The spatial reasoning mechanic

May 26, 2015

trajanmancala A while back I decided to stop doing board game reviews for various reasons, but I also wanted to still talk about board games that did cool things. In a non-review-type setting, of course. Mostly I just end up talking about my own games, because that's what my brain focuses on all the time, but today I am here to talk about cool things in other games (mostly). And those cool things are spatial reasoning mechanics. Now, on their own, spatial reasoning mechanics are widely regarded as abstract games. Without economic engines to build or dice to roll, most abstract games rely on spatial reasoning of one sort or another to provide challenge and strategy for the players. "Spatial reasoning" or "spatial ability" is defined as the capacity to understand the spatial relations among objects. If your placing tiles or moving objects along a grid governed by a set of rules, then you're employing spatial reasoning in some form or another. Spatial reasoning is by no means new to the economic or Euro game. In fact, some of the oldest classics like Carcassonne, Tigris & Euphrates and Acquire all use tile-laying as a means for players to employ their strategies. Even games like Settlers of Catan and Terra Mystica involve creating networks of objects on a hex grid, but the spatial aspect of these games is not really all that challenging. It is usually pretty clear what the best space to expand into is, both from the perspective of enhancing your own engine and limiting your opponents - it's just a matter of whether you can gather your resources and claim the space before your opponent does. No, I think spatial reasoning really shines as a mechanic when it comes to the forefront of the design. It makes me all giddy. This is weird, though, because, like I said before, spatial reasoning is absolutely the forefront of a whole lot of abstract games, but I can't say I really appreciate a lot of abstract games. I think part of the problem is that hardly anybody appreciates abstract games. It is a much-maligned genre. What really gets me interested, though, is not just spatial reasoning at the forefront, but when it is combined with other Euro, economic mechanics to form some larger complex system. I don't know. I guess my brain enjoys thinking on multiple levels at the same time. I'm sure there are many examples of this, but the first game I encountered that fully fit this bill was Trajan. Ultimately the whole spatial Mancala aspect of the game was a solitary exercise for players, but it blew my mind none-the-less, and it inspired the inclusion of the mining elements in Forge War. sml But I've recently been playing another game that really does the spatial reasoning mechanic well: Super Motherload. If I were to describe Super Motherload as a deck-building game with a spatial component, your mind might first go to Trains. Trains is a fine game and was certainly successful in adding a spatial component to a deck-builder, in perhaps the most blunt and obvious way possible, but it has a spatial component largely the same way Catan does - the choices are fairly obvious and it's more a matter of coming up with the resources to get there. On the other hand, what Super Motherload does is wholly innovative. You play cards from your hand to dig up squares of earth on a grid covered with money (in the form of minerals) and other resources. Uncovering these resources claims them for the player, who then turns around and uses them to purchase more cards for their deck. The decisions on how to play those cards and what to dig up, however, is often not obvious. Not only do you have to think about how to collect the most money to buy more cards with, but you've also got to think about a random array of achievements that you can acquire by playing in non-optimal ways. The decisions on where to go is integral to the system of the game, but it's also not the only mechanic. Once you've found a way to get a big cash payout, you've got to figure out how to spend it, and often times doing that feeds back into the spatial aspect through various bonuses you get for buying cards. It's a constant back-and-forth between an economic engine and spatial reasoning where both aspects are feeding off each other, and it is just a really satisfying experience having your brain operate continuously on both levels simultaneously. Talking about Super Motherload like that, I almost feel like I'm talking about Forge War, with the mining mechanic feeding into the economy of quests and then having quest rewards and market cards feed back into the mine. I made Forge War because I loved that dynamic, so I guess it's no wonder that I love Super Motherload for the same reason. I'd recommend checking it out.

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