How Games Acquire Mana

Like many people, I have a long commute. The university where I teach is located almost an hour’s drive west from the city in which I live. Since I got into boardgaming, I have filled this temporal void by listening to podcasts. One of the most popular podcasts in the boardgaming hobby is The Dice Tower, hosted by boardgame reviewer Tom Vasel and voice actor Eric Summerer. It consists mainly of boardgame reviews, along with the ever-popular “Top 10” countdowns and occasional interviews. A recurring feature are the “GameTek” segments hosted by game designer and author Geoff Engelstein, which analyze different aspects of game design and gameplay from a theoretical perspective, incorporating insights from psychology, economics and statistics as well as computing and artifical intelligence.

On my drive home from work last Thursday I was listening to Dice Tower episode #574, Top 10 Relaxing Games, which featured a GameTek segment on the use of specialized terminology in games. The segment began with a discussion of a common quandary of game design: in selecting names for in-game resources (such as money, commodities, or points scored at the end of the game), designers are often tempted to choose a name that evokes the game’s theme, even when the resource in question is not unique to the game’s thematic setting. [As an example, there are hundreds if not thousands of games that players win by accumulating the most “Victory Points” (VPs), but the designer of a game set in feudal Japan could decide to call these “Honor Points,” while a game centered on diplomatic negotiations might refer to them as “Influence.”] Engelstein argued that such efforts are frequently wasted, because gamers who are habituated to using the established terms for these resources will continue to rely on them as a convenient shorthand. Worse still, introducing thematic names for common gameplay elements like VPs, workers, and actions may actively confuse gamers who are already accustomed to calling them by their conventional names, increasing the amount of information they need to master the rules.

As I listened to the segment, I found myself nodding my head in agreement. In working on the design of a game about artistic rivalries in Renaissance Italy, I recently had to decide whether to use the term “workers” to quantify the number of actions a player could take during one turn, or substitute something more thematic, like “apprentices.” In the end, I stuck with workers, partly for reasons of historical accuracy (in this time period, artists often hired full-fledged masters to assist them with large commissions, rather than depending entirely on apprentices), but also for the reasons enumerated by Engelstein.

Swept along by the logic of his argument, I was just beginning to wonder about its long-term implications for boardgame design, when suddenly the segment shifted gears. Thinking about game terminology, Engelstein went on, had led him to wonder how familiar gaming terms get established in the first place, which in turn inspired him to research the origins of one concept in particular: mana. Mana designates the magical energy which is used to power spells in many popular fantasy-themed games. The word originates in the Austronesian languages of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, where it is used to refer to a kind of personal power or authority whose source is considered to be supernatural or spiritual, rooted in the land and in the forces of nature. In the early 20th century, Western anthropologists seized on the concept as the basis for their theories of a universal history of religion, inaugurating a debate which attracted contributions by some of the leading intellectuals of the day, like the comparative scholar of religion Mircea Eliade.

Engelstein's passing reference to Western academic appropriations of the concept of mana caused my ordinarily sluggish professorial pulse to quicken. I waited with baited breath for him to discuss the controversy surrounding Marcel Mauss’s 1902 essay Esquisse d'une théorie générale de la magie (“Outline of a General Theory of Magic”). Perhaps he would even discuss the insights of the structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who as every undergraduate semiotics major knows, famously designated mana a “floating signifier,” a term of “indeterminate value of signification, in itself devoid of meaning and thus susceptible of receiving any meaning at all,” like the American slang word oomph or the French truc, which can mean “thing,” “stuff,” “trick,” or “knack,” depending on the context.¹ My two great obsessions - French structuralism and boardgames - were about to be brought together at last!

Alas, I had momentarily forgotten that a six-minute podcast segment allows little time for discussion of the highways and byways of intellectual history, especially those that have no obvious relevance to the topic at hand. From mana’s recuperation by Western anthropologists, the segment quickly skipped ahead to its percolation through the 1970s counterculture and subsequent incorporation in fantasy gaming and science fiction. The process began (according to Engelstein) with Larry Niven’s 1976 short story “The Magic Goes Away,” and continued with the video games Dungeon Master (1987) and Warcraft II (1995), in which mana replaced the “Magic Points” or “MPs” used in earlier games like Ultima III (1983). Making its debut in 1993, the collectible card game Magic: the Gathering was one of the first “analog” games to make use of the word to refer to magical energies; in following years, the term was taken up by a number of other popular and influential boardgames.² [Examples would include Mage Knight (2011) and Mystic Vale (2016)].

Listening to this GameTek segment triggered nostalgic memories of my own introduction to mana in the pages of Niven’s The Magic May Return (a sequel to his novelization of “The Magic Goes Away”), at around eleven or twelve years of age. Not long afterwards, I started investing heavily in official and unofficial supplements to the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, including the fourth volume of David A. Hargrave’s Arduin Grimoire series, in which mana takes the place of magic. These prismatic reflections of my own gaming history in Engelstein's account of mana’s “game-ification” surprised and delighted me. At the time of my first discovery of the concept, mana seemed like secret knowledge, something shared only with other initiates into science fiction and role-playing games.

At the same time, the podcaster's seemingly arbitrary selection of mana as object lesson left me puzzled. Given its esoteric nature and exotic origins, mana struck me as a singularly ill-chosen example to illustrate the genesis of “generic” game terminology. On the contrary, mana seemed to exemplify the efficacy of highly thematic game terms that prioritize imaginary world-building over simplicity of concept. Of course, it is clear that Engelstein’s interest in the word stems from its paradoxical ubiquity: how does a loan-word originally imported from Melanesia become an established game concept, intelligible to a large subset of gamers who have no familiarity with Austronesian cultures or languages? And yet the story of mana’s incorporation into boardgaming’s geek culture led me to a conclusion the opposite of Engelstein’s. As far as I could see, the adoption of an unusual and highly specialized term to designate a familiar fantasy trope did not handicap the reception of Niven’s “The Magic Goes Away,” Warcraft, and MtG: in fact, it seems to have been part and parcel of what made each of them a success.

These reflections led me to formulate the following three objections to his argument against “thematic” game terminology:

  1. Words are inseparable from concepts. If a game’s theme is properly wedded to its mechanics, changing the name of a game element to make it more thematic presupposes some alteration in the corresponding mechanic, however subtle. For example, mana in MtG does not represent a static capacity for magic use, but is linked to the playing of cards representing different “lands,” a feature which echoes (intentionally or not) the original usage of the word mana to refer to power derived from specific places or sacred locations. Mechanically, this feature is represented by the different colors of mana associated with the different land cards, which condition the types of spells players can cast. Meanwhile, although the word mana never makes an appearance in the classic boardgame Magic Realm (1979), a thematically similar mechanic is employed in that game, where magic-wielding characters can enchant land tiles in order to power their spells. Moreover, Magic Realm also categorizes types of “schools” of magic by color. These similarities suggest that the genealogy of mana as game concept cannot be reduced to a history of the uses of the word. The lack of reference to mana in the Magic Realm rulebook does not exclude the possibility that its treatment of magic influenced the conception of mana in MtG. For that matter, it is equally possible that the rules for spell-casting in Magic Realm were influenced by the anthropological and counter-cultural popularization of mana
  2. The ideal audience for a highly immersive, theme-centered game may be far more open to new game terminology than the average board-game reviewer or designer. This is especially the case if the “new” terminology draws upon a stock of cultural references with which this audience is already familiar (such as comic book characters, or the science fiction of H. P. Lovecraft). By contrast, professional reviewers and game designers are often required to master innumerable rule-sets in a relatively short span of time. Having to learn a new name for a familiar mechanic requires extra (and from their point of view, unwelcome) effort, like trying to match the printed words red blue and green to the appropriately colored shapes                 . When reviewing or playtesting games, they tend to assimilate unfamiliar game concepts to their mental storehouse of established game terms and tropes. In the process, subtle mechanical differences that may have a significant impact on strategy or style of gameplay (see point #1, above) can go unrecognized and unremarked.
  3. With the professionalization of the industry, the success of any new title becomes increasingly dependent on the judgements of reviewers. I cannot help but wonder if this has led to an avoidance or de-emphasis of thematic elements in game design, as consumers, following the lead of game reviewers, demand increasingly streamlined gameplay and easily mastered rule-sets, even at the expense of theme. This trend is exacerbated by the professionalization of the boardgaming hobby. The cult of the new (aka the “new hotness”) in modern boardgaming, along with the perception that game design is constantly improving, fosters the expectation that “serious” gamers will continually keep up with new game releases. For such gamers, the ever-increasing proliferation of new games leaves less and less time available for full immersion in a fictional game world. Meanwhile, more and more gamers aspire to become designers or reviewers themselves, and come to internalize the values and imperatives associated with those professions. Here I am speaking of myself as much as anyone. When Engelstein warned prospective game designers against the introduction of new and unfamiliar terms for established game mechanics, my agreement was unthinking and automatic. Only later did the thought occur to me that it would be a sad, gray world in which all game pieces are called Workers, all game actions consist of Building, Producing, Exploring, or Attacking, and all resources are replaced by Victory Points. 
What does all of this have to do with mana? I think that the boardgaming hobby has arrived at a crossroads. Reviewers and game designers have acquired a kind of mana, a quasi-mystical authority that inspires identification and emulation among their fans. On social media and sites like, critical dialogue and creative exchange can sometimes fall victim to an echo chamber effect. If boardgames are to continue to provide a resource and a platform for the creation of “strange worlds,” as Runequest designer Steve Perrin describes his early professional ambitions, they need to remain open to the destabilizing effects of contact with unfamiliar languages and concepts.³  In my opinion, this is as true of historically-themed boardgames as it is of fantasy and science-fiction gaming. My goal in designing a game set in the artists’ studios of Renaissance Italy is to bring to life some of the strangeness of that world, with all its instability and upheaval.

So much for what game designers can learn from the history of mana’s reception in the West. How about what anthropologists and semioticians can learn from boardgames? Check back next week for my next entry in this series, in which I explore the metaphorics of gaming in the writings of Marcel Mauss, Cl
aude Levi-Strauss, and that bad boy of deconstructionist thought, Jacques Derrida.


1. Claude Levi-Strauss, “Introduction to the work of Marcel Mauss,” reprinted in Alan D. Schrift, ed., The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 59.
2. The history summarized in Engelstein’s GameTek segment is presented in greater depth in “The History of Mana: How an Austronesian Concept Became a Video Game Mechanic,” a June 17, 2014 blogpost by Alex Golub, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (accessed 10/21/2018 at, and in Alex Golub and Jon Peterson, “How Mana Left the Pacific and Became a Video Game Mechanic,” in Matt Tomlinson, Ty P. Kāwika Tengan, eds., New Mana: Transformations of a Classic Concept in Pacific Languages and Cultures (Acton: Australian National University Press, 2016).
3. Steve Perrin in a Skype interview with Alex Golub between Hawai’i and California, 6 June 2013. Cited in New Mana: Transformations of a Classic Concept in Pacific Languages and Cultures, p. 319.


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