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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

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CIDIC
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what comes to you first? the unique game mechanic or the theme or context it will be used in? i've done several projects that each started from different ends of that spectrum, but i have to say the ones that started with a mechanic always turned out better.

Julius
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

I'd have to say theme usually comes first (and is most important) - and here's why:

Your game could have a very basic, bland, mechanic, but add a good theme and you are golden. Think of big selling games, like Clue or Risk. Imagine those games without theme:

Clue (lame version) - you have cards with letters, numbers, and symbols, and you have to figure out which one of each the group doesn't have.

Risk (lame version) - you place counters on a game board. You eliminate opponent's counters by rolling dice. After eliminating all the counters from one space, you move your counters into that space.

See what I've done? I've made games that won't sell, and aren't very fun to play. The theme of the game is what makes the game. Designers (like us) love unique mechanics. Players love theme.

OutsideLime
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

Julius, I'm no psychic, but I predict you're about to catch a lot of opposition on that one.

~Josh

johant
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

I cant see why Julis would catch a lot of opposition on what he is saying.
I think he is making a very good point.

As we all know everything isnt black and white personally i think that a fun game has both good mechanics and a good them.

I will show what mayfairgames have put up on there homepage regarding submissions. I do feel that what they are saying prove that Julias isn so wrong after all.......

This memo should outline the following items:
• Topic nature of the game (ie, a game about ....)
• Who is the expected market for the game (family members between ?-? or males between the ages of ?-?)
• How does your game fit into the style of games which Mayfair currently produces?
• What is the most interesting facet of the game which could be used in an interesting Marketing approach?
• Is there any similar game to your game? Which ones?
• Has the game been published before?
• What other games have you published?

We are not so interested in the game mechanic, as we are why this game will fit Mayfair's line well. Never send us a prototype unless we specifically request it. If an un-solicited prototype is received it will be immediately destroyed, for your protection and ours. We are always working on games of our own and we would like to protect your idea.

I am new to this community, i have during this winter made my first game, and i am beginning top see the end of the design and playtesting phase. I have followed the discussions here on this forum with great interest, but one thing that has struck me is the focus on mechanics and very operational issues. Dont get me wrong thats of cource important issues, but the people on the street that buys the games wont bother. I am also asking these questions but i think that its very important to look beyond these things, espacially if you want to get published.

I do love designergames like caylus, but most of the publishers dont give a damn about "the beautiful" mechanics we are inventing/using, they just want to sell the game and earn as much money as possible.

I have a company of my own and i work a lot with marketing issues, thats probably why i see things a bit differently than most of you guys here.

One thing is certain,we all share the passion of
playing and designing games and thats what really matters

//Johan

Jebbou
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

To me, seeing so many variants of risk being made demonstrate that the theme is not an important part of the design of that specific game (Same goes for monopoly). Nevertheless, I think in most cases, both the theme and the mechanics should support each other. For example, in "Clue", both the mechanics and theme contribute to provide the players a good "investigation/mystery" experience. Regardless of what comes first, both should be involved early in the development process (Unless you are working on an abstract game, obviously :) ).

seo
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

Oh, I think we all like games with both qualities: good mechanics and a good theme.

I think Johant rised a very interesting point. What we, here in the BGDF value most, might not be what publishers or laymen value most. A great game is not an absolute definition, but depends a lot on what criteria you use to define the term "great". As most people here love games and love designing games, we tend to focus on details most people would not care much.

Most times, our concern about game mechanics would help producing a better game, thus more fun for the players. But most times, people would buy the game that gets promoted better, or the game themed about the last Disney movie, etc. Many of the games discussed here would work fine in some niche markets, but probably not that well in the mainstream market, at least not just for being "good games".

Anyway, to me, at least now, it's more about creating games that I feel proud of than games that sell well. I'm not planning on making a living from my games (though I would love to), so it's more or less the same way I approach my tennis: I just try to enjoy it and play as good as I can, learning a bit every day. I'll never be a pro tennis player, so I can concentrate more on improving my technique than just on winning my games. With game design, this means focusing more on the mechanics than on the marketing.

Theme, though, is not just a marketing topic. I think it's extemely important to find game mechanics that match or at least don't go against the theme. In a game about dancing, moving your pawn through a path of footprints sounds fine, having to get balls in a basket sounds like weird. In a basketball game, though, it would be the opposite.

To answer the original question, I say I share CIDIC's experience: better chance of success when I start with a nice mechanic and then find a theme that works with it than starting with a theme and finding the right mechanics.

Seo

Zzzzz
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

Not sure what to say. I think if we abstract the discussion a little, it might help.

Lets remove the concept of a player or consumer, these our after design elements of a game. Their opinions might influence a game, but I dont think most of us consider this when we start off to design a game.

Second, lets remove the idea of already created games like monopoly or risk,etc. The original post was asking WHICH of the following *paths* do you tend to go down during your design prcoess:

A) Game Mechanic(s)
B) Theme

Personally I often come from the theme first, but I have also had some mechanics that influenced me to create a game around it, but of course right after the game mechanic thought came the process of what theme would work well with this. And the majority of the game is designed from the theme but incorporating the *new* mechanic idea.

Next I would point out that if you just look at the number of available games on the market and how many reuse existing mechanics it should be enough proof that new games with new mechanics are not as frequent as new games that retheme and repackage(reuse) *older* mechanics.

Sen
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

I think both are important in a truely immersive, captivating, and compelling game. I've never heard any normal person (I'm wholeheartedly stating that we are not normal ;)) say "Oh, I'll buy that game...that tile laying mechanic looks really ingenious!". They say "Oh, my nephew likes pirates. This has pirates!". Like most marketing, you appeal to the most direct senses and the immediately tangible.

Even my game designing partner would rather play the same game set in a Fantasy realm as opposed to outer space. He just doesn't like sci-fi. It doesn't matter if the mechanic is great - he'll balk at it first off just due to the theme.

I'd have to say:

a) Theme (including artwork, high quality components, etc.) initially sells a game.

while

b) Mechanics make people want to play that game over and over again.

I'm betting there's many a nephew with many a pirate game that goes unplayed.

I think the best games have a balance of both theme and mechanics. Take one of my game group's favourites - Titan: The Arena - as an example. Knizia's original game was, IIRC, about horse racing. When AH took it and added the fantasy setting and the powers of the creatures, they took a purely mechanical game with a theme that wouldn't sell as well in the US/Canada and redressed the mechanic with a theme that appeals to AH's target market and BAM - a good mechanic becomes a great game.

Games like Shadows over Camelot just drip with theme and guarantees a second look by many prospective buyers. Shadows also happens to have a mechanic that is as compelling to gamers as imagining themselves as Knights of the Round.

Neither, by themself is a game. But it's synergistic. When you can link two things together well, the resulting product is greater than the sum of the parts.

Like Elfenland. The game itself is good and is actually fairly complex for a beginner game, but I've taught many people who wanted to play it just because it looked fun. And then wanted to play it again because they understood more of the strategy after one play. And the girls in the group like it because Doris did such a good work with the are. Totally complementary, totally captivating.

Mechanics have to be difficult enough that you don't necessarily know everything on first play, but accessible enough to think you can master it the next time ;)

That said, some types of games (Dexterity / Abstract / Most trick taking games) don't need a theme. But even there, compelling pieces, beautiful components, etc. make many games not only a great mechanic, but a work of art.

Sometimes, in order to increase popularity, an abstract game has more theme added to it - such as in Torres. Terra Turrium, the basis of Torres, was beautiful to look at and cleaner in mechanics, but nowhere near as fun. And not as worth of a SdJ award as Torres.

Have a look at Kramer's designer's notes for more info and how he worked theme in (it's still a pretty abstract game).

http://www.thegamesjournal.com/articles/InventingTorres.shtml

stumps
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

Theme may not /seem/ important, but it's typically the first step in creating a game.

All games are themed in someway so to pull the logic of the mechanics (at least for the designers) from.

Theme may have no importance upon your game other than to suggest the reasoning behind the system.

"What about Parcheesi, or Sorry!, or Trivial Pursuit? Those style of games do not have Themes, and seem not to need them."

True, and not absolutely true at the same time.
None of those games have a Theme in the sense of:
"The context and environment in which a situation is set; the background."

Instead, they are a Theme in the sense of:
"An implicit or recurrent idea; a motif"

Parcheesi is Themed with the recurrent idea to get from Point A to Point B before anyone else, and to set your opponents back as often as you can from the same goal.

Sorry! also has this same Theme.

Trivial Pursuite has the same Theme again, but requires the answering of questions to reach the Goal.

And here's the truth of it all.
Often times, when people talk of Theme, they confuse another word to be included in the meaning of Theme.

Setting.
Setting is described as, "The context and environment in which a situation is set; the background."

While Theme is described as, "An implicit or recurrent idea; a motif"

(I know...I lied about those above. It had to be done)

Every game ever created will have a Theme, but not every game will have a Setting.

Theme is the first and most important consideration of ANY and EVERY game.
It is what tell you what the Goal is for the Players, and the basic method under which they will attempt to reach that Goal while interacting with the game and/or other players.

Setting isn't all that important for every game. Setting can be important, but it depends on the game.

----Importance of Setting for applicable game's
Above it was stated that RISK has many variants and thus Theme seem not to matter to it's purpose.

RISK's first Theme is of Conquest.

RISK never changed it's Theme, as the above posted suggests.
Every version of RISK is about Conquest in some degree and/or manner.

What DID change for RISK from Variant to Variant, was it's Setting.

I would further argue, that altering the Setting in RISK is far more important that one may believe.

RISKS Theme added to a Different Setting alter the action in the game, even if you use the same mechanics for every variant of RISK, simply because the play area (Setting) changes, the obsticles to achieve your goal are also altered.
Altering your Obsticles to achieve your Goals drastically alters the play of the game and how it will be received by the players.

This is why some players like one version of RISK over another.
They like how the Setting of one Variant of RISK alters it's RISK's Theme more than another.

Sen
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

In response to Zzzzz, that's a good point - the original question was related to original design.

I think the majority of my seeds for games come from themes. There are some that come from mechanics, but I generally have a harder time to develop from mechanic to theme as opposed to designing from theme to mechanic. I usually have a "mission statement" when I work on a game. Like "I'm trying to make a game that uses this mechanic" or "I'm trying to make a game that reflects this theme". The majority of my mission statements are more thematic than mechanical.

I think it's because many games in general tend to repackage old mechanics with new themes in new ways such that the interaction is no longer like the game the mechanics may have been borrowed from.

I do happen to think, somewhat, though, that the better games have likely come from solid core mechanics vs. coming from a great theme.

stumps
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

Sen...

again...Theme isn't a Setting.

Theme is the basic concept and recurring function that a game will have.

Even Paper, Rock, Scissors has a Theme.
What it doesn't have, is a Setting.

I agree, great games can come from games that have squat for Setting or none at all.

But it would be a large mistake, imo, to consider it possible to make a great game that is theme-less.

You simply cannot create an entire game void of a Theme.
It will not be a Game. It will be a list of rules that do not work together for any objective purpose.

Zzzzz
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

stumps wrote:
...
But it would be a large mistake, imo, to consider it possible to make a great game that is theme-less....

stumps,

Depending on how abstract your definition of theme is, I agree with you. But many consider abstract games as *theme-less*. Though I agree that we could argue (though for no reason) that even a small fraction of a theme exists in any specific abstract game. Though many would say we are generalizing a theme that is *not true* or *not good enough* to be consider a theme based on their definition of theme.

seo
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

stumps wrote:
But it would be a large mistake, imo, to consider it possible to make a great game that is theme-less.

You simply cannot create an entire game void of a Theme.
It will not be a Game. It will be a list of rules that do not work together for any objective purpose.

I agree with your point, but the question would then be: Do you need to have the Theme (not the Setting) defined as the starting point of the game design, or can you begin toying with an interesting mechanic, and found a Theme later?

I would also like to clarify, given that your differenciation of Setting and Theme sounds right to me, that in my previous post I was refering to Setting rather than Theme. So I most times start with a mechanic (not necessarily a new mechanic, just some mechanic), then procede to find a Theme AND Setting, and from there usually it's rethinking all three until everything begins to work as a whole. After that, playtesting will usually ask for many adjustments in mechanics and sometimes in Setting and winning condition, wich is not the same as (if I unsderstand your definition of the term right) Theme. Theme usually doesn't change, but doesn't need to be fixed as the starting point.

Seo

FastLearner
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

johant wrote:
I am new to this community, i have during this winter made my first game, and i am beginning top see the end of the design and playtesting phase. I have followed the discussions here on this forum with great interest, but one thing that has struck me is the focus on mechanics and very operational issues. Dont get me wrong thats of cource important issues, but the people on the street that buys the games wont bother. I am also asking these questions but i think that its very important to look beyond these things, espacially if you want to get published.

There's lots of discussion of non-mechanics issues, but the threads don't tend to go very far because there's just not that much to discus.

"I have a game about pirates, they're hot this year." "Yeah, but add ninjas, because research shows that teenagers love ninjas." "How about robots? Should I use robot pirate ninjas? Do you think it would sell in gift shops?" "Add zombies, dude!"

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying non-mechanics topics aren't worth discussing. Just that they're limited in what you can really discuss.

stumps wrote:
again...Theme isn't a Setting.

I appreciate that you've come up with your own definitions for "theme" and "setting," but I don't think we're required to use them. We've been using the word "theme" to mean something else here for years now -- as have many other professional game designers and publishers -- and it works out just fine. Your definition for "theme" is akin to what we (and folks at the BoardGameGeek, etc.) refer to as "type." Example types include:
  • Negotiation
  • Action/Dexterity
  • Adventure
  • Exploration
  • Puzzle
  • Fighting
  • Racing
  • Deduction
  • Word
  • Economic
There is still plenty of discussion of what should and shouldn't be included in such a list, of course.

Feel free to use whatever terms you want. I just think that insisting that we're using the word "theme" wrong doesn't advance your argument.

-- Matthew

[/]
slam
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

I always start by mechanics. The theme of a game I'm working on has wandered from an ore mining game to a chocolate making game because I like the mechanics so much. Many of my games are abstracts, which are themeless. (At least in the common usage of board gamers, which is to say I disagree with Stumps' definition.)

stumps
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

Matthew
I don't want to sound like I'm attempting to force anyone to talk one way or another.

The reason I bothered to bring anything up is that many folks look at Themes for two reasons in one, and thus it can be confusing.

I brought up the dictionary terms for the purposes of clarifying that what we may call Themes quite often, even I do, are a separate class of characteristics than the concept of a Theme in which describes the general repeated and centrally focused idea of the game.

I have found that many times, two people talking about Themes in disagreement, such as this Thread, are often times disagreeing while one person is talking about a Theme as a Setting, and the other is talking about a Theme as a centralized Idea....

Often times...it's just that neither further defines what they mean by Theme past the use of the word Theme itself, and thus the confusion and debating continues.

That's all...don't mean to sound like a vocabulary oppressor. ;)

---------------------------

seo wrote:
stumps wrote:
But it would be a large mistake, imo, to consider it possible to make a great game that is theme-less.

You simply cannot create an entire game void of a Theme.
It will not be a Game. It will be a list of rules that do not work together for any objective purpose.

I agree with your point, but the question would then be: Do you need to have the Theme (not the Setting) defined as the starting point of the game design, or can you begin toying with an interesting mechanic, and found a Theme later?

I would also like to clarify, given that your differenciation of Setting and Theme sounds right to me, that in my previous post I was refering to Setting rather than Theme. So I most times start with a mechanic (not necessarily a new mechanic, just some mechanic), then procede to find a Theme AND Setting, and from there usually it's rethinking all three until everything begins to work as a whole. After that, playtesting will usually ask for many adjustments in mechanics and sometimes in Setting and winning condition, wich is not the same as (if I unsderstand your definition of the term right) Theme. Theme usually doesn't change, but doesn't need to be fixed as the starting point.

Seo

Sure, you can start on some mechanic, imo, and find a Theme for it later.
I do that all the time.

But, imo, you cannot make an entire game without starting at a focal point of a theme.

For instance, you may come up with an interesting card game mechanic for the discard pile, but that's not the whole game.

At some point, you have to start making the game, and not just it's mechanics in an aimless path (which is fun exercise in it's own right ;) ) .

At some point you have to define the governing Theme and purpose of the game regardless if you want to give it a Setting or not.

I like to compare it to Databases.

You can just fiddle with Database formula's independent of each other just for fun and interest.

But if you want to put together a functioning Database, you actually need to first understand what the Theme of the Database is before you can progress further into the mechanics, as it's not a useful or useable database unless it has a Theme that provides it's purpose and direction.

No Database really needs a Setting, but some do. Some Databases are applied to a Setting such as www.kingsofchaos.com and their game database, Kings of Chaos...but not all are. Some are just for use, like Hotmail.

That's my opinion though and others have theirs.

Epigone
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

jargon: (2) the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group

Quote:
I brought up the dictionary terms for the purposes of clarifying that what we may call Themes quite often, even I do, are a separate class of characteristics than the concept of a Theme in which describes the general repeated and centrally focused idea of the game.
Many people make this mistake, you're not alone. When in doubt about jargon, going to the dictionary brings zero additional light to the situation. It's like saying that because you looked up the word spelled p-a-i-n in a French dictionary and found that it means 'bread', everyone should rethink their discussions on pain. Well, maybe it's not that extreme. But the idea is the same - jargon may have meaning independent of common usage, and common usage is no reason to change that meaning.

Sen
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

Stumps, when I think theme, I think of what you refer to as setting.

So you are not wrong. And neither am I.

Your definition of theme is likely in the middle of your definition of mechanic and setting. Whereas myself, I use the word type in place of theme and theme in place of setting. I also tend to roll your version of theme and mechanic all into one. And then translate that to the setting (i.e. my theme) or vice versa. Or sometimes I start with type (your theme) and then build the mechanic and theme (your setting) all around that. Confused yet?

We're trying to talk, but we're lacking a common currency (i.e. a vocabulary). Personally, I subscribe to the vocabulary that FastLearner posted. So from now on, when you speak to me of Theme, speak to me of setting. I will do the contrary for you ;)

Possibly the best way to answer the original poster's question is to ask what HE's referring to when he says "theme". Not what you or I or anyone else thinks "theme" means.

Sen
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

But I do see your point Stumps:

There are really (at least) 3 parts to it.

a) what you want to do (Stump's Theme / My Type)
b) how you're going to accomplish that (Mechanic - universally agreed upon)
c) what context the whole thing happens in (Stump's Setting / My Theme)

But this is all really pedantic.

Hedge-o-Matic
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

FastLearner wrote:

"I have a game about pirates, they're hot this year." "Yeah, but add ninjas, because research shows that teenagers love ninjas." "How about robots? Should I use robot pirate ninjas? Do you think it would sell in gift shops?" "Add zombies, dude!"

I'd buy that game!

doho123
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

It's interesting that Stumps (or maybe someone else) is arguing a point of the defintiion of a theme from a literary point of view (that theme is the common thread that holds a story together). However, for a game point of view, theme is usually regarded as the setting/artwork of the package; so going to the dictionary is probably a wrong place to go (unless you go to a game design ditionary).

The general common thread of a game is the path you must take to win (whatever that may be), which falls under the mechanics/rules of a game.

As to which is most important, I would argue that in a lot of cases, the theme (packaging/setting) is probably most important to the player, as this is what helps them "get into the game" at the start.

From game design standpoint, I would argue that mechanics are the most important. A nicely themed game with shoddy mechanics won't get played more than once. And how many people on this board have said, "boy do I have a great game, if only I had an artist to finish it." That would indicate the mechanics are more important. It is also very easy to transform a game mechanic into any theme that might be needed from a publisher's point of view of what their target market is.

As another side note, there are themeless abstract game mechanics, but there are no themed games without mechanics. You always need a rules structure regardless of the packaging.

Rick-Holzgrafe
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

Theme is sometimes discussed as if it's merely a kind of wallpaper. We all know it's important to players who "really want to feel like pirates!" but may otherwise be regarded as something that dresses up a game without affecting how it works, just as wallpaper dresses up a wall without affecting how well it divides rooms.

But aside from fulfilling fantasies, theme can have one important effect on a game: it provides a familiar framework for users who are learning the game. Railroad Tycoon (a delightful game I hope to acquire soon!) would be much harder to learn and understand if it were completely abstract. It would be confusing to have to learn that you must accept items of type A in order to also receive items of type B which can then be exchanged for items of type C in order to move items of type D. But it "makes sense" to players that they must obtain money by issuing shares and pay money to build track, all with the ultimate goal of shipping goods.

None of which has anything to do with whether a designer should start with a theme or a mechanic, of course. I just wanted to get my oar in. :)

For the record, I usually start with a theme. But I can't necessarily recommend this practice, as none of my games so far have been very good!

larienna
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

About the original post question ( the path chosen) I would say that it depend of the game. If I make an abstract or dexterity game, it is more likely that I came up first from a mechanics. Otherwise I generally always start with a theme.

If I discover a new mechanics, I generaly do not try to make a game around it. I place it aside and when I need a mechanic, I will search in the mechanics I have. For me, the mechanics is only a tool for creating a game.

Mechanics can be easily transfered from a game to another game, but a theme it is more difficult. You will rarely make 2 games with the same theme unless you focus on 2 different aspects. Else you will try to fusion your ideas from both games into the same. But you can make 2 games with the same mechanics.

A thing I have noticed is that you can create a game with only mechanics or with a mechanic and a theme. But you cannot make a game with only a theme.

So I think the goal of a theme is to make each of your game unique, while the mechanics of the game is to make the game playable.

lordpog
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

You can do it either way. Knizia churns out themeless game after game whereas many other designers start with an idea what the game is about and build mechanics from there.

P

zaiga
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

lordpog wrote:
You can do it either way. Knizia churns out themeless game after game whereas many other designers start with an idea what the game is about and build mechanics from there.

In many interviews Reiner Knizia himself states that he thinks his games are often well-themed and that he usually starts a design with the theme.

Personally, I think Knizia is very good at getting to the essence of what a theme is about and translating that into game mechanics, leaving out all the unnecessary "chrome".

Then again, some of his game are so stripped down to the core themewise that it's not too hard to apply another theme to the game, thus the theme appears to be slapped on.

Hedge-o-Matic
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the chicken or the egg? mechanics or context?

I always theme my abstracts. While sounding like an oxymoron, the theme chosen usually makes the rules easier to learn, even if the game doesn't simulate the theme in the usual sense.

For example, in my game Accretion, the pieces are called Strings, Quarks, and Particles. While they don't have "physics-y" stats like spin or charge, the names do evoke a certain idea of what they"ll do in the game, and how they might interact. Oddly enough, most of the people I've played this game with are physicists (okay, okay... so my friends are physicists), and they don't seem disturbed when strings and quarks live together on the same board (since they are products of different physical theories).

Games that are brutally themeless may be intruiging, but they don't capture the imagination. Go is often cited as the ultimate themeless game. And yet, Go players continually use analogies of territory and capture. Exciting stuff! Clearly, Go has an effective theme of conquest and capture.

Set, on the other hand, is completely themeless. The cards are abstract groups of symbols. The game uses no imagery other than its own, and this imagery doesn't relate to anything else in the real world. While interesting and sort of fun, Set feels like an educational excercise. After the novelty fades, the fun does as well, and Set becomes a brutal Vulcan-style perception excercise, devoid of any benefit except improving pattern-finding skills.

Themes are a bridge between the actual activity of the mechanics, and the experiences and expectations of the players. Humans learn by analogy, and to design a game almost requires the designer to use a theme, even a thin one such as that of Go, in order to consider the game from different angles. Whether designers package that theme for their players is something else entirely.

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