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Reconsidering Board Game Design 1/3: Theme VS Mechanic

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larienna
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This thread is the first part out of three thread that will try to reconsider my approach for designing board games. It was split in 3 thread to sort out more easily the replies in each of the thread. And like some other of my thread, it had a good chance of being controversial, so I tried not writing it in the same day (to make sure I was not in the same mood).

To make a story short of my experience as board game designer, I could summarize it like this: Played lot of turn based strategy video games when I was young, the video game industry stopped making them, I found board games as an alternative. Was shocked with the thin theme but impressed by the mechanics. Decided to design board games since easier to do (it looked easier) and no need to make any program to release the game. I have been doing hobby design for at least 8 years and now I am questioning myself of various aspect that will be detailed in 3 threads:

Part 1: Theme vs Mechanic

Part 2: Board vs Video Games

Part 3: Single vs Multi Player


So the first topic look a bit like a battle since the beginning of time. It's like good fighting evil, or light vs darkness. Mechanics and Theme seems to share the same opposition. Some people say that game should be strongly themed, some say "the hell I don't care", etc. As a board game designer, we have in theory various approach, I identified 3 (Mechanics, Theme and Experience), Lewis Pulsipher identified 5 (Theme/Atmosphere, Constraint, Component, Mechanics, Game system/genre), but after some thinking, I think there is only 1 way to approach a game : Mechanics.

It's not that the other methods are not possible. It's just that you just multiply your design time by 5 or 10 times what it would originally take if you had started with mechanics. I have taken a look at my list of design, all the games I have which are can be considered playable (not fun, or balanced, just playable) have been based on mechanics. Also it took in average 5 play test to reach that playable state. While there are games based on theme that I have been thinking about for years and I still don't have a playable prototype. So the question is "Does it worth it putting time on a theme based game idea?".

We all have time constraints in our life and that is a reason why we want to put time to the place it matters most. If theme based board games are taking my time and sending it in a black hole, then I'll spend my time elsewhere. I always have tons of projects ideas and manage to filter (or trying to filter) what really matters. Never thought I could do the same by sorting out my game idea this way. Maybe it should be better just take those theme based game idea and put it in the list of "Thematic game ideas in search of a mechanic".

It seems that it's easier to attach a theme to mechanics than attaching mechanics to the theme. It does not mean that all game should start abstract and the theme should be added later. I do believe that there still need a strong relation with the theme and the mechanic, but you need to have some core rules or a mechanic pool right from the start. Here is an example:

I had a game idea that was about rats invading a house. With just that information, I know what the game will be about, but have absolutely no clue about the mechanics. I could make many kind of rats invading a house, from card games, to rat meeple flicking. But if tell you that the original idea was to call the game "Rats Craft" then we have a completely new situation here because it's a parody of Starcraft. Not only the rats looks probably more cool in your head than before, but since it's also a parody of the board game, I now have a pool of mechanics that I can use. Of course, my game is very different from Starcraft the board game, but there are still similarities. But without a pool of mechanics, I would never have got a playable game. Of course, I took mechanics from other game, but at least I had some foundation to start building something which was the Starcraft pool of mechanics.

When you design a game by theme, you have no foundation, you need to find the material to build one. How do you do that, first mechanic shopping. Look at other similar games in theme or mechanics and try to see what you could borrow. Second, toy play, use game pieces as toys and try to pull out mechanics out of their behaviour. Eventually, you are going to have a game too large to be playable (too much element or concepts you would like) so you need to compress your mechanics through abstraction methods to make them fit on components, or make it playable in a reasonable time frame.

Now I know a lot about that "Compression" when I attempted to convert the master of magic video game as a board game. I even reached to a point where I compared it to trying fitting an elephant in the shoe box. I do like certain abstraction that board games uses to make the game simpler or have a better flow. But there is a difference between compressing an elephant in a container vs compressing it to a shoe box. It could be compared to budget cuts. Even if seen has negative, budget cuts it somewhat positive, because it allow rethinking and optimizing the spending of time and resources so that in the end, you are more optimal. That is OK. But if you have severe budget cuts, then you'll reach a point where you have to shutdown services because simple optimization is not enough.

When you design a game from a theme, most of the time you are going to end up with massive compression, and you are not going to be able to start having a playable game until you have compressed enough. So you end up only putting the elephant trunk in the box and saying "We would have loved to put more but that is all we could fit in". Else you need a limited thematic span, instead of managing a space empire, why not only manage a space station. In fact many space opera game like "Twilight Imperium", "Eclipse", "Galactic Empires", "Empires of the void", "Space empire 4x" all seem to focus on a different aspect of the theme. The god above this game is "Master of Orion" because it has (almost) everything a space opera theme could need, but board games cannot have everything, so they each focus on something different:

-Twilight Imperium focus on Warfare and logistic

-Eclipse Focus on exploration and development

-Empires of the void focus on planet relations and war

-Galactic Empires focus on resources management

-Space empire 4X focus on war and strategic maneuverings.

Each of these games are a part of the great "Master of Orion", but none of them can replace the whole. Attempting to do will either require removing details, or cutting down features and ending up like one of the game above.

So making a strong themed based game seem like a dead end, it's more efficient to borrow mechanics or base yourself on something that exist to build something, rather than trying to search for it. Another solution is to wait to be hit by a genius idea. I wanted to do a game out of a specific theme that had all the elements to be a board game but had no idea of the mechanics. I could have explored various ways to implement the game using toy play or mechanic shopping. But instead I did nothing, it came once to my mind a mechanic I made as a variant for another game. I though it could be interesting to use it with this theme. In a few weeks I had a working game.

But to get strong theme and most of the time detailed games, the only solution seems either through video games or single player games. Which will be my next topics.

Next Thread

http://www.bgdf.com/forum/game-creation/design-theory/reconsidering-board-game-design-23-board-vs-video-games

lewpuls
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There are "only two ways" to

There are "only two ways" to approach game design: model or abstract. Model is usually equated with "theme". Mechanics is usually equated with abstract. I prefer my terms, because models have mechanics, it's just that mechanics serve the model, whereas in an abstract game the mechanics are more or less supreme.

If you are attaching mechanics to a theme, you are still thinking in abstract terms. You may have mechanics in mind when you start to make a model, but then you change/alter/add mechanics to make it a better model.

If you're not familiar with the "MDA" framework you might look it up online.

Masacroso
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Theme = marketing (attraction

Theme = marketing (attraction to know the "product")
Mechanic = life of a game (game itself)

This is my point of view.

larienna
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By rapidly googling, I found

By rapidly googling, I found a document about MDA.

http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf

I read the document in diagonal, from what I understand:

Mechanics are the rules of the game, that makes the game behave in a certain way which creates a dynamic for the player to experience and perceive which is the esthetic part.

Likediscussed on BGG in the same thread. It seems that mechanics are more important because they are essential to make a game, but you must work on both sides through out the design to constantly attach or add theme and mechanics which makes sense with each other so that at the end there is a global cohesion between the theme and the mechanics.

BubbleChucks
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Game design can be likened to

Game design can be likened to the writing of music. It is the creation of a performance piece, an act of creative expression that flows out from a musician towards an audience of one or many. And music, like any true art form, is the closest source of apprehension to what our mundane souls might call “magic”.

Not magic in the sense of a charlatans’ trickery or the dexterous deceits of a conjurer, but true magic. It is a type of magic that reaches out to touch us and affect our conscious bearing, winding its way around our thoughts and feelings, to the point where we become entranced. Exposed to its presence it washes over us like a tidal flood, drowning out the harsh jagged reality of our existence, forcing us under and sweeping us out to distant dreaming shores.

A complete game design accomplishes much the same. When we sit down to play, and during the time we are engaged with it, we find ourselves captivated to the point where we forget about the external world. It casts a spell upon us, a spell that we can’t resist.

In respect to music the primary components of the spell are melody and harmony. A melody is a linear succession of notes, an orchestration of pitch and rhythm that we comprehend as a single entity. Harmony is when a similar set of notes, of a different pitch, are played in conjunction with a melody as a seamless compliment.

When we hear a piece of music and the melody and harmony exist in a symbiotic manner the piece is pleasing to our ears. These two aspects, albeit different in terms of pitch, flow together to create an overall affect that is greater than the two separate parts. The flow of the music itself is what we call rhythm. While a melody can exist without a harmony it wouldn’t sound very pleasing or immersive. Without rhythm (and its compatriots of time and silence) neither would be possible in any form worth hearing.

And so we return to game design. In my own humble opinion the starting point of a game design should always be rhythm. It should be the overall flow of what you want to accomplish, the mood you are trying to create, the feeling of the game experience you want the players to be exposed to.

In some games, especially quick off the cuff designs, a designers’ focus on theme or mechanics is especially obvious. To the point where a person can look at a game design and discern whether the starting point was mechanical or thematic.

That being said, the final “chopping phase”, as a sluggish design that crawls along is tweaked in tune to the rhythm, can offset this obviousness. The basic notes are present and it is a matter of objectively cutting out small or large parts of the game, streamlining other aspects and generally tightening everything so that the designers’ vision for the gaming experience shines through in the playing.

Melody and harmony are always subject to rhythm and the mechanics and theme of a game are always subject to the mood of the game or the experience the designer intends to bring to the players. When all three of these elements work together, playing off each other and reinforcing each other, the final design can be spell binding. If one of them is off it will stand out like a discordant note and the spell of being immersed in the game will be broken. The players will be ejected from the dreaming state of their gaming and reality will take precedence once more.

Mechanics and theme are both important and perfectly good starting points, but it is the overall mood or feeling of a game that ties everything together. So in my more developed designs mood and feeling are what I consider at the beginning of the game design process and at the end.

X3M
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And I have to say, you know

And I have to say, you know how to put your magic well.
I completely understood what you where saying.

Can't disagree. A game is to be lived, not just played.

Masacroso
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X3M wrote:And I have to say,

X3M wrote:
And I have to say, you know how to put your magic well.
I completely understood what you where saying.

Can't disagree. A game is to be lived, not just played.

Maybe what type of games you play. If you change the name of the pieces of chess, arimaa, poker (many classic card games) or go... nothing happen.

In abstract games theme is not so important (same por GIPF project games).

Sometimes maybe interesting, b.e., I think insect theme fit very well to hive but you can design many other themes to play hive (of course they exist).

Im trying to say that theme maybe more important in some types of games than others.

larienna
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Quote: If one of them is off

Quote:
If one of them is off it will stand out like a discordant note and the spell of being immersed in the game will be broken. The players will be ejected from the dreaming state of their gaming and reality will take precedence once more.

It reminds me my article where I compare a game to a dream

http://bgd.lariennalibrary.com/index.php?n=DesignArticle.Article20100813...

Following my controversial article about psychology behind board game (Where I unvoluntarily accused people of not having imagination)

http://bgd.lariennalibrary.com/index.php?n=DesignArticle.Article-Imagina...

Zag24
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Great point re Mechanics first

I have always hedged on this question. I have 4 or 5 games currently "in design" (3 of them actually playable and fun) and another 5 or 6 that I have shelved for being hopeless. I have designed games in both directions, and I can't say that I have a strong preference.

However, the point you made really resonates: The games that I have shelved for being hopeless were all theme-first designs. While my actual shipping game was also theme-first, I think that mechanics-first designs are far more likely to end up playable. I hadn't really thought about it until you made that point, so I thank you for the insight.

larienna
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It proves that I am not the

It proves that I am not the only one who has this problem.

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