Wednesday, November 30

Which Came First? The Mechanics or the Theme?

With my earlier games: Border Reivers and Carpe Astra the mechanics definitely came first, and the same is true of It's Alive! one of the games I published on behalf of someone else. With Border Reivers I started trying to make a game like Mighty Empires that played faster and less randomly; I really liked the networking mechanic in the submission by Ted Cheatham that became Carpe Astra, though the theme changed quite dramatically. It's Alive! had been through several themes before I changed it to building Frankenstein's monster. So in my experience, mechanics first seems to work ok.

To further reinforce this, most of the many games I've started designing but failed to finish/lost interest in/couldn't get working started out with a theme first, which I tried to find mechanics that fit after the initial idea.

The theme acts as a hook for the game to interest people, hopefully enough that they want to play or buy the game. It's often possible to re-theme a game by picking something that roughly fits the mechanics and then tweaking the mechanics, action names or card wording to get the game to make sense with the new theme. In my experience it's often possible with very few changes to the game.

As I mentioned earlier this week after a conversation with The Wife a new game idea sprang into my mind almost fully formed. Theme and mechanics combined. Since then I've tweaked the theme slightly to distance it from a couple of similar new games (which I've added to my Christmas list so I can play them and ensure my game develops differently) and the mechanics have begun the long road of changes that will hopefully lead to a great game.

For me personally, I think the mechanics-first approach is the way to go. What are your experiences? Are you a theme-first or mechanics-first designer? How will my new game idea develop: theme and mechanics in lock-step, or will the theme change as time goes on? Stay tuned to find out!

14 comments:

Eric Sexton said...

I briefly touched on this same topic in my blog last month. I am almost exclusively a Theme Designer. Every once in a while I will come up with a mechanic first, but in almost all instances I have struggled to figure out what to do with it once I have an interesting mechanic.

That being said, I am still a novice when it comes to board game design and still haven't finished a single project. I have about 8 games in various stages of development.

I find that games that have their foundation based solely on mechanics tend to feel a bit generic. They could be about almost anything, just switch the art and story setting around and it's an all new game. I feel like a lot of Euro games can be this way. They are always mechanically sound, but are inherently uninteresting past the initial exploration of the mechanics.

I wish I had a stronger math background to make my mechanics better. But I feel (and this is just my opinion) that games that have a theme interwoven with mechanics make for a more compelling game.

Or, maybe I just feel this way because I am not a mechanical designer. =)

Josh Salske said...

What's your blog Eric? I just started my own, so I'm always on the look out for more blogs to read!

I personally find mechanic first easier, with a rough idea or a theme in mind (eg space exploration). That way the design of the mechanic influences the theme but the theme still has an impact, if that makes sense.

Eric Sexton said...

I hope Jack doesn't mind me giving that info on his blog. My blog is: http://warprime.blogspot.com/

I started it to document my design process and as a way to try to stay focused. I am very easily distracted by the ideas that pop into my head, so I am off to a new idea before the current one has even got a chance to get started.

The great thing about having a hyperactive creative mind is that I am never short of ideas. The down side is that I am frequently derailed by wanting to explore a new idea. Also, I don't have enough time in my lifetime to realize even a tenth of them.

Jack said...

Hiya Eric & Josh,

Eric, I can see you're point about mechanics-first leading to Euro-style pasted on themes, but I tend to think mechanics-first with a rough theme in mind like Josh said, then let the two grow together. On the occasions where I significantly change the theme later it's often a chunk of work to choose a theme that fits, or tweak the mechanics or the game until they mesh together.


And as you mentioning your blog Eric, no problem at all - I'm adding it to my blog roll any second!

Cheers,

Jack

Josh Salske said...

Thanks for posting your blog, Im looking forward forward to reading it :)

I was wondering jack, do you have a specific method of choosing what to post about on your blog? Maybe you could write about it lol!

Jack said...

Hiya Josh,

You're welcome! As for what I choose to blog about, no real method, whatever I've been thinking about over the last few days usual comes out here!

Cheers,

Jack

Eric Sexton said...

I do agree that a balanced approach is the best way.

When I say theme, I am almost always talking about something fairly broad. Space Exploration, Dungeon Building, Grave Diggers, etc. But as I work on the idea I start integrating the world/story into the game. Its almost always impossible to change the theme once I am done.

My current project is based on something that existed a long time ago (a old computer game called Taipan). While it would not be overly difficult to change the world setting, the theme of "Merchant Trading" is so interwoven with the game, it would be impossible to change at this point.

For Example: Right now the game is early 1800's ship captains trading goods in the Far East. I am thinking about changing the game to be set in more of a Steam Punk kind of world setting, but it will still be the same basic game with some changes to the names of things in the game and back story.

I couldn't make the players Sky Captains since that would change a lot of the traditional water based ship type mechanics. In that example, flying would allow players to move place on the map that would brake some of the balance of where cities are positioned.

Ok, I feel like I am rambling.

Jack said...

Hiya Eric,

When I say mechanics first, I have a rough idea of a theme in mind, though that theme can be tweaked (e.g. from fantasy to historical) as things go on. Those games where I've thought of the theme first I've come up with a very specific theme (e.g. kids collecting flotsam on a beach as the tide comes in/goes out) and then tried to make a game around that. Those haven't worked out so well for me.

Cheers,

Jack

Eric Sexton said...

Well, maybe we are talking about the same thing just from two different perspectives. I will try to think about it and be more aware of the more subtle details when I start to scribble down my next idea.

I might re-post this discussion on my blog and elaborate some more there.

Jack said...

Hiya Eric,

Yes, it's definitely a sliding scale from start with a completely abstract game and then theme it at the end, to start with a very focussed theme and try to create a game for it. I think we might both be somewhere near the middle!

Cheers,

Jack

Dave said...

I personally have to start with a mechanic or it goes nowhere. I might have some idea I want it to be about Monkey racing or something, but until I have an actual mechanism I can play with, I essentially have nothing.

Once I have a mechanic (or two, or three) that I can mess with / try out, I try to get a rough theme going as soon as possible. That way I can let the theme inform some of the mechanical decisions. But if I let the theme drive things too much, often the game itself isn't very interesting. Thematic, yes, but flat. So it takes a bit of back and forth.

If you're interested, you can check out my blog, playing and designing board games.

Jack said...

Hiya Dave,

It sounds like your method is very similar to mine, mechanics first, let the broader theme steer and inform rather than drive.

Cheers,

Jack.

P.S. Adding your blog to my roll...

Mal said...

That flotsam theme sounds MINT! Totally original. (To my limited knowledge, at least.) How come you never mentioned it before?

Jack said...

Hiya Mal,

I'm also unaware of a game with the same theme. I think I've mentioned it in the past (probably using a codename to avoid giving too much away), but I could never get it to a workable stage.

Cheers,

Jack