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Theme and Mechanics

When you are creating games, but most saliently, when you are designing board and card games, it’s important to decide whether to focus first on theme or mechanics. By mechanics, I mean the rules and procedures of the game. In 7 Wonders, the main mechanic is clearly drafting cards. In Terror in Meeple City, the main mechanisms are flicking, dropping, and blowing on game pieces. Theme, in this instance, is the overarching setting or antecedent elements that relate to the game’s mechanisms. In 7 Wonders, the theme is building ancient civilizations. In Terror in Meeple City, the theme is monsters destroying metropolitan areas.

If the game’s problem statement focuses on thematic concerns, then the game might be too concerned with keeping consistency in that theme at the expense of fun. For instance, if 7 Wonders was truly interested in taking the theme of building a civilization seriously, then some mechanics should manage population, taxation, and land usage. However, additional mechanics about these things would slow the game down and distract from the game’s actual problem statement, which focuses on a seven-player drafting experience.

Likewise, if a game’s problem statement suggests mechanics, then parts of the game may not make sense in terms of the game’s theme. The point of theme is to make the game understandable.

I was once working on a game where players shuffled passengers around an airport. It was an area control game, so it was important to move passengers at the right time to the right spots. Yet playtesters balked at ever moving passengers: “Why would they get on a different flight than the one they came to the airport for?” The mechanics made perfect sense in terms of game operation, but they did not interact well with the theme. Many European board games are criticized for being games about mechanics with a theme “pasted on.” This criticism comes only if the game’s theme does not assist players in understanding the mechanics and world of the game. For instance, Dominion could easily be about any number of themes; this game is about building a deck of cards, and what names the cards have hardly matter. Similarly, the theme of Chess does not matter. Trying to “paste on” a theme beyond basic notions of warfare is distracting and not helpful to players.

The proper way to start your design of an analog game is by seeing which way the problem statement points. Some great games have been designed with theme first and some with mechanics first. The two cited examples, 7 Wonders and Terror in Meeple City, come from the same designer (Antoine Bauza) and are clearly mechanically focused and thematically focused in their problem statements, respectively. 7 Wonders’ problem statement asks, “What if a game played well with seven players?”3 Terror in Meeple City’s design started with the intention to make a board game to match the thematic elements of the classic arcade game Rampage.

By having a poignant problem statement, you eliminate the need to ask the question of whether the designer should start with theme or with mechanics. The problem statement itself will dictate the direction in which to start. A problem statement is just a guide to help direct your efforts. If the development warrants it, you may change the problem statement. To return to Antoine Bauza’s work, his Spiel des Jahres winning game Hanabi is a cooperative imperfect information game about collectively creating a fireworks show. However, it was made from the pieces of another game he designed, Ikebana, which was a competitive set-collecting game about arranging flowers that played wholly differently. You never know what direction your ideas and testing will take you, but it is good to have a destination in mind.

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