Game designers are often the lesser species. We imitate without understanding.
A great deal of game design is derivative. It just is, and that's fine. The key is to add a twist, craft a unique whole, or abstract things differently. For example, I saw a opportunity to create a shorter, multiplayer war-game and York, a game with many unique elements, emerged. Will it win an innovation award? No. Well, it might, but I would cock an eyebrow at the nomination.
As we design and create new experiences based on or inspired by existing mechanics, it is essential that we fully understand the source material. To reverse engineer something, you must fundamentally understand the original. You cannot be the foolish lesser species.
This requires patience, study, and thoughtful examination. You can essentially tuck it in with so many other design lessons that are learned through experience, failure, and trying again.
Far too often, especially with the recent explosion in our design community, I play far too many games that just seem to miss the point. I'm guilty of it myself! My first design was a horrid conglomeration of Risk, Monopoly, and Catan, but it didn't pay proper homage to any of them. It was a shallow farce. Blockade used a ridiculous dice mechanic that has nothing to do with space combat and it was so confusing for players. Eventually, I had to recognize what it was, what it wasn't, and evolve accordingly.
Likewise, in the wake of Dominion came an avalanche of shallow, derivative games that didn't understand why Dominion is great. Same with the post-Magic CCGs. You can find this in worker placement, set collection, you name it.
Therefore, how do we reverse engineer properly? How do we gain an understanding of our inspirations?
Firstly, you must play games in that genre to a great extent. Play many of them. Play them repeatedly. You will begin to see a common thread that links the good ones. You'll also begin to understand the extremes of the mechanic. War games, for example, range from weekend-long, rigorous simulations of a real life battle. They can also focus on a few fictional space fighter craft duking it out during a half hour. Both of these experiences are derived from the same point and it's important to understand both, at least somewhat, before you can jump in the middle with your own creation.
Secondly, look to the point of decision in these games. Look at where a player is making a choice and what their choice entails. Let's look at some examples. Note that I'm making some quick, succinct generalizations for the sake of brevity.
- In a push-your-luck dice game, (Zombie Dice, King of Tokyo), a player is choosing what dice to keep and whether to roll for something risky. They are managing chaos. The joy from these games comes from the adrenaline of "oh my god I rolled that!" and "Should I try to roll for that?"
- In a worker placement game (Caylus, Lords of Waterdeep), a player is choosing what they want most versus what their opponent needs most. The tension that emerges from potentially losing the spot you desire and the joy of accomplishing a series of unlikely placements is important to preserve.
- In a CCG (Netrunner, Magic: The Gathering), players experience joy from crafting a deck that matches their style or personality. Players love "breaking" the game and finding exploits. A good CCG should cause someone to shout "I can't believe this combo exists!"
- In a tactics game (Memoir '44, Summoner Wars, Krosmaster: Arena), players enjoy directing a limited number of units to outmaneuver and outwit an enemy. Choices focus on who to move, when, who to target, and in many games, what special (and limited) resources to spend. If you have one devastating artillery barrage, when is the right time to use it?
That is an entirely incomplete listing of game types and it surely isn't the final word on those game types. But hopefully, I've begun to make my point?
Thirdly, you need to examine how your hook or unique twist leverages, strengthens, and preserves the core elements that makes the experience delightful. Your improvements won't be, ideally, cheap layers, complexity, and fluff.
If your mouse trap still just captures a mouse, but now requires a buffet of 6 different cheeses, a wine pairing, and a velvet coated trap, you haven't made a better mouse trap. You've just added window dressing and complexity. As you reverse engineer, never forget the original intent of the device. Be sure that your new and improved widget accomplishes the same thing but newly so. New doesn't mean more. New doesn't mean added complexity.
Fourthly, after your game is relatively settled with core mechanics and a decent tuning pass, sit down and play it side-by-side to your favorite similar game. Discuss with your testers whether you hit the right notes and drive the right emotions.
This is a difficult topic to convey, and frankly I'm not convinced I've conveyed it. Perhaps a summary statement will cap this properly?
Seek to understand your inspirations fully. Do not mimic cheaply or thoughtlessly, but embrace that which makes them special and enhance in a meaningful way.