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Components first? Theme second? Mechanics last?

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Blake's picture
Joined: 01/05/2009

I'm still just a novice, but increasingly I get the feeling that a good template for me to follow when attempting to design games is: (1) components first; (2) theme second; (3) mechanics last. I was just wondering if anyone else has any experience approaching game design in this way, and any advice they can give on this approach (which does not appear to be that normal as far as I can tell)?

sedjtroll's picture
Joined: 07/21/2008
Blake wrote:I'm still just a

Blake wrote:
I'm still just a novice, but increasingly I get the feeling that a good template for me to follow when attempting to design games is: (1) components first; (2) theme second; (3) mechanics last. I was just wondering if anyone else has any experience approaching game design in this way, and any advice they can give on this approach (which does not appear to be that normal as far as I can tell)?

While I think it's generally a good idea to keep components in mind when designing, I think it's generally uncommon to START with a component limitation. Sometimes you see a contest or exercise where starting with a strict component limitation in order to spur creativity or something, like the 1 full sheet label contest thing at BGG right now.

I think most common is probably starting with a theme, but also somewhat common is coming up with an interesting mechanism and looking for a theme to match it.

Joined: 01/27/2011
I'm no professional but I

I'm no professional but I really can't see the advantage of not starting off with your mechanics first.

Markus Hagenauer
Joined: 12/04/2009
My normal template starts

My normal template starts with the mechanics, than the components and finally the theme (or it remains abstract). Of course it´s not always a straigt way. The components or mechanics can be modifyed when I come up with a theme ad think, a change would fit better to this.
But I also have some games I designed starting with the theme, and at least on game with the components to start with (but made the components for a totally different game earlier)

Some poeple divide game designers in two groups by their way to design.
According to them, there are engineers / mathematicas who focus on the mecanic and story-tellers starting with the theme. I´d say starting with the components would rather indicate you are a game engineer, but theme befor mechanics counters this.

I´d say everyone must find out for himselfe how he can works best, and it can change from game to game.

Blake's picture
Joined: 01/05/2009
Some background...

Moapy, when I first started trying to design games, I always began with mechanics, particularly anything involving "simultaneous action selection." Unfortunately, a few problems began to recur too frequently: (1) I would find "a" mechanic, but have trouble fitting it into a "complete" game; (2) brick walls were emotionally crushing; and (3) I tended to end up with ideas that were too fiddly, involving too many game components.

After a long period I tried to transition to theme first. This was not at all natural for me, and I didn't have much success with it either, in fact I'd even say I had even less success with this approach, at least as far as closing in on a complete game. However, there was one really noticeable improvement: setbacks stopped getting me down! Fooling around with a civ theme, for example, seemed not too feel like a disaster just because certain mechanics broke apart. Even when a game ended up as unplayable, I still felt happy as long as I enjoyed thinking about the theme. Yes, I'd have to start over, but that was just part of the fun!

And yet, the main point was to design a game, so feeling a bit disheartened I began to search for another approach to game design until I came up with an initial emphasis on components first. Instead of thinking about simultaneous action selection, or civ building, I now like to rotate a card in my hand, feel its tactile presence, and brainstorm for new ways to incorporate cards into games. The same goes for non-transitive dice, or hexagonal tiles. Some of the things I enjoy about this approach are: (1) it tends to keep me away from overly fiddly designs; (2) it keeps me engaged in the physical side of gaming; and (3) it helps me develop a new appreciation for an aspect of gaming I hadn't really thought about much before.

Of course, I don't think this approach is for everyone, but it is interesting to note that many games that are thought of as having innovative mechanics, can also be thought of as simply developing the unrealized potential of game components. For example, the deckbuilding in Dominion can be thought of as a mechanic, but it can also be perceived as a novel approach to what players can and can't do with physical components: Why not repeatedly shuffle our own "hands" mid-game whenever they become depleted? Or, to take another example: Why not build the game board out of tiles as the game develops (Carcassonne)?

jcormier's picture
Joined: 04/21/2009
theme or mechanics?

I think there are opportunities for anything to be the inspiration for a game - even a title! I've posted about this on my blog - which has detailed how I got my first three games published. Feel free to check out this post:

jumpseat's picture
Joined: 10/21/2009
Games begin as play

I think in some ways your process idea makes sense when you think about how you make up games in more of a playful way - particularly as children, or when not conciously trying to be a game designer. You have some stuff lying around (eg. some playing cards), you begin to play with the stuff imagining a theme (eg. space ships) and then you move from adhoc rules (my ship is a 4, yours is a 3, I win) and gradually implement more satisfying mechanics and rules of play (your ship is not in the same quadrant (suite) as mine). Then this feedsback into the refining the components (we could do this better is we didnt use standard playing cards) and round it goes.

I can remember as a teenager making up some fun games with friends in this way, where pure free play gradually evolved into an actual game with rules. I remember once we had a pack of Tarot cards and started kinda dueling with them like in my above example, then gradually began placing them in a circle and created an abstract battle game played on something like a clock-face. Cant remember the game now, but I have remembered that the spirit of play can be incredibly useful in getting a game that is actually enjoyable to play - as it starts with play.

I think that starting with a mechanic is kinda a fetish that we gain as we explore games more and get to know what is under the hood. Theme based creation appeals more to the big picture creativity. But there is still a lot to be said for just playing with the components I reckon - and I do think it can get overlooked.

RacNRoll Gaming
RacNRoll Gaming's picture
Joined: 05/12/2010

....I actually just started working on a game after receiving some drawings from the artist who is going to illustrate it. We were talking about some character names and traits and he whipped up sketches of all of them plus a few more. Now I am building the game around those character sketches. Not really ideal but I think being able to see the characters will help me mold the game to what they look like as opposed to trying to getting an artist to draw what I visioned in my head.

End of Time Games
End of Time Games's picture
Joined: 04/16/2009
Components, Theme, Mechanics....could have 3 games

Blake, I'm not currently working on my games at the moment. Too many other priorities to feed this hobby at the moment. I've got some ideas on the shelf. And I too am a novice board game designer. Been a while since posting here.

That said, I would like to share my opinion about what order to approach in game design. I don't think the order is important at all in weather you will create a good game. The order of things is important in how it will turn out or how your ideas will develop.

If you were to focus first about pieces and then give attention to other arias, the game may develop vary different then if you had focused more on mechanics.

So it doesn’t really matter the order. I can tell of an experience where I came up with a game idea by first selecting an object from my environment, a toy roulette wheel. I said “okay, let’s make a game from this!” The next thing I did was I was watching some videos about card magic tricks one night for some reason even though I don’t like magic tricks. I guess it was a kind of entertainment to watch these on youtube. This gave me a thought to study a little bit about the mechanics of card tricks. To make a long story short, in looking at my game design through the lens of “magic tricks”, I came up with some vary unusual ideas for a game. It started with the roulette wheel (game piece)…..the magic tricks inspired the addition of cards and mechanics. It’s not a conventional kind of game but it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that by exploring different ideas or subjects that were far removed from normal games, I came up with some vary interesting ideas that would not normally have come about by any normal approach I might have taken. Now I can develop these if I want to by looking at the various areas of the problem.

Recently I discovered a book called “Lateral Thinking” by Edward de Bono. He has published the best works I have ever seen in regard to “creative thinking” or “lateral thinking” or “how to think” in general. He is a hero for the education he has brought to the world in this regard.

After reading this, I realized in hind site that I was using lateral thinking though had no knowledge of that term. I also realized that most of us use some form of lateral thinking at one time or another without thinking too much about it. I recommend engaging in a serious personal studying and practicing of this skill. It does take practice and learning. Because it will empower you in so many ways and in your game design.

Joined: 11/19/2010
I think the discussion of

I think the discussion of where to start has been done to death, but I do believe that it's important to start with some form of constraint. If you bother to stick to that constraint in the long run is unimportant, but I believe that limitation breeds creativity. Depending on the person, this can be components, theme, or mechanics driven.

You would never ask someone to "make a game" you would ask them to "make a game involving mainly dice" or "make a game that can be played in 20 minutes or less."

Throughout the process of making a game, you can make the decision if your previous limitations are good for the game you've ended up designing or not.

Dralius's picture
Joined: 07/26/2008
The only time I started with

The only time I started with components first is when a company a friend knew had spent a load of money on a custom molded part. They wanted to use that piece in another game since casting of the part would be cheap now that they have the mold.

metzgerism's picture
Joined: 06/19/2009
topdeck wrote:You would never

topdeck wrote:
You would never ask someone to "make a game" you would ask them to "make a game involving mainly dice" or "make a game that can be played in 20 minutes or less."
Well, that's true - but I think more importantly you'd never ask someone to make a game at all - you ask "what game are you making?"

The BGDF has component, theme, or mechanics limitations, but that's usually mostly as a competition restriction or launching pad.


To the OP: yes, you are CLEARLY still a novice. Or a wargamer.

For me, theme may trigger an idea, but that's it: a trigger. After that it's ALL about mechanics. Component design may come into play as an ease-of-use thing, but rarely does it matter.

Joined: 02/11/2011
For me, it's iterations

On Startup Fever I started with a piece of the game mechanics, the hiring, poaching and vesting of employees. It's an economics game, and your main resources are employees, but you won't win unless you hire away employees from other players. Deciding who to protect, when to counter-offer, and when to let employees go is part of the game.

Then came components, I like lots of pieces on the board, so I went over*board* on those. I found cute meeples, so I introduced meeples as executives. Right now, I have too many pieces for sane production (and too complex rules) so I am cutting back on pieces, while trying to simplify the game mechanics.

In this process, and with play testing, some game mechanics come and go. The hiring/vesting/poaching aspects create fun in playtesting, but my complex funding mechanism just created pain. Not worth it the way it works. So I dropped it. But I have another idea, involving components, and simpler than the mechanism I had, which may bring funding back.

The theme in my case is given by the employees/vesting mechanism. I think it'll be popular in Silicon Valley, but won't excite much outside here, so I would be open to re-theme the game. But I haven't come up with anything yet.

albalustro's picture
Joined: 04/17/2011
Theme, mechanics, theme, mechanics and mechanics.

Hello everybody, I work as a professional game designer on a eletronic games industry. Generalizing, my work usually starts from a initial demand to a feature to the game, with the game theme already determinate.
For exemple, in a Medieval RPG is defined by the production staff that is must to have a crafting system on the game. Therefore, is needed to write a specification for the crafiting system and how a gameplay designer, I need to create a mechanic that is not more that a set of rules to makes the crafting can be fun and functional to the player. In this case, I already had a basic idea for how must be a crafting system and what are the limits of mechanic to be implemented, considering that it was to a medieval RPG.
I think that in this way, starting by the theme, would be much more easy to reach a good result, because you have a driver to what you're looking for and the delimitations of the mechanics that could be use will be more clear.
Obviously, this is not a rule. It is actually something that completely depends on the situation. There will be times in you will begin a design because you thought in a certain mechanical and said "wow, I really want to make a board game and using it in some way" and then you try to include it in many ways getting to make many changes to end of the project.
Anyway, at design is problems solution and adaptations, and I completely agree with that.

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