When talking non-RPG tabletop games, mechanics make the game. Mechanics ARE the game. Themes and components can enhance games and create more immersive experiences, but the core of a game is ultimately the mechanics. If you are a designer, that’s where you should channel the vast majority of your creative energy. In situations where you must choose between preserving your theme and using the most solid, fun mechanics, go with the mechanics.

I don’t always take such a strong stand. I usually encourage designers follow their instincts. And they should – as long as they don’t neglect mechanics. Of course, opinions about this vary widely, as do the styles of different designers and players. For this piece, I‘m going to deliberately take one side. If you feel differently, make your case in the comments!

Also on the League:

Part 2 of this series by Peter Vaughan: Theme is More Important than Mechanics
and Part of this series: Theme vs Mechanics: The False Dichotomy

Game Designers Should Focus on Mechanics

Games in Store
When you see a shelf of games like this one at Games of Berkeley, do you look for theme? Do you look to see what mechanics the game uses? Who the designer is? Publisher? Once you’ve purchased a game, what makes you want to play it more? To teach your friends?

Deferring to theme may hold your game back

You may be so committed and dedicated to preserving your theme, that it may interfere with your design. You’re not building a simulation, and even if you are, simulations do not include every detail. People don’t actually get killed when flight simulations crash.

Take economic systems in games, for example. In the real world, if you’re going to make a little profit in business transactions, you need to sell things for more than you pay for them. You don’t get anything for free. When you do make money, the profit margin can be very small compared to the costs. But copying those principles exactly can make for a fiddly and un-fun game. In a fun game, you often will leave out some aspects of your theme entirely, and concentrate your mechanics on the things that are fun to do.

Container
The game “Container” uses fabulous supply and demand mechanics that might make you feel like you’re a shipping mogul, but they’re far from the incremental value-added economics of the real world.

It’s OK to Focus on Mechanics

Over the last year or so, I’ve discovered that my best design work comes from taking a mechanics-centric approach. I have suffered some guilt over this because of some guidance from some of my colleagues in the industry. Advice on game design can often sound something like this: “Concentrate on your theme and let the mechanics flow naturally from it.”, “Focus on the story you’re trying to tell and everything else will naturally arise from that.” Those words sound nice, but they’re also kind of like new-age Facebook quotes. They make you feel good, but they don’t actually help you learn any practical skills.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about telling stories. I have three decades of experience designing and running dungeons and dragons adventures and a theatre background. But when I’m building a boardgame, no story is going to magically make functional mechanics for me. They might inspire a concept or two, but from there, I need to get down into the nuts and bolts, and draw instead from my experiences with carpentry, automotive mechanics, building and designing robots, doing science, and doing math. To build my game mechanics, I need something borrowed, and something new, fused together in a seamless, integrated system.

Each element of a game should have a mechanical purpose and function. It shouldn’t be included solely because the theme demands it.

I learned to feel ok about a mechanics-centered design approach through conversations with my friend and colleague Tom Jolly and by reading about the design process of Stefen Feld. Tom Jolly has had several of his designs re-themed. Stefan Feld builds his game systems to be fun and intriguing in an entirely mechanical sense, and then brings in theme late in his design work. In the words of Tom Jolly, “Theme is gravy.”

Like many designers, I enjoy inventing new mechanics, either from whole cloth or modified versions of existing mechanics. It’s perfectly acceptable to start piecing together mechanics and then go looking for a theme. It’s perfectly acceptable to build a mechanical system and let that system inspire a theme. It’s also perfectly acceptable to have no theme or a minimal theme. We have an entire genre dedicated to these games: abstract games.

Publishers may change the theme of your game anyway

If you’re not planning on self-publishing, you’re eventually hoping to get your game into the hands of a capable publishing company. Imagine if a prospective publisher wanted to license your game, they really loved the feel of the gameplay, but they were not impressed with your theme. In fact, they hate your theme and everything it represents.

Do you walk away with your artistic integrity intact? Or do you accept the fact that the core of your game was never your theme at all, but the mechanics you built?

The truth is, re-theming games is incredibly common. Your theme isn’t your game. If a publisher really, really, loves your theme but not your mechanics they won’t publish your game. They’ll find another design using that theme with better mechanics.

There’s a list of games on Board Game Geek that were designed with one theme in mind, and subsequently changed by publishers, but this is far from a complete list:
Geeklist: Theme Changed By the Publisher

It will be your mechanics that distinguish your game, and your mechanics that will get your game published.

What’s your take?

Luke Laurie

Game Designer at Luke Laurie Games

Designer of Stones of Fate and The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire
Game designer by night, and middle school science and pre-engineering teacher by day. He lives in Santa Maria California with his amazing wife and two unrealistically well-behaved children.

63 Readers Commented

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  1. Jeff on June 16, 2014

    Interesting, and a great counter-point to my simulation article. I love to see that you have come full circle on your design philosophy. I remember many conversations you and I have had where I was strongly advocating for mechanics and you were advocating for theme.

  2. Luke Laurie on June 16, 2014

    Nobody ever says, “This theme is broken!”

    • Jeff on June 16, 2014

      Not true. I have heard that many times with Stones of Fate 🙂

      • The Chaz on June 17, 2014

        I never said the tarot theme was broken – it’s just not for me!

  3. Jeff on June 16, 2014

    It seems we both may have come closer to the middle of that spectrum 🙂

  4. Luke Laurie on June 16, 2014

    I’ve realized most of my favorite games are ones that can be considered as “lacking in theme.” I’m ok with that.

  5. Norv Brooks on June 16, 2014

    Luke – I enjoyed reading your article. The issue I have with it, in general, is it seems to demand a “black or white” conclusion leaving no room for grey. For instance, “Each element of a game should have a mechanical purpose and function. It shouldn’t be included solely because the theme demands it.” I believe is could also be said, “Each element of a game should have a mechanical purpose and function. However, it shouldn’t be included solely because it’s a cool mechanic.”

  6. Luke Laurie on June 16, 2014

    Good point Norv. I think that might be one of the seeds for the counter-point article!

  7. Pat Marino on June 16, 2014

    I am looking forward to the counter point article from Peter Vaughan. With RPGs out of the discussion I find it hard to argue with this article. I have re-themed my own designs without changing mechanics, and found the game mostly remained the same. I can see how CCG might be different, as a lot of cards are needed, and certain themes lend better to creating the right variety of cards to keep the game interesting, but for the average Euro style board game, or non-CCG, where it is a one and done design the mechanics do more to get people to replay and promote the game than the theme. Agricola is a great example – the first time I shared it with friends I told them the game was based on 16th century farming – eye rolls ensued. Then we played, following which two players bought the game – to me this shows that mechanics – which are gameplay, are more important than theme, though theme is not unimportant or irrelevant -it has to match the gameplay at least somewhat.

    • Jonky on June 16, 2014

      I had the exact opposite experience with Agricola. Uwe’s game are normally a win for me, but I could not get pass the boring theme and horrible art of Agricola.

      • Luke Laurie Author on June 16, 2014

        Interestingly – according to Uwe Rosenberg, theme came first and the mechanics followed. I think most people who play it would feel like the game is primarily about the mechanics.

        • Peter Vaughan on June 16, 2014

          Yes, as much as I want more games to win over my theme point, there’s no way I could use Agricola – interesting though about the spirit of the design there.

      • Nathan Cornelius on September 8, 2014

        Interesting; I know a lot of people don’t like the farming theme of Agricola but I actually really enjoy it — primarily that of getting the various different animal types. I guess it’s because I like variety and I like animals. 🙂 I find the art to be quite good – I’m curious why do you feel it is horrible?

  8. CK Leach on June 16, 2014

    Great article. I am an engineer at mind and a creative at heart. I believe the same things you’ve outlined in your article. Not sure if you have expressed it here but a lot of game mechanics and themes derive from the concept. Now that concept can birth a fun theme that allows you to pick and choose the right mechanisms, or it can beg a particular mechanic that you can build upon and add to. Neither scenario demands a theme per say, but a theme will undoubtedly sprout from it.

    Looking at abstract games is one of the most clear cut examples of mechanic-driven gameplay. Theme is an afterthought, if that. I’ve designed 2 and neither have a theme nor do I car to add one. Not to say all abstracts don’t need themes but you’ll be hard pressed to find one that is interesting both mechanically and story wise. If you do know of any please share.

    I am also looking forward to the counter article and hope it has as much hard hitting, tangible points as this one.

  9. Luke Laurie Author on June 16, 2014

    Agreed CK Leach! For me my games always start with a mechanical concept paired with a possible theme. My current main project, Drill, Baby, Drill began as an energy-environment themed game with the mechanical concept of resource management with a declining oil supply. Later, I made the game worker placement and developed some new innovative mechanics that enhance the playability of the game. All together, the mechanics really fit the theme and bring it to life. It’s hard to imagine re-theming the game, but I could imagine it would still be a lot of fun retimed because of how engaging the gameplay is. That’s where the sweet spot is for me as both a player and a designer.

  10. Joaquim Oliveirath on June 16, 2014

    When I first saw the topic of this discussion got me thinking about 3 weeks ago when I was trying to determine why I wasn’t enjoying the game Marvel Legendary as much as some of my friends and I came to the conclusion that I was bored by the mechanics , not unique enough for me and that I was hanging on playing the game just because of my love for the theme ( big Marvel fan ) so I would say that a theme can make a game with not so good or boring mechanics still be played from
    time to time .

  11. Christian Strain on June 16, 2014

    This sounds like you’re advocating using a theme as a sticker. Like Lost Cities or even 7 Wonders, you can change out images and names and have the same game. That may be true, but sometimes the necessity for using a specific theme challenges us to make mechanics that fit and become something original.

    • Norv Brooks on June 16, 2014

      Chris, I think it’s very difficult to come up with an original game mechanics these days. But as you say starting a design from the theme inspiration you’re more likely to come up with what might be called an original game mechanic or at least an innovative application of an existing mechanic.

  12. Ray on June 16, 2014

    Personally I don’t consider theme and mechanics separate. *Presentation* and mechanics are the two parts — and they both contribute to theme equally. Ignoring theme via presentation, a theme can be equally conveyed via mechanics — as for example an auction theme is in conveyed in an auction game. In fact we call games where theme is not conveyed via mechanics but solely presentation “pasted on”.

  13. Luke Laurie Author on June 16, 2014

    Nowhere do I advocate ignoring theme. Nor am I advocating using theme as sticker. I am a firm believer in integrating theme and mechanics tightly. That said, designing from a mechanics-based approach is still entirely acceptable, and for some designers, highly successful.

    • Ray on June 16, 2014

      I think you missed my point of what i meant by ‘ignoring theme’ I was not claiming that is what you advocate as much as illustrating an example where theme and mechanics are one and the same (for without the presentation side of theme all one has left to convey theme is theme created via mechanics)

      • Luke Laurie Author on June 16, 2014

        I think I understand better now. Thanks for your comments! We may have another piece coming soon discussing the concept that theme and mechanics are one.

  14. jonky on June 16, 2014

    Agricola -ugh no thanks. The theme is so boring and the art is terrible.

    I’m a fan of some of Uwe’s other games.

    There are so many great games out there with awesome theme and mechanics why waste my time on something like that?

  15. jonky on June 16, 2014

    The current top sellers on Funagain games….
    X-wing
    Adventure Time Card Wars
    Marvel Masters

    I’m pretty sure theme played a big role in those games making it to the top.

  16. Luke Laurie Author on June 16, 2014

    @Jonky – I think you’re proving my point a bit with those top sellers. Yes, theme helps sell games, there’s no doubt about that, but take a look at the three games you listed:

    X-wing
    Adventure Time Card Wars
    Marvel Masters

    None of these games have themes that were designed by the game designers! The designers didn’t design the themes, they built the mechanics. My piece and my point in the article is that designers need to focus on mechanics to distinguish themselves and to distinguish their games. They won’t get invited to participate in designing a star wars themed game unless they’ve demonstrated their skill with game mechanics – and using mechanics to integrate a theme is a key skill in game development.

    • Jonky on June 16, 2014

      I’m doubtful that mechanics were a key selling point of those games.
      For X-wing it’s the miniatures, Card Wars the Adventure Time episode, and perhaps Marvel Dice it’s the dice mechanic, perhaps.

  17. Rajeev on June 16, 2014

    Nice article Luke. I agree that solid mechanics are good to keep anyone’s interest (over a long term), but theme is what makes you pick up a game. For instance, Terra Mystica has probably got the best mechanics out there (excellent replay ability etc.) but the theme sounds like it was written by a teenager under time pressure. And hence most games get reduced to “doing actions, using resources, getting victory points”.

    If I was designing a game, I would probably start with a great theme for inspiration and then spend rest of my time on the mechanics. And if possible, integrate the theme with most of the actions in the game, Twilight Struggle is one game which does this integration unbelievably well even though the game mechanics for it are not that unique.

  18. Peter Vaughan on June 16, 2014

    I love this discussion! Thank you everyone, and thanks Luke for inspiring it. In one Facebook chat, we’re up to 74 comments about this. Just wanted to confirm that I will be writing a counter-post called, “Theme: It’s What’s For Dinner!” next Monday, and then the following Monday our own Mark Major will be covering why our polarized views are totally wrong in the first place. (which Jeff Cornelius has been saying all along)

  19. David (Connect More) on June 17, 2014

    Luke – as always a very nice article with some great points! I just wanted to answer your questions you have below your first picture. When I look at a shelf of games, the first thing I look for are games that I recognize from BGG. I look for ones that have been getting the buzz or have had a lot of discussion over them. Usually at this point I have already decided if I want the game or not (from the reading I have done prior to entering the store). If I am still undecided, I look for the designer. I rarely care about who the publisher is – unless of course the designer and the publisher are so closely integrated that you really cannot tell one from the next. Then my purchase decision is usually based on mechanics or perceived experience – which may be tied to theme, player count, style of game, etc – I will have playing the game. But theme is just one of many factors to consider at this point. However, the games that I tend to play more often after I purchase them are ones where I feel immersed and integrated into the game play experience which makes it apparent to me that the value of theme in a game (to me) increases over number of plays and is a key component to making me want to play it again and again…

    Cheers!
    David

  20. Luke Laurie Author on June 17, 2014

    Thank you David and everyone else for the compliments and comments! What a great discussion. That was the real purpose of this piece – to get people thinking and talking and to hear from our audience. David – I love that you answered those questions. I think we all might approach that shelf differently, but with some common things in mind. Some gamers would completely avoid that particular shelf entirely – because of the general mechanics represented, or because the war-games are elsewhere.

  21. Randy on June 17, 2014

    This is a good discussion, and I look forward to the continued posts on the topic. I think there are really two different issues that are getting conflated. These are very different statements:

    1. Mechanics are more important for the designer to focus on than theme during the game design process.
    2. Mechanics are more important for the players than theme in the finished game.

    I think seeing these are different will help the discussion.

  22. Randy on June 17, 2014

    (I expect to agree with Mark’s article saying we’re asking the wrong question if we try to divide theme and mechanics. It feels to me a lot like asking which side of a coin or which blade in a pair of scissors is more important. But we’ll see! 🙂

  23. Luke Laurie Author on June 17, 2014

    I expect to agree with Mark’s perspective as well. Theme is super, super important for my designs, but mechanics are still the game!

  24. Randy on June 17, 2014

    I think that statement, “mechanics are the game,” is incorrect. It’s *all* the game. A game is a full experience, and mechanics and theme and artwork and components all contribute to that experience. Different players enjoy different parts of the experience, and different designers and publishers may tend to focus on or emphasize different parts in different games and at different times in the process.

    If I want to design a game that Luke Laurie will enjoy, I’ll definitely focus more on mechanics during the design process.

  25. Luke Laurie Author on June 17, 2014

    I can’t argue with that Randy! You are correct that it’s all the game.

  26. Randy on June 17, 2014

    Here’s a funny video about Splendor, which seems to some to be “components-first”! 🙂

  27. James on June 17, 2014

    As a counterpoint I would like to bring up the game Munchkin. Now I don’t like the game but you cannot argue with its incredible success. I would also say that even it’s biggest fans would not point to the mechanics of the game as being great or even good, but the theme keeps this game selling and selling.

  28. Luke Laurie on June 17, 2014

    It’s definitely true that some games would be nothing without theme. Nonetheless, a designer shouldn’t rely on that to get his or her ideas published.

  29. You make some solid points here Luke. I think theme is such an integral part of many player experience and that’s why many people focus on it. I think there are many different ways to design and I don’t think we should pidgeonhole new designers before they found their method. Sadly it isn’t easy to find what works for you. That’s where the real work is… for some people mechanics drive their games, for some the theme drives the mechanics. It doesn’t matter as long as the mechanics are solid. True, simulations get boring quickly, but so do games that integrate a theme poorly.

    I think whether theme is your inspiration, or you just wanted to write up some interesting mechanics focus on making the game a great experience. If your theme changes it may not change that experience. Sometimes the theme drives the experience. Either way a publisher won’t purposely hurt your game. If they retheme it then they have a reason. Either to match their line up, or to match a market they’d like to have another game in.

    So I guess I’m saying, that you should focus on the game, not theme or mechanics. It’s greater than the sum of it’s parts. Focusing too much on one can damage your ability to fine tune the other.

  30. Luke Laurie on June 17, 2014

    Great points Jonathan King! To me a lot of this comes back to integration of theme. To that – I’d say that’s primarily a mechanical issue. The development of game mechanics might sound dry – but it’s really a richly engrossing creative experience. You look for and build mechanics that will express and communicate thematic elements. In other words – to me, thematic integration is accomplished through mechanical skill – which includes the ability to apply creativity and problem solving to build an integrated system that will help create that experience for players.

  31. Eliot Hochberg on June 18, 2014

    I have often had this discussion, as well, and I firmly stand on the side of mechanics.

    However…

    There are two exceptions that I think are extremely important about theme that cannot be ignored:

    1) Theme can help explain mechanics, especially complex mechanics, making the easier to understand

    and

    2) Theme is usually what sells.

    For the first, it comes down to how things are worded, and how everything interacts, and not every game mechanic desperately needs theme to explain itself, but there are so many games that don’t really play well because the theme is counter to the mechanic and so players are constantly getting confused or forgetting to enact a key rule because it simply doesn’t fit the theme and they so desperately want it to. I can’t think of an example off hand, but I’m certain it’s true.

    For the second, try as we might, the vast majority of players seem to be more drawn to theme than mechanic. Yes, they may have a general preference for certain type of game mechanic, but it’s the art and sculpts that put the dollars in the till. Witness how difficult it is to sell a purely abstract game. If all you have are some colored bits and a game mechanic, the game may sell, but there are many, many abstract games that never make it, in contrast to what appear to be the oodles of themed games that populate the game tables of game days and cons. Yes there are the Quirkles and Blockuses, but for every one of those, there seem to be ten Power Stations or Ticket to Rides.

    The bottom line, then: if all you have is theme and no mechanic, you have a book or a painting, and not a game. But a game without any theme may be fantastic, may even sell to a publisher, but will seldom fly off the shelves, at least, according to anecdotal evidence I’ve seen and heard.

    • Luke Laurie Author on June 18, 2014

      Fantastic comments Eliot Hochberg!

    • When you talked about art and sculpts I realized something. Let’s forget games for a second and talk about fine art. Sculptures and Paintings have 2 major parts, the subject and technique. The subject is often what draws the most people in. People will buy art with mediocre technique if it’s about a subject they appreciate. For some art the technique is truly the draw, as in Picasso, Van Gogh, and DaVinci. The best art combines a fantastic subject with fantastic technique.

      Abstract subjectless art is less appealing to the majority of people even if the technique is good because they find it hard to connect with. Even if the subject is great, if the technique is rubbish no one wants it regardless of the subject.

      So really for art the technique one uses is the most important thing to practice, so that interesting subjects get the skill that they deserve. Some techniques are inappropriate for some subjects and create a dissonance, so you have to be careful. When people identify with the subject and the technique is good it resonates deeply with people. The subject is still what makes the art sell, but it’s the technique that determines the price.

      I’d say it’s the same with game design which I consider an artform (read my blog about that sometime). The subject or theme is what draws people in. It’s your technique, your mechanics, that determine your game’s value. Overall experience and integration are truly the key though, because a fantastic theme done fantastically is what gamers really want.

      TL:DR Game design is an artform, work on your technique and choose an interesting subject!

      • Luke Laurie on June 18, 2014

        Well put, and I’m sure it was hardly sarcastic, and not a bit robotic. It is an art form. Like all art forms is a combination of technical skill and intangible creativity. Your comments here and wisdom are greatly appreciated.

  32. Will Braun on June 18, 2014

    I have to agree with this article for a number of reasons. First, in all the games I’ve designed I have always done mechanics first. Its a lot easier to build theme around a set of core rules than it is to build core rules around a theme (although it can be helpful). My second and more prominent point, actually its more like a test, if you can take a game and recreate it yourself using nothing more than scraps of paper and still enjoy it greatly, then you know it is not the theme that draws you in, but the game itself. I have done this a great number of times with games ranging from Resistance, Cosmic Encounter, and even my first few months of Warhammer 40k. All were remade using scraps of paper (I was rather on the poop side at the time) so I could play at home or with friends.

  33. Marco Valtriani on June 18, 2014

    It’s a nice article, and I think that Luke Laurie’s point “no matter how good is your theme, if your rules are bad, the game won’t work”, is obviously true.
    But maybe a little reflection is needed about the term “mechanic”, because often we all say the same word but we have slightly different ideas about it.

    Are we considering “mechanics” as in the MDA Framework or are we using another definition? Because if we use that formal definition, theme and mechanics may “fall” inside the same set of tool a designer can use.

    I often say that mechanics are the means that allow players’ choices to be meaningful in the imaginary space of the game. When I work on a game, I always think about “what I want players to experience? and to feel? what I want them to do?” and then I design the game. I really don’t care where “mechanics” end and when “theme” begins, they’re all part of the same “system”.

    Rules are really important, they are what makes “the artifact we’re working on” a game. But also theme is important: enhances engagement, helps players remember rules. Ok, as Chris said it’s really important to sell the game, but the really important thing is that theme is part of the experience.

    Of course a broken mechanic can ruin a game, but I think that the theme should “work” aswell in order to have players living an engaging experience: some games will rely more on rules and math, other games will have a richer theme, they’re both part of the same amalgam, even if you choose to reduce to a minimum rules (as in freeform rpgs) or theme (as in abstract games).

    • Luke Laurie Author on June 18, 2014

      Great comments Marco! I think I tend to have a pretty broad definition of mechanics, and I strongly agree that theme and mechanics of course combine to create the experience. That synthesis of mechanics and theme, where there is no hard line between them can be the mark of a well-designed game.

  34. Oliver Kiley on June 19, 2014

    Interesting article for a number of reasons – although I think the thrust of the article is selling game design a bit short.

    #1 – I agree (as others have also said) that the mechanics need to work or else your game is going to be rubbish and no one will play it again after the initial play. Okay, we got that out of the way.

    #2 – Next, theme is largely what sells a game, but it can’t only be about theme (see #1).

    #3 – I GREATLY appreciate the distinction made by Randy earlier in the comments section about theme as “dressing” for a game versus using theme as “dynamic” or “experience.” In the former case, the theme can be substituted easily for something else. In the latter case, mechanics are used to model/replicate/simulate/etc the theme in some plausible and rational manner.

    As mentioned, designing a game with the goal of realizing some thematic reality/dynamic is far more likely to result in new ground being forged from a mechanic standpoint than starting off saying, “gee, what if we took deckbuilding games and crossed it with an auction and 2 other things?”

    #4 – One of the hallmarks of eurogames and eurogamers (I feel) is an obsession with mechanics for their own sake. This isn’t bad at all – but it perpetuates a sort of incremental growth/evolution in mechanics. Everyone’s sitting around waiting for the next “innovative new mechanics” instead of trying bold and different ideas, which need to draw inspiration from something other than the established mechanics.

    #5 – So I say this is selling game design short because I think all designers should aspire to have theme and mechanics working together in a more genuine way. The design process is iterative, and playstesting should be as likely to change the theme as it is the mechanics, and both need to play off each other. If your “big combined” idea isn’t working, then it isn’t working – throw the whole thing out and start from a totally different place.

    Random thoughts … maybe helpful.

    • Luke Laurie Author on June 19, 2014

      Excellent comments Oliver! I really appreciate what you’ve added to the conversation!

  35. Peter Vaughan on June 19, 2014

    It’s all about theme! I’ll tell you why Monday!

  36. Brandon Raasch on June 19, 2014

    What a great debate, Theme or Mechanics? Clearly the common thread recommends both. However it appears to me there is a leaning towards favoring mechanics, which I imagine a group of dedicated gamers would demand. If I may decent just a bit, I think the Theme of game certainly can me more than just Marketing, it can be the reason a player gets interested as much as, or even more than, great mechanics. Consider the explosion in Cthulhu Mythos games. There are so many different Mythos games (and thus numerous mechanics) because the Theme is driving players to play. Even Mythos games with ‘average’ mechanics do well, because Lovecraftians are often playing for the Theme more than cutting edge mechanics. Again, you need both, but if your are not a Eurogamer, you will probably tolerate ‘ok’ mechanics for a Theme you love…

    • Luke Laurie on June 19, 2014

      Brandon – thanks for the comment and input! I’ll counter your dissent from your dissent a bit. If someone is designing a game with a cthulu theme, they aren’t really designing a theme at all IMO. Likewise most of the top selling thematic games borrow themes from movies, TV shows, and literature.- especially the one’s on Peter’s new Geeklist on BGG: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/175035/theme-is-more-important-than-mechanics

      It does take some design skill to build games to those themes, but by and large these themes aren’t being invented by designers.

      I agree that theme is driving players to play – but still the designer’s primary focus must be on solid mechanics to make those thematic games tick.

  37. Luke Laurie on June 22, 2014

    I started a geek list as a follow up to this post of great games with weak, shallow, or nonexistent theme: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/175195/mechanics-are-more-important-than-theme

  38. Jeff Rhind on July 2, 2014

    Just came across your website today. Lots of great articles and discussions to go through. As much as I think mechanics are integral to a game, I think it should be balanced with a theme. If the game was just numbers and cubes and spots on a board, I would have no desire to play. The theme is what pulls us in and the mechanics is what makes the game engaging and keeps it going. I’ve been trying to design a couple of games myself, but in my “workspace” I have to think of theme as I design because I don’t want the theme to be pasted on. I want it to feel like its integrated and part of the experience. My two cents.

    • Christina Major on July 2, 2014

      Welcome Jeff! Glad you’re enjoying the discussion! You definitely want to check out the follow up article we posted earlier this week about theme, mechanics, and how they inform experience and context: http://www.leagueofgamemakers.com/theme-vs-mechanics-the-false-dichotomy/

    • Luke Laurie Author on July 3, 2014

      Good points Jeff! I honestly don’t know anyone who designs without theme in mind, however, in my design circle, we do emphasize the priority of mechanical function and synergy. As I said above, “If you are a designer, that’s where you should channel the vast majority of your creative energy. In situations where you must choose between preserving your theme and using the most solid, fun mechanics, go with the mechanics.”

    • Peter Vaughan on July 3, 2014

      Jeff, I love the way you think. It’s all about theme, indeed! Ignore Luke. (j/k – I agree with Luke a lot, but I love arguing with him, so I wrote the counter point on theme just for you!)

      • Luke Laurie Author on July 16, 2014

        Ignore me at your own peril Squirmy Beast!

  39. Mark Streed on July 6, 2014

    I’m a huge theme guy! But yes, if the playability isn’t there then a great story makes no difference. However, I love a great story and theme. Really sucks me in….

    • Luke Laurie Author on July 16, 2014

      Agreed – great themes can really pull players in to the experience. But art and other thematic elements are often not the work of the designer. The designer may create the framework for that theme, but the publisher will work with the artists and graphic artists to create the whole picture.

  40. Bruno Faidutti on June 18, 2017

    I disagree with most of what is said in this article, but it’s nevertheless interesting, and it’s a good thing that different designers can have different approaches. I more and ore try not to separate theme and mechanism, and to have permanent feedback and cross-fertilization between one and the other when designing a game. I think it’s as wrong to design with only mechanics in mind as it is to design with only theme in mind – if they can’t go along all the way, it means one must change one or the other.

    And I’ve become extremely wary of publishers changing the theme of my games. For one good experience – Isla Dorada – I’ve had a dozen of really bad ones.
    More about it on my website when I’ll post the design diaries for two of my upcoming games, Nutz! and King’s Life, in which I discuss this issue at much length.

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