Have you ever played a game but thought, “This would be so cool with X, Y, and Z mechanics” or “OMG THIS GAME NEEDS MERMAIDS”? Welcome to my world! When I first started designing board games, I didn’t come to it with grand ideas for novel new mechanics or worlds I wanted to build. I just wanted to “fix” the games I already loved to play to make them even better.
So, I got started as a game designer by essentially making mashups.
WERE THEY PUBLISHABLE? NO. DO I FEEL BAD ABOUT IT? ABSOLUTELY NOT!
I recently read a conversation comparing board game mechanics to cooking ingredients. Some recipes use milk, some use flour, and some use bok choy. In this analogy, retheming would be like taking a cake recipe and adding chocolate chips to see what happens. On the first pass, the cake would probably be too dry – perhaps on the second, too damp. But eventually, you find your way into a tasty cake that’s super different from where you started.
Retheming can help you explore new mechanics without having to solve related problems, because they’ve already been solved. Instead, you can iterate a piece at a time, instead of having to solve a whole game and its mechanics at once. Working on these pieces helps you get your feet under you – and then, when you’ve tested one mechanic, you can take it and put it into a design of your own.
For example, working on a role selection game with variable powers depending on when they’re selected was way easier to implement when I borrowed Puerto Rico for a bit. Since I didn’t have to figure out what the resources were, or how to take resources, or what the win conditions were, I could focus on making sure it worked before putting this idea into practice in a game of my own.
Of course, retheming as a way to test mechanics is one thing – it’s another to simply retheme and call your work “finished”. Iteration and innovation are the name of the game. Taking your intial retheme and moving it away from the game you borrowed from and into its own setting it key (unless Edison is someone you admire). Then again – maybe not? Tanto Cuore, Cards Against Humanity and Flash Duel all suggest otherwise.
What do you think? Is retheming “cheating” at game design, or a great place to start working on a game?