Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Game Design: Theme and Mechanics

Designing a board game is a lot of work. It involves lots of trial and error, starting over, and tweaking. After a while, the process takes on a life of its own as playtests move from just experimenting with initial ideas to exploring further aspects of development such as trying to break specific aspects of the game or trying to see how well the game scales and what needs to be adjusted to facilitate scaling. This process is exciting, challenging, frustrating and educational. Yet each process, each long, laborious undertaking begins somewhere. It occurs to me that there are essentially two main, obvious starting points:

1. A mechanic (or set of mechanics)
2. A theme or story

It is about the interworkings of these two aspects of a game that this article seeks to explore.

The Initial Design Process

Some designers start out with a specific story they want to tell in a game. This story manifests its self in what we refer to as "theme". When beginning with theme, it is in trying to tell the story of the game that the mechanics make their way into the experimentation that is the game design process and it is upon the criteria of how well they tell the story that the mechanics are evaluated. Do they evoke the "feel" of the theme or not? Do they reinforce the role the player is playing or do they strike the player as disconnected from that role?

Other designers begin with a specific mechanic or system and then they try to match a theme with that mechanic. From this perspective, it is the theme that is being evaluated rather than the mechanic in the early stages of development. Does the theme help establish some emotional attachment to the decisions involved in the mechanics or does it feel disconnected? If the theme feels disconnected, then what other type of theme would serve as a stronger cohesive force to provide the mechanics with some emotional tie-in?

Granted there are exceptions to these ideas. Specifically, the pure abstract games (i.e. the games that are all mechanics and don't try to have a theme at all) stand outside of these descriptions. However, for the most part, in the beginning stages of development, one element or the other (theme or mechanics) is dominant over the other in the design process.

Becoming a Game

After a while, the game begins to gain an identity all its own. However, before arriving at this point, there is usually at least one critical threshold that is crossed in the designing process wherein the previously more dominant motive finally gives way to the less dominant motive for the sake of improving the game. In other words, when a mechanic finally gets discarded or significantly altered in the interest of serving the theme - or - where the theme finally has to be slightly altered in the interest of having a tighter relationship with the mechanics, the game has crossed into a more interactive, dynamic stage of development. It is at this point where the prototype is ceasing to be mechanics in need of a theme or a theme in need of mechanics. Instead, it is finally growing into a game.


After crossing this crucial threshold, it is my position that the designer needs to begin adopting a more flexible stance in terms of evaluating what needs to remain the same and what needs to change about the game. In other words, if a specific mechanic was what inspired the game design process in the first place but, now, the game has grown to the point where that original mechanic is precisely what needs to be discarded, the designer needs to be flexible enough to let go of that original driving force, that impetus at the genesis, and let the game grow. To appeal to metaphor, the game needs to discard its cocoon as wings are now part of the picture and cocoons don't help the game out anymore.

This flexibility underlies a larger part of designing that was expressed eloquently by a friend of mine named Alf Seegert who is a fellow member of the Board Game Designers Guild. He described it in this manner (paraphrasing)...

"Paint in the beginning. Then begin to sculpt."

The beginning stages of designing can be guided and motivated by trying to find mechanics for our theme or a theme for our mechanics. In this process, we may try out a lot of ideas. In other words, we are painting.

However, after a while, we begin to see what is working and what isn't and, instead of adding more things into the picture, we may begin to simplify things in the interest of making the game better. At this point, we shift from "painting" to "sculpting".

In this respect, the following two quotes from Michelangelo help provide some perspective:

"In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."

"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

There can come a point where any new thematic or mechanical addition made to a game will actually make it worse instead of better. Knowing when to add and when to simplify can make the difference between an "ok" game and a great game.

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