At this blog I'm going to describe those few games that stand out in my mind as being the great advances in game mechanics.
The first great advance in game mechanics would have to be first edition Dungeons & Dragons, since it was the first role-playing game. Although I don't care for the game mechanics now, at the time it was pretty amazing, and it created the rules basis for later games to improve upon. I had a lot of fun playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, though I stopped playing as newer and better games came out, and D&D stayed the same.
The other games on this list are games that I remain impressed with to this day. I'm pretty picky when it comes to game mechanics, and for the great majority of games I think of them having basically weak or mediocre game mechanics, with certain interesting exceptions of rules that I find noteworthy. The following are the games that I think of as having basically great game mechanics, and it is the rules I don't like that stand out in my mind as the exceptions.
The first is Champions, the superhero role-playing game. Perhaps the greatest feature of Champions is that it is the epitome of the flexible, point-based character generation system. Champions attempts to let you create any character you can envision. No classes, no lists of interesting but highly specific powers - you just think of the character you want, then figure out how the character can be realized within the game system. Of course it isn't perfect (what is?), but it is by far the best game at doing this sort of thing.
Champions also introduced a strong combat system with enough interesting powers to make combats intrinsically exciting. In most role-playing games, combats are primarily interesting to the extent that you are invested in the characters and the storytelling. Taken out of context, the gameplay is pretty weak compared to playing a modern board game or war game. 1st edition D&D was mostly just rolling dice and picking spells. In Champions, however, combat is a big event, and each combat feels like a board game session all by itself, something that can be really interesting even without the role-playing aspects.
The next great game in my mind is Torg. The first impressive feature of Torg is its emphasis on cinematic role-playing. Champions wasn’t too bad in this area, in that it tried hard to suggest that the game follow the world of comic books rather than trying to be pseudo-realistic. But Torg (actually West End Games in general) really focused on great suggestions towards playing your game like a movie, dividing it into acts and scenes and pacing it like a dramatic adventure.
Torg was also great in progressing to the next level in terms of intrinsically interesting gameplay. Champions has a fun combat system, but it plays things as a straight simulation. Torg added "gaminess” to the combat system, adding gameplay elements that were just fun to do even when they had no literal direct parallel to what was really happening “on the screen”. Playing around with cards, and in particular being able to taunt and intimidate opponents as an actual part of the game system, is really cool. Not that this style of combat doesn't have disadvantages as well as advantages, but as a new and exciting alternative, it was a great development.
Torg was certainly not the first game to use the "hero point" concept, but in my mind it was the first game with generally great game mechanics to use that concept, and it really went with it wholeheartedly. With cards and possibilities, you really have a lot of control over what happens to your character in the adventure, and you can shine when you really need to.
To me, though, the biggest innovation of Torg was the dramatic skill resolution system. Traditionally combat is a big and exciting part of a role-playing game, but the use of skills is just talking and a few dice rolls. Trying to make skill checks integrated into the system as a fun and exciting part of gameplay, so that trying to disarm a bomb or infiltrate a villain’s hideout can be just as dramatic and exciting in the game as it is in the source material, was a fantastic concept.
The final game on my list is fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons. First of all, I'm just impressed they had the guts to take the oldest and most well-known game system, and changing it into something new and exciting that incorporates some of the sophistication of Champions and Torg, while pushing forward the boundaries of game mechanics even further.
The aspect that impresses me the most is the improvements in the way that powers work. I love the way that there are many different and interesting powers, and that even mundane fighting characters are given powers that are just as interesting as the more exotic magical characters. Having powers which can only be used once per encounter or per day makes for much more variety in the use of powers. And the attention to detail in the combat system and its interactions with the powers - for instance, the ability to have powers put foes under conditions which are tactically interesting rather than ineffective or frustrating - is really exceptional.
The other aspect I really like is the attempt to make Dungeons & Dragons a system which is fundamentally game balanced. Torg and Champions aren't even remotely balanced games, and fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons is just awesome in that it not only supports a fundamental game balance, but has tremendous flexibility and versatility at the same time.