Most conversations about theme and mechanics treat games as if those are the only two elements a game has. Some comments make it seem like there’s this linear scale with “theme” on one end and “mechanics” on the other. Other comments paint a picture of a Venn diagram with two non-overlapping circles.

The reality is that games are much more complicated.

“Theme” and “Mechanics” mean a number different things in different situations. So it becomes very fuzzy to have a conversation about which is more important in designing, playing, or purchasing games, because each participant in the conversation might have a different idea about exactly what those terms are encompassing.

For the sake of this article, I’m going to define some different terms in hopes of presenting a more accurate model of a game’s elements.

Flavor: Flavor is thematic detail in a game that has no impact on how the game plays. It exists purely in the Imagined circle, which deals with emotions and feelings you want the player to bring with them. Bits of text giving a glimpse into a city’s history, atmospheric art in the rulebook, or a portrait of a random, nameless side character are all examples of flavor.

Rules: This is the theoretical system or parameters of the game. It exists purely in the Virtual circle, which deals with concepts you’re introducing to the player. “You select one option and pass the rest” is an example of the rules you’ll be imparting to the player.

Components: These are the bits that make up the game, cards, boards, dice, pawns, and so forth. These exist purely in the Physical circle, which is all the real-world parts of a game (including the players).

When you start combining these, you get more complex layers.

Imagined + Physical = Narrative

Narrative is the unique sequence of events that players experience during any specific game session. In a themeless, abstract game, this narrative is literally the actions that players take, such as “I place my stone at the intersection of the 4th row and the 5th column.” But in a game with a theme, the narrative changes. Rather than “I put my wooden token at the intersection of those three hexes,” it becomes something more like, “I build my settlement by the wheat, sheep, and wood”.

Physical + Virtual = Mechanics

Where the rules set up the game’s conceptual parameters, the mechanics are the game’s engine. Mechanics are an interactive concept: They’re how the players use the rules to come up with strategy.

Virtual + Imagined = Theme

Where flavor has no impact on the game, theme does. Themes set up parameters for how you expect the game to take place, what behaviors you expect to take, and how you’ll be interacting with others. For example, a zombie theme would probably include the expectation of suspense and perhaps cooperative play, but not include the expectation of political intrigue or medieval warfare.

Put them all together and you get…

CONTEXT

As you might guess from the fact that it rests in the intersection of all three circles, context is really important! Context is how players understand the game as a whole and their role in it.

Context can change by scope.

Context is a high-level view of what the players are doing and why they are doing it. You can look at it in the moment (What are you doing and why are you doing what you’re doing it: You build cities in this game to increase the reach of your civilization) Are you yourself or are you playing a role?

Context is scaleable.

Simple games may not need a strong theme, since they are easy enough to understand. The more complex or seemingly contrary a game’s mechanics are, the more important theme is as an ingredient because of how it modifies and builds the context. This can also allow a personal narrative to take the forefront, such as how well you know your fellow players.

Changing Theme Can Change Context

Even an abstract game has context. In a game of Go, a player understands they are trying to best another player by pitting strategic skill against strategic skill. This illustrates another function of theme. A theme can alter the context of a game to make the social interaction less contentious. If you see the game as being Cyber Bunny vs Gigazaur, when one of them stands triumphant in Tokyo it says nothing about Josh or Gary the players. When the theme is abstract, there’s less of a buffer and the game becomes more competitive.

But when a theme is poorly matched to the mechanics and narrative, the context suffers. Take a game like Trajan, which makes no attempt to fit the theme and the mechanics together into a good context. It paints a blurry picture of Roman society, but there is nothing to explain the mancala mechanic, making it an awkward method of choosing actions. Theme makes you question why you don’t have options you think you should for your role and your goals, creating dissonance and an imbalanced context.

Changing Mechanics Can Change Context

The components you use and the rules you follow also have a big impact. In Oceanica, I deliberately chose the mechanics of rolling dice to create random results and drafting those resources. The mechanic of randomization creates a scarcity. The current theme, which is that you’re competing for the last remaining resources of a flooding planet, was overlaid on top of this to create a unified context of a chaotic environment.

The flavor and theme could completely be changed – spaceships mining a dangerous field of asteroids, perhaps – and work equally well. But if the theme were changed to something other than that chaotic environment – building a static civilization, for example – the mechanics as they are would not reinforce that, and the context would suffer.

Changing Narrative Can Change Context

The trickiest thing for a game designer to affect is narrative, because this is the thing that’s most reliant on the players, not the components. If your friends invite over their alpha gamer friend to cooperative game night, that will affect the narrative. If you break for pizza in the middle of a game, that will also affect the narrative.

This is where good marketing and graphic design comes in. Are you making your game attractive to the people who will create the best context for the mechanics and theme to thrive? Are you using flavor graphics that let them know what their role will be? Are you conveying how long the game plays or how complicated it will be with your components? Did your publisher get that key reviewer to talk it up and guide your audience’s expectations? Did the player find it at Toys R Us or in a war game hobby store?

Good marketing will help people come into the game with the narrative most conducive to building the right context, whether that’s “I’m here for a fun game that will have me out of my seat pantomiming the chicken dance with my kids” or “I’m here to match wits with my smartest friend and build a strategically poised galactic empire over the next 8 hours”.

This is not meant to be a definitive, authoritative breakdown of all the aspects of a game. Feel free to disagree with the specifics of how I’ve defined terms, or where I’ve put labels in the diagram. But the takeaway you should be getting from this is that games are complex entities. Reducing them to a flat heads-or-tails picture ends up missing a lot about how the physical parts of the game, the imagined parts of the game, and the way players interact with the game all have an effect on each other.

“What Should a Designer Focus On?”

This is the core question debated by Luke Laurie and Peter Vaughan in their corresponding articles on this topic. This tends to be a polarizing question, but the reality is that it doesn’t really matter. Whether you should start thinking about the imagined parts of a game (such as theme) or other elements first depends largely on what you want your players to experience.

I talked a bit before about designing for the experience. Theme makes sense if you want the play experience to be driven by the imagination (Fantasy or Narrative aesthetics). Mechanics make sense if you want the play experience to be driven by more intellectual activity (Challenge or Discovery aesthetics). You can start with any of the other categories I defined above too. The main thing is, after you find a starting place, you need to quickly reach a point where you can tie everything together with a strong context, and then maintain the integrity of that context as you add and change different parts of your game.

Mark Major

Game Designer at Whirling Derby

Mark Major wears hats and makes games of many different varieties (in both cases).

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  1. Luke Laurie on June 30, 2014

    Great piece Mark! You really managed to tie all this together. I particularly enjoyed your mention of re-skinning potential for Oceanica. The mechanics fit a theme of a chaotic environment, so any resin would have to fit that. The “experience” you’re going for is feeling that instability/chaos.

    I also enjoyed that you used Trajan as an example of a game with a thin theme. I wouldn’t go as far as saying “no effort” was made to make the theme fit. But it’s a solid game where deeply imbedded theme is not vital to creating the experience.

    • Mark Major Author on June 30, 2014

      I disagree about Trajan. My experience of the game was hindered by the fact that its theme sets up a particular context that does not support the mechanics. It would be a much better game with no theme at all than the theme it currently has applied. A thinly applied theme can work just as well as a deeply imbedded theme, but it still needs to harmonize.

      • Luke Laurie on June 30, 2014

        I’ll respect that about Trajan. It is the experience I’m looking for, but it clearly isn’t for everyone. I’m fond of the thin theme, but I know some of my friends would have no interest in it at all.

        • Seth Jaffee on June 30, 2014

          I don’t know, even a thin theme can help people grok a game more than if it were simply abstract. In that respect I prefer Trajan’s current thin/loose theme than a completely abstract version of the same game.

          I only wish the Rondel in Trajan had monochromatic pieces, and the tiles only cared about number, not color. I feel like that color-puzzle over-complicates the mechanism, and it frequently does my least favorite thing – it asks me to make a decision with incomplete information. “Do I drop these last 2 pieces pink-then-blue, or blue-then-pink? I have no way to choose… I guess I’ll pick one.” (2 turns later…) “oh shit, I wish I’d chosen the other way around!”

          • Seth Jaffee on June 30, 2014

            P.S. I have a design that is based on what I incorrectly thought Trajan would be like. I think it’s an overall thematic design, but the central mechanism (a rond-cala similar to Trajan’s) is not really connected to the theme, so maybe Mark would hate this game ;)

            If you’re curious: http://sedjtroll.blogspot.com/2013/12/templar-rules-revisited.html

          • Luke Laurie on June 30, 2014

            Absolutely – even a thin theme contributes to the grokking. Trajan with no theme would be lame. Trajan with a more immersive theme – I don’t know, might be distracting from that kind of experience. I’ll check out your mancala-rondel game concept

          • Mark Major Author on June 30, 2014

            That’s what I’m trying to say. Doesn’t matter if it’s thin or thick, Trajan’s theme anti-groks. The theme implies to me that I should be able to do X, but then the mancala mechanic tells me no, no I can’t do X. It’s a problem when a game tells you that you have a role but then restricts your choices in a way that doesn’t make sense for that role.

      • Luke Laurie on July 1, 2014

        Do you feel the same way about Castles of Burgundy?

  2. Jeff Cornelius on June 30, 2014

    I am going to have to come down on Mark’s side in this debate. Very well written and I agree that good context is really what we are all striving for which can be achieved through theme or mechanics.

  3. Jeff Cornelius on June 30, 2014

    And because both other posts had Geeklists to go with them, here is my geeklist to go along with Mark’s post:
    http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/175280/item/3290812?commentid=4742734#comment4742734

  4. Randy on June 30, 2014

    There is so much good in this article! And so much more to digest. Thanks, Mark! As a tiny publisher, I’m currently developing a game from another designer that I have re-themed. A lot of these ideas have been on my mind, but only in a vague sense. This article gives a really good framework for thinking about all of them.

  5. Norv Brooks on June 30, 2014

    “The main thing is, after you find a starting place, you need to quickly reach a point where you can tie everything together with a strong context, and then maintain the integrity of that context as you add and change different parts of your game.” This point harmonizes very nicely with League Member Stephen DeBaun’s article on “Design Landmark”:
    http://www.leagueofgamemakers.com/choosing-your-design-landmark/

  6. Matt Worden on June 30, 2014

    Nicely put together, Mark!

  7. Seth Jaffee on June 30, 2014

    This is a really, really good post. Makes me wonder what Luke and Peter thought they were talking about… ;)

    Just kidding – those were fun reads as well, but this is something teachable. It should be favorited, retweeted, co-opted by other bloggers, and probably installed as cannon in any game design textbook that might exist.

    The next time somoene asks me whether i design “theme-first” or “mechanics-first”, I hope I recall this URL!

    • Luke Laurie on June 30, 2014

      Now, now, Seth, you think Peter and I didn’t know this was coming…

  8. Alan Wong on June 30, 2014

    Where does good story-telling come in? Trying to evoke particular feelings or emotions through good art and writing is ‘narrative’, I guess, and through evocative rules is ‘theme’, But I think it’s selling Narrative short to say its use is as a filter (for marketing to the right group). Beautiful visual and written art has a powerful effect in transforming and shaping a player’s ‘flavour’, and imho much more important for your ‘narrative’ pie piece than signalling to the right group.

    As an example, ‘Lords of Waterdeep’ is horrible at at marketing to the right group (this is NOT what I want from a D&D game), but the beautiful art inside the box drags you in anyway.

  9. Philip duBarry on July 1, 2014

    Excellent article! I love the Venn diagram you’ve created here. I agree that ‘experience’ is key. How do you want your players to feel while playing your game? That’s a super-important guiding question for design work. Keep these great articles coming!

  10. Tom Lehmann on July 1, 2014

    I’m not convinced that what you’re labeling as theme isn’t just “expectations” and that theme is still the larger circle, comprising context, expectations, flavor, and narrative sequence.

    I also disagree with your assertion that abstract games are more competitive than themed games. I’ve seen many a Diplomancy game where players’ immersion into their roles as leaders of specific nations increased the intensity, competition, and acrimony of interactions far beyond what I would expect from a purely abstract version of Diplomacy, identical in all other respects. Effectively, the theme of Diplomacy “raises the stakes” for many players making for a more, not less, competitive atmosphere.

  11. Fantastic article! I always thought the arguments over theme vs mechanics over-simplified what is in reality a fairly complex discussion.

    Player experience trumps all. No matter how “good” the varying components of a game are, good is still a subjective term. What appeals to me may not appeal to players B and C and vice versa and that does not necessarily make it a poorly-designed game.

    A good friend of mine always says that if players are having fun, it’s a good game. It just may not be the game for everyone.

  12. rohloffc (@rohloffc) on July 2, 2014

    I recently designed a card/ dice game that focused solely on the mechanics first, and it was one the best games I have ever designed! It was then REALLY FUN to discover a theme that fit with the mechanics. It still needs more playtesting, but I think it’s gonna be a good game.

  13. Pat Marino on July 2, 2014

    Luke and Peter both made great points in their pieces on the mechanics vs theme debate, and I love how this brought it all together by adding a more holistic view of the design process. The Ven diagram is an interesting way to illustrate these deeper layers of design. In the designers debate of theme or mechanics first I agree that there is no right or wrong answer, but I do wonder if there are approaches that do or do not work well based on the deeper layers. For example, I cannot quite picture designing context first and then working outwards to determine mechanics, narrative and theme. Though I have never attempted to design an RPG, I could see where the ‘imagined’ circle would be a recommended starting off point.

    Two ideas that come to mind for future discussion are:
    Whether or not others would agree that a successful game needs to have at least two out of three aspects areas (Imagined, physical and virtual) well designed to achieve context (I’m open to examples of games that do it with one);
    and I would also be interested in hearing/reading how others design ‘flavor.’ How much is enough for different game types and how to get it right – for me it is often by ‘feel’ but I imagine there is more to explore there.

  14. Sarah on July 5, 2014

    Great article! Definitely agree that the starting point is what do you want the players to experience, which will lead you to where you should start in the diagram. None of these concept exists separately, and it’s silly when people talk about them as islands.

  15. Benjamin on July 5, 2014

    As much as i dislike generalisations like “theme and mechanics” or “virtual, imagined, physical”, i do agree this venn diagram is MUCH better than the usual dichotomy of theme vs mechanics, and includes NARRATIVE, which is something i felt was usually left out when discussing board games.

  16. Alex Singh on July 6, 2014

    Love it. Theme is an important design to, not just something to add at the end for flavor.

  17. Nicholas Yu on July 7, 2014

    Terrific article. I also think theme and mechanics are closely interrelated, and it’s impossible to have a true separation between the two concepts in modern game design as one should always inspire the other. There have been a lot of great pieces on this site but this is the best one to date. Great job, Mark!

  18. Khoril on July 8, 2014

    Great piece! I will translate this article for italian gamedesigner!

  19. sunday silence on July 8, 2014

    Not sure I buy into the article’s premise that there is some controversy about definitions of theme/mechanics.

    Before I can even entertain this model of game design can the author define: Virtual?

    How does that differ from imaginative?

    I dont see a difference between rules and mechanics. I really dont.

  20. Sam Cook on July 14, 2014

    Great Article, but I think mechanics will always be the most important part of a game. While a theme may be out of place or weird, if the game plays well, people will play it.

  21. Lee Ambolt on July 15, 2014

    I don’t think this has been thought through, and not sure why you felt compelled to add in the facebook comment, I suppose that fits in with the general pseudo intellectual snobbery in the boardgaming community. I think you totally misunderstand the concept of games being just mechanics or being the result of an idea of a real world thing and then finding mechanics and rules to describe that in an abstract sense. Perhaps I’m wrong though, I would love to see examples of your designs and compare them to amateurs like Reiner Knizia and Martin Wallace, who both discuss their way of using mechanical ideas to represent some historical or thematic concept in an abstract sense. Ironic that you laud Stefan Feld, perhaps the single most dull example of cookie cutter “nerd pleasing” puzzle designer in game design today. I doubt there has ever been a more template based puzzle designer in the history of games. On the other hand, the theme in Tigris & EUphrates is a stunning example of how the “operational level” view of the clash of early civilisations can be described by a very clean set of mechanics. Of course it is the mechanics that gives rise to the game itself, but those sprung very clearly from the theme, unless you want to say that Knizia is himself a liar? Likewise Wallace’s Brass, like many (most, all?) of his games could have been developed as an interesting set of route building and economy, but somehow it feels a lot more cohesive when he clearly started with the idea of the industrial revolution, the concept of obsolescence, the development of infastructure and the interplay between competing conglomerates. So to dismiss the notion of starting from theme I think is nonsensical. I’d counter that only games that start from an idea of a theme, or history, or some real world concept or idea and are then “built” to describe that in some abstract way are the ones that really hold interest, and have that spark that comes from the underlying narrative, both in terms of cohesively tying the rules to the idea of what’s going on, but to evoke some kind of connection to what’s actually happening in terms of an engaging thematic idea.
    In short, less Feld, more Wallace, please.

  22. Lee Ambolt on July 15, 2014

    PS
    previous comment was supposed to be added to Part 1 of discussion
    http://www.leagueofgamemakers.com/mechanics-are-more-important-than-theme/

  23. Board Games and Brew on March 13, 2015

    Mark,
    We are going to mention your article on Episode 12 of our podcast next week. http://www.boardgamesandbrew.com

  24. Vickie Moore on March 26, 2015

    Hi Mark!
    I just wanted to thank you for this insightful discussion on the elements of game design and how they all involve and revolve around context. I just started a blog of my own and for my second post, using your model, I decided to try to pull apart my own design processes in a more holistic manner in order to (hopefully) improve – http://vickiegames.com/?p=20.

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