Mechanics as foods

Does your latest design resemble flavorless tofu cubes, ready to mix with a flavor? Are the mechanics straight from a can, with a generic label? This will hopefully prove a delicious counter-post to Luke Laurie’s article, “Mechanics are more more important than theme”. If you can’t tell, I’m arguing the “TASTE’S GREAT!” to his “LESS FILLING!” in this debate. I’ll take a look at why designers should take a theme-first approach to designing games.

“Theme, it’s what’s for dinner!”

Themes as foods

Oh no, what am I saying?? Is theme bad for you? Yes, it is the dark side. It’s pure temptation. It’s of the devil, I say! Embrace it – and design the best games ever made! Yes, theme is fattening. It’s going to rot your teeth. But you only live once, right? Theme is going to bring people to the table! If the number of calories in this post were a fraction of the dollars that theme-driven games are going to sell this year, why it would be as Egon Spengler once described, “a twinkie 35 feet long and weighing approximately 600 pounds.” That’s a big twinkie!

There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get a couple of caveats out of the way:

theme first caveats

No RPGs? To make this a fair fight, let’s put down the DM screen. No mechanics stand a chance in the light of glorious, story-driven, thematic role play. But we’ll keep in mind RPGs in the context of what lessons they can offer board game designers for story. Warrior image above courtesy of Ignacio Krichman, links to his DeviantArt and FB pages.

The chicken and the egg. We all know that there’s no actual winning side here. It’s an endless debate, and that’s fine. I’m just taking a extreme theme position for fun, even though I actually believe in a balanced meal.

Design vs market. We just eluded to “theme sells” above, but as Randy Hoyt pointed out in the comments on Luke’s article, there is a big difference in these two sentences:

A) Theme or mechanics is more important for the designer to focus on.
B) Theme or mechanics is most important in a finished game.

What I’m going to do is focus on “A” and take market out of this. It means I’m going to give up talking about how Magic or mini figs are keeping FLGS alive, but I’m doing this to refute the ground that Luke raises on “publishers may change your theme.” This is actually irrelevant to the design process.

Theme may change, mechanics could break down, you could just as easily argue that working in certain themes guarantees you that publisher meeting! After all, “You Can’t Over-Use a Good Theme!” There are companies that are theme focused (Plaid Hat, Twilight Creations, Flying Frog, etc) and you could pitch to them or you might be self-publishing for all we know.

And by the time you’re on a shelf, it’s in the hands of each unique customer to decide what they want. The only thing we can do is design the best game we can, and the best blend of theme and mechanics. But what should you start with? Theme, of course! But why?

Thematic Consonance = Stronger Game

I turned to Seth Jaffee, Lead Designer at Tasty Minstrel Games, for an example of a design that had come to TMG that he felt had benefitted from theme-first design. He did me one better, he pointed me to a blog he wrote on this topic, “Theme first vs. Mechanics first Design”.

“…perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I often have a main mechanism in mind, I look for a theme to use it with, and then I let the theme direct how the rest of the game shapes up. So even when starting with a mechanism, I pretty much approach a design “theme-first.”
Seth Jaffee Lead Designer, Tasty Minstrel Games

At the end of his blog post he captures it perfectly with the words, “thematic consonance.” You have a better chance at harmony among your theme and mechanics, if you start with theme.

The Curious Case of Uwe Rosenberg

I never thought I’d use the designer of Agricola in a debate for theme-first, but in fact he has cited (on his blog, and in an interview) that he designed Agricola, the #3 ranked board game on BoardGameGeek, with theme in mind as a starting point.

“I thought about a theme which justified a controlled and limited increase of your workers. To employ workers seemed to increase the workers more or less unlimited. But to to conceive children as a couple needs time. Definitely!”
Uwe Rosenberg Game Designer, Founder Lookout Games
“Before Agricola, I only thought about mechanisms. After Agricola, I adjust mechanisms to suit farming. This has become a small universe for me, much the way that card games were at the end of the 1990′s. I’m always reading about the theme and try to make the games easier to handle while maintaining the same gaming and narrative depth. I try to tell grand stories.”
Uwe Rosenberg Game Designer, Founder Lookout Games

There you have it folks. Grand stories at the core. Now, I don’t believe Uwe conveyed the deeper ‘story-telling’ in Agricola. You can get a small taste in the occupation flavor, but I think Dungeon’s and Dragons has a bit of edge here in character backstory. I think Uwe primarily made a worker placement game that redefined the mechanic. But perhaps the success of this innovation with the mechanic is because he first tied it directly to a theme. People can say that farming is still boring, but it’s the #1 game about farming for better or worse.

MECHANICS ARE PLUG AND PLAY, THEME IS THE POWER SOURCE

A great quote in Luke’s article that I completely agree with is “Each element should have a mechanical purpose and function. It shouldn’t be included solely because the theme demands it.” Absolutely. In the comments, Norv Brooks brought up a great counter statement, which is, “It shouldn’t be included solely because it’s a cool mechanic.”

Sure, you can design with a mechanic in mind. Go over to Boardgamegeek and check out their list of game mechanics. Pick one and begin. Actually, you should pick two, in order to keep it interesting. How about area control and memory? (actually, this has been done very successfully). A lot of fun games come from the mechanics that are jotted down in a designer notebook but don’t fit in your current game. That’s fine, but I think this means you are looking for the right theme and experience to pair them with.

Don’t be afraid to change mechanics to make the right game. Brad Brooks wrote an informative example, “Transmogrify Your Mechanics”. But how do you know what you should use or when you should shift mechanics? Let theme be your guide.

When I started designing What the Food?!, I’ll admit I began with a mechanic. I knew I wanted simultaneous action programming, such as attack and block. But these nameless cards took a shape when I decided on a food fight:

What the Mechanics?

I turned to Stonemaier Games for a quote, because not only do they make mechanically solid games, but they also make fully thematic, rich experiences. This synergy has led to much success, with both Tuscany and Euphoria among the top funded tabletop games on Kickstarter.

Certainly theme must be most important here, right? I couldn’t pin Jamey Stegmaier down to say that, (he countered with “fun supersedes theme or mechanisms”) but he recounted an example in Euphoria where theme was the defining factor in crafting a unique WP mechanic:

“One pretty clear example are the tunnels. When I was creating the
various factions in the world of Euphoria, something that emerged was that
each faction had something that another faction wanted. How would they get
those things? By secretly tunneling into the opposing faction. The tunnel
mechanism in the game is a direct result of that thematic element.”
Jamey Stegmaier Co-Founder, Stonemaier Games

THEME ENHANCES INTUITION

When you have harmony between theme and mechanics and let theme dictate how the mechanics are used, you end up with a game that beautifully captures an experience. Players may not even be able to put their finger on why it’s so good, because it’s seamless. It’s “Verisimilitude!”, a subject written on by our guest posters Eric Cesare and Anthony Rando at Devious Devices.

In the second quote from Uwe above, there’s a great line in there about “make the games easier to handle” while maintaining the same depth.

A comment from Eliot Hochberg on Luke’s post also brings this to light, “Theme can help explain mechanics, especially complex mechanics, making them easier to understand”. I agree here. You can find a game that works mechanically, you can even strip out all the art and graphics and say that since it functions and is still engaging, you have enough game, but I think theme (along with it’s sidekicks art and graphic design) can actually make those mechanics understandable, and intuitive for your players.

A great example of this (despite being more of a mechanic-driven game) is Manhattan Project. Mechanics aside, I’ll never forget how when I played that game, every single part of the board was clear and intuitive in theme. The workers roles made sense, and yellowcake might be the best themed reason to have yellow cubes, ever.

THEMATIC EXAMPLES

I know I’m going long here, and I’ve even focused too much on what little theme exists in euro games rather than featuring all the titles dripping in awesome mythos. I still have some great examples to give from five indie designer friends who have games where theme was first and the most important factor in the design. I want to highlight these games, so I’ll mention them here and I promise to do a follow up article explaining more about their game and design process.

  • Boomtown Bandits by Isaac Epp
  • Chaosmos, by Mirror Box Games, Joey Vigour
  • Corporate America, by Nothing Sacred Games, Teale Fristoe
  • Zerpang!, by Whirling Derby, Mark Major
  • Gothic Doctor, by Meltdown Games, Doug Levandowski
  • Dragon’s Hoard, by Mortensen Games, Nathanael Mortensen

Dragon's Hoard

That’s right – you play the dragon in Dragon’s Hoard!

Final Thoughts

I just want to take a minute to acknowledge Luke Laurie for starting this interesting chat on mechanics and theme. I also want to say thanks to all our great commenters. It’s been fun to see all the remarks on Facebook, here on the blog and on BGG. Speaking of BGG, a reminder about our two geeklists with theme and mechanics:

Theme is More Important than Mechanics – on BGG
Mechanics are More Important than Theme – on BGG

I think a lot of folks are going to be happy with our third post in this series where Mark Major debunks it all and denies that it’s either theme or mechanics. I’ve seen many readers touch on this with a holistic mention of “experience,” “art forms,” “systems,” “concept,” “presentation,” and “inspiration”, to name a few.

Until then, I leave you with this fun comment about theme from Judd Vance, who as part of a Dice Tower you tube review on top Ameritrash games, gave this guideline for determining if you have a heavily themed masterpiece – it’s all in the description:

“If it uses lots of exclamation points, the word ‘dude’ and a heavy metal symbol, you got Ameritrash. I mean, think about it: ‘I just got this third pink building in my tableau… that gives me 4 extra victory points’ as opposed to ‘DUDE! I totally squashed your zombie squad with my cybernetic dinosaur!!!!!‘”
Judd Vance

Peter Vaughan

Game Designer at Squirmy Beast

Peter eats games for breakfast! A core gamer since the days of the Commodore 64, Peter is experienced in a wide variety of game styles and platforms, and designs for both mobile and tabletop experiences. A member of So Cal Playtesting, helping design the future of games. His first published board game is “What the Food?!”

Latest posts by Peter Vaughan (see all)

21 Readers Commented

Join discussion
  1. Jamey Stegmaier on June 23, 2014

    I REALLY like the idea that theme enhances intuition–well said, Peter.

    • Peter Vaughan Author on June 24, 2014

      Thanks Jamey, and thank you for the quotes too. I was actually looking to share your very interesting Viticulture theme-first example in Intuition, but in that one case, it could actually be read as counter to the point, and I don’t want anyone to get that idea about Viticulture. 🙂

  2. Randy on June 23, 2014

    Great post! I think most people on each side of this debate would agree that “thematic consonance” is exactly what we want in a finished game. You say that you have a better chance of getting that with theme-first design, and that feels right to me. (With Relic Expedition, the jungle exploration theme informed much of the design.) But I suspect it’s possible to achieve thematic consonance with a mechanics-first design, as well; it would take a very talented developer/publisher to do the re-theming.

    • Peter Vaughan Author on June 24, 2014

      Thanks again Randy for your contributions to this debate on both sides!

  3. Jeff on June 23, 2014

    I once had glorious, story-driven, thematic roleplay. Then I realized I was playing with the Loch Ness Monster, Santa Claus, and Jesus riding a dinosaur. I woke up and realized it had all been a crazy dream of things that don’t exist!

  4. Jeff on June 23, 2014

    Mechanics are why people play games. You have to start with mechanics, otherwise you are just writing a novel or a screenplay. Mechanics are what make a game a game. Once you have solid mechanics, then you can find a good theme that fits them or create your own, but without mechanics you have nothing.

  5. Norv Brooks on June 23, 2014

    Letting that small portion of English blood in me out — Bloody well done old chap!

    • Peter Vaughan Author on June 24, 2014

      Thank you Norv! I think you could teach a course on how to integrate theme and mechanics actually. 🙂

  6. Randy on June 23, 2014

    Jeff, I think you are confusing the two things I mentioned. Let’s assume that mechanics are what makes a game a game and that mechanics are why people play games. (I think Mark is going to challenge even that assumption, but let it stand for a moment. 🙂 Even so that does not dictate a specific chronological process for the designer. Creative work is notoriously complicated and messy, and what works for one person may not work at all for another person; what worked for me on one design may not work for me on another design.

    • Well said randy. I firmly believe in ‘the process’ and everyone’s path through it is different. My process adapts a little each game, but I’m truly finding what works for me as a designer and developer. That’s the point for designers, to find out how you do it best so you can replicate that process again and again.

      I find sometimes working with another designer can be new and exciting because we create a new hybrid process, instead of the one I know so well. For instance I am currently working on a game that focused on a mechanic then went very theme based. Then we layered on more mechanics, and to solve a design issue came up with a very big one. A new core mechanic! This became the most exciting thing about the design, and we scrapped the old theme to add on a new one that is even better. The old theme was great, and I’ll rework it someday, but the new game feels more epic, and fits the new core mechanic. The experience has improved, and that’s the whole point.

    • Peter Vaughan Author on June 24, 2014

      Agreed on the process is unique to the individual. I myself have started with both theme-first and mechanics-first, and I’m working on finding the right formula for me to quickly get to working prototypes.

      I’m too young in my game design career to pretend to have an answer, but even when I’m old and gray and have designed… millions!….of successful games, I doubt I can tell another designer how they should do a creative process. I might be able to give tips, but it will always be a personal journey for everyone.

  7. Luke Laurie on June 23, 2014

    Though this piece is the counterpoint to mine, I can’t really argue with much of it. I’m really a big fan of theme, an even bigger fan of well-integrated theme. I just stand by my assertion that still mechanics have priority. I too design with mechanics that are inspired my the themes and stories of my games, but I try to be careful to not adhere so closely to the theme that I build cluttered or fiddly mechanics just to carry out the subtleties of thematic elements. My current primary project, Drill, Baby, Drill began with a theme and a mechanical principle: “Produce Energy, build your economy, and learn to adapt in a changing world in which petroleum is becoming increasingly scarce.” The mechanics that followed have created what I think is a very fun, tight medium Euro style game: featuring the following mechanics: worker placement, tableau building, resource management and dice rolling. People can come try my game for the theme, but they’ll stay and play again only if the mechanics appeal to them.

  8. I think you slightly touched on part of the binary thinking used in the community at large. Ameritrash vs. Euro is the common way it’s usually expressed. I now call the former ameri-games because the other name just sounds condescending. Euro gamers typically put mechanics first when making a purchase, and Ameri-gamers the theme right? But things aren’t quite binary.

    Corey Young (@C_M_Young) called games something I had never heard of in an interview about his game Gravwell. He said the games he enjoys are mid-atlantic (somewhere between a euro and ameri-game). This is where I find myself too. Most of the games I love aren’t pure euro, nor amerigame, but something that doesn’t fit this binary framing we’ve created. In fact I know for a fact that half of the games that were mentioned as a good example of a thick theme above include euro mechanics and would fit very well into this category. This category is growing contantly, and is where modern games are headed (including many of the League’s games).

    I guess this is just another post saying that I’m with Mark, this isn’t binary. But there certainly is room for a wide variety of processes, play styles and genres.

    • Peter Vaughan Author on June 24, 2014

      Thanks Jonathan! I think we are seeing some exciting blends now as European design mentality incorporates ‘American’ style narratives and vise versa. The modern games that are coming out keep getting more and more plussed to me, and whether or not it’s a golden age of board games, it’s exciting times for me, and reaffirming my desire to be a designer. I like the term mid-atlantic btw. Cheers to more of those!

    • Luke Laurie on June 24, 2014

      I love that – Mid-Atlantic. That’s where I put Catan. We could go “Trans-Atlantic” and say we do more than meet in the middle, we take the best of both!

  9. Joey Vigour on June 24, 2014

    Nice article Peter!

    Luke, if someone like me tries a game for the theme, and the theme can’t compete with richer-themed games, then they won’t “stay and play again” for the mechanics – they will move on to another game with a better theme. Why is Talisman so popular? It ain’t the mechanics! Come ON. “Roll dice and move clockwise or counter-clockwise.” No, they “stay” with Talisman because they are killing monsters and exploring dungeons and collecting badass weapons and magical gear.

  10. Arctic Dragon Games on June 24, 2014

    The theme is driving the mechanics for my Fantasy Fighters tabletop wargame.

    All of the Fantasy Fighter races are Shapechangers, Humans become Werwolves, Dwarves become Wereboars, Orcs become Werecrocs, etc. Due to their desire to change to a more deadly type of a fighter before and even during combat their combat emphasizes hand to claw melee and they have very few missile troops. Their potential to change on the battlefield introduces a more random aspect to troop placement than is normally found in set piece armies and supports the use of small skirmisher bands versus well disciplined rank and file formations.

  11. Eric @ Devious Devices on June 24, 2014

    Bravo, Peter! You and Luke would make a great debate team 🙂
    When Ant and I first started designing “Bad Roommate,” it was all about theme. As you know the whole game was dripping VST. It got to the point though where we had enough (probably too much ) theme, but from that, some solid mechanics bubbled up out of the themey-ooze. Since we hit that sort of ‘critical mass,’ the game has undergone a major overhaul with mechanical stability being the new focus and it’s lead to something that I think better embodies the type of game we set out to make, while still capturing the theme of people blowing up couches with hand grenades and then moseying off to work to pay the rent.

  12. Pat Marino on June 30, 2014

    Great rebuttal to Luke’s article. As a designer I think primarily in mechanics and often lead towards that end of the endless theme vs. mechanics debate, however your post, and Seth Jaffee’s made me realize that nearly all of my designs start with a theme concept – often an experience or challenge – that I then try to recreate using game mechanics. My main focus right now (Goblin Toboggan) started with the idea of a making a ski race game, which led to mechanics, which then circled back to changing the theme to a Goblin Toboggan race, because it allowed for some more interesting/quirky mechanics elements. In any event, starting with theme has always helped me start designing the mechanics. The theme is what keeps me creative and moves the process.

    I also wholeheartedly agree with your point that theme clarifies mechanics. A game like Space Cadets is loaded with mechanics, but the theme elements – different roles of the players and the overall mission – make it manageable. In a recent play-test I did the players asked me to rename a few cards for that exact reason – what they described was a mental thematic illustration they had of what the mechanic would look like if the game pieces were real. They then offered up a card name that fit that image and as a result other players then also understood the mechanic better and more quickly.

    It makes me think of teaching chess to people who have never played. Memorizing which piece moves in which pattern can be tricky for some beginners because it is a bit too abstract. For example based on my observation real bishops don’t just move diagonally, but if they did I bet new chess players would pick up that rule more quickly.

    At any rate, thanks for the write up and for making me reflect on my process!

Have something to say?