Hang around rpg Internet fishing holes for even a short time and you will inevitably hear character generation or trading rules in Traveller described as a “mini-game”. Like most jargon, few rarely bother to spell out what the term means.
My own less-than-educated guess takes the term as shorthand for a chart-heavy rules subsystem with just enough self-contained detail that it plays almost like a game inside a game. If I am not talking out of my rear area (always a distinct possibility), that kind of rpg component is a rare beast.
It wasn't always that way, first generation rpgs, successors to the marvelous chart-obsessed solo-wargaming traditions of the 60s and 70s, were heavy with them. Indeed some of the earliest like En Garde (1975) and its Dark Ages cousin Heroes (1979) were veritably collections of linked mini-games. Players of En Garde could roll their characters through most of their lives--joining a gentleman's club, visiting bawdyhouses, wooing lovers, duelling, etc--as 17th-Century French courtiers without ever feeling the hand of a GM.
I can understand why our games evolved away from them, having whole areas areas of play dominated by a series of charts doesn't scream buckets of fun to many people. But like other pieces that feel out of favor, I can't help but wonder (again) if the stick got bent too far (again).
Done well mini-games have the potential to expand rather than restrict the arena of play. They create the possibility of an “offstage” for a campaign, an area that a player can explore a campaign world outside the micro-focus that the gaming table typically delivers on.
Think of it this way, its a rare campaign where the GM fills up a session acting out 20-30 years of a characters life, an entire military campaign, or an off-season when the characters lounged around town. But you did this very thing each time you rolled up a Traveller character or pushed a pike “off-stage” in Empire of the Petal Throne with Mark Pettigrew's magnificent mini-game simulating the Tsolyani art of war.
Midkemia's Cities supplement (later ported whole cloth into Runequest) devoted almost 30 pages to a “Catch-up” mini-game—a series of imaginative (and dare I say fun) tables for players whose characters lag behind others in the campaign time frame (presumably a much bigger dilemma back in the day when our campaigns were big, sprawling, and messy affairs). A random roll here could make mean a player had to roll on a sub-chart for NPCs that they have offended, a roll there could bankrupt you and send you to debtors' prison as you waited for your comrades to return from the dungeon .
While some see “roll-playing” I see something brimming with hooks for the devious-minded GM. That little affair that forced you to muster out of the Imperial Navy; the bastard love-child you sired on the carousing table; the battlefield promotion you received last year in the Desert of Sighs: all those little rolls off-stage become grist for the play on-stage. They add on, expand the edges.
I am, of course, as Jim the Wampus likes to annoy me by pointing out, leading up to something. Tomorrow I will be picking the mini-game thread back up again and looking at some ways Adventures on Tekumel, an exemplary series of solo gamebooks from the early 1990s, created an alternative to info-dump setting exposition—and ways we can riff on experimental mini-games of our own.