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Mechanics or Theme first?

19 replies [Last post]
Joined: 04/09/2014

Hi all,
I am new to BGDF. I was wondering when you start to design a board game do you personally start with theme or mechanics first?

richdurham's picture
Joined: 12/26/2009
Really asked a big question

Ask 100 designers and you'll get quite a split. The reasons will come down to "play to your strengths."

if you're pretty technical, or really like and notice mechanics in games, chances are you'll be more comfortable designing mechanic first.

The difficulty will be in meeting in the middle. If theme is important to you, you'll also probably want to make sure the mechanics all internally support that theme. For instance, if you're game is about cars driving fast, you might want a mechanic to make fast cars harder to turn.

Is there a right way? I don't think you'll get a good argument one way or the other.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
My opinion

I start with a *general* theme about what I want the game to be about and then try to find *mechanics* that suit the game.

For example, I wanted to design a game all about monsters and how they are greedy for different things like food, gold and battle.

Then in the next step I wanted to add mechanics I wanted to explore such as auctions and set collection to bring the game together. Set collection is no biggie but the auction part is the real core of the game.

Something like that...

Corsaire's picture
Joined: 06/27/2013
False dichotomy

I usually start with feel and scope. Then theme and mechanic tend to pop into the space together. The challenges here are a neat way to start from different places.

Play effect and finding the fun drive each thought iteration. Theme keeps mechanics coherent and sometimes the right mechanic forces me to rethink the scope or concept of the theme.

X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
Now that I think about

Now that I think about it.
For me it was roughly at the same time.

I wanted a certain theme, modern warfare.
With a certain mechanic.

A certain location theme was born. And additional mechanics where born from there.

So, start with what you like. And build from there.

Joined: 03/25/2014
Depends what cool thing comes

Depends what cool thing comes to my mind first. Maybe it is about some mechanic that I think will be very fun, or an unique setting I want to throw the players in. I start with either of these and they will feed each other - the theme will push me to mirror it with mechanics, while the mechanics will help build the world.

Joined: 03/27/2014
I personally usually start

I personally usually start with a cool mechanic I've created. Once the main mechanic(s) is/are set, I build a theme around it, and then that theme guides the rest of the supporting mechanics.

I can't think of any games I've started crafting where I thought strictly of the theme first.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
There is more than theme and

There is more than theme and mechanic. I have identified 3: Theme , Mechanic and Experience. Lewis Pulsipher listed 5 in his book (can't remember the name)

They are all valid creation roots. It depends on the source of your idea.

Joined: 10/27/2008
I usually go theme first,

I usually go theme first, because if a theme catches my fancy I'm more likely to work on the project for extended periods of time.

That said my latest project I am trying to work mechanics first so as to get a better feel for the mechanics and make a stronger, more fun game.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
In relation to the topic.

In relation to the topic. When you design you should set your self certain restriction to make it easier to design your game.

Those restrictions could be related to theme (the game must make sense with the theme), mechanic ( there must be an auction in the game), but also components ( I want to use pawns with a board the size of a letter page).

Some Random Dude
Joined: 01/30/2014
I don't really have one over

I don't really have one over the other. I had the instinct that it would be Theme, but then I thought about it and realized it's pretty even between the two (as well as the feeling/experience). There are times when I start with Theme, add a few mechanics, then realize one of my mechanism doesn't work and I'll take it out. But I really like that mechanism, so I'll make a game around that, and add a theme to it. Then, I start with wanting to make a deceitful game, so I'll think of which themes and mechanisms work with that.

I think the most important part is that they make sense together. Themes make the mechanisms easier to understand, and give players the experience that you want, IF the theme is strong. But that doesn't mean it has to come first.

Inquisibot's picture
Joined: 04/01/2014
Different Approaches

As some have already mentioned, you can start from either end or a mix of both.

You could start with a mechanic you are interested in. For example, I want an auction mechanic in my game. Knowing this, I can then think of a theme that can support auctions. The opposite is also true for starting with a theme. I want to make a game based around buried treasure, so I can start thinking of mechanics that can support that theme.

Another interesting way to approach the problem is to think of the type of experience you want your players to have. Dynamics of your game if you will. An example of this may be that I want my players to experience ethical dilemmas and make hard choices. A voting system may be a mechanic that I choose. The theme may be based on jungle survival so that the votes now have purpose, to extend your survival over another player.

There are a few ways to do it, but the real key is to make sure that the mechanics and theme work well in tandem.

Joined: 08/23/2013

I start with an interest I have, then I see if I could make a game out of it. If you call the interest a theme than it would be theme first. I just tend to start on a more instinctual level because I feel that if it not something I enjoy then why would I want to spend time "messing" with it.
Then If it is enjoyable to me I work on how it would work (the mechanics).

Astrium Rex
Astrium Rex's picture
Joined: 09/26/2013

The thing to remember about Theme vs Mechanic, is that Theme is what a player brings into a game before they even sit down, where mechanics are what YOU teach them in order to play your game. The stronger the connection between the Theme and the mechanics, the easier it will be for players to grasp.

For example, every player sitting down to a game, doesnt need to be told what a space ship is, or how a tank moves, or how cover improves defense, but they do need to be told how health is tracked, cards are played and pieces moved. For this reason, I personally usually start with a theme, and then add mechanics that make sense in support of my theme.

Markus Hagenauer
Joined: 12/04/2009
I start with whatever comes

I start with whatever comes to my mind first.

For most of the games I´ve designed so far I started with a mechanic.
But that just happens, I do not realy have a standard procedure how to designe a game.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
Quote:The thing to remember

The thing to remember about Theme vs Mechanic, is that Theme is what a player brings into a game before they even sit down, where mechanics are what YOU teach them in order to play your game.

I like the idea, the theme is like the hook, while the mechanics are the game. Because most people chose a game to play by theme even if most of the time it is irrelevant.

Experimental Designs
Experimental Designs's picture
Joined: 04/20/2013
I personally like to go with

I personally like to go with theme first for it puts down the framework on what you want overall mechanical and game-wise. Ultimately it boils down to personal preferences. Someone who is art-oriented like myself going with theme makes the project more "approachable" than going feet first into the mechanical parts.

If the theme is something economical like Settlers of Catan or something of that order then you want mechanics based around that. My thoughts on the matter, anyway. I wish you luck on your project!

DifferentName's picture
Joined: 09/08/2013
I've done both

Some of my ideas start as game mechanics, and some start with theme. What's really fun is when you have some rough ideas from one end, and later come up with a rough idea on the other, and find that you can match the two together! It's kind of a eureka moment realizing, "oh, this dice rolling idea would fit really well with my robot setting!".

DifferentName's picture
Joined: 09/08/2013

Shortly after my last post I came up with some game mechanics, and instead of quickly putting a theme on them like I usually do, I just ran with it. I'm making a rough prototype as an abstract game with just shapes and colors, and it's really fun coming up with rules based entirely on the other rules, without a theme forcing my hand in a certain direction.

Maybe I'll add a theme to it later. Maybe I'll just leave it as colorful shapes. Or are colorful shapes a theme? :p

lewpuls's picture
Joined: 04/04/2009
A more applicable question is

A more applicable question is whether you design a game as a model of something, or don't (thus, abstract). The latter is a collection of mechanics, the former is an attempt to represent some reality. This makes a big difference in design approach.

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