When creating a game, designers tend to follow one of two approaches. Starting with a theme, and building the game mechanics around that theme, or starting with mechanics and layering a theme on top of that.
I have designed games both theme first and mechanics first and both have different advantages and challenges (see if you can guess which approach I used for Micro Dojo). To get a balanced (hah) look at both approaches, I also spoke to Daniel Bishop of Tiger Crab Studios about his approach in creating the Nevera line of games.
Should I start with Theme or Mechanics?
Yes. Sorry, it’s cliché I know but there really is no one best approach, and the one you take will likely be a natural extension of what your first ‘big idea’ for the game is.
Theme communicates to your audience what the game is about, and helps frame the actions that they are taking in the context of the world or setting. Importantly for a designer it also helps to determine what kind of story your players will tell afterwards. Players love to share stories of how they managed to slay the monster with their last attack and save the day! They rarely tell stories of the time they rolled a 4 and then a 6. Theme also helps with ‘shortcutting’ a lot of the learning and decision making process, when it is clear that certain actions (or keywords) translate to the game world.
Mechanics are the things you do to actually play the game, and they have an incremental effect on the players experience every time they present themselves. The mechanics can communicate the overall pace and emotional experience of the game through the things they incentivise players to do – is the game grindy, fast paced, manipulative, whimsical, oppressive, or hectic.
Whichever approach you take, the theme and mechanics have to mesh together seamlessly, or else the game feels disconnected and leaves players feeling uneasy.
With theme first design, the essence of what the game is trying to present is established early, and this informs the rest of the design. The theme could be saving the world from deadly viruses, uncovering the secret identities of spies, establishing a colony on a planet, or guessing the identity of an imposter. Theme first designers tend to be working on ‘one big idea’ and so the theme is likely to stay consistent even though the game itself could go through many wildly different iterations.
One of the benefits of designing theme first is that it gives a solid core to work everything else around. This not only keeps the game consistent in it’s presentation but also limits scope creep (or bloat). In Nevera, the core theme is one of monster collection with necromancers summoning undead creatures to do their bidding and battle each other. Many ideas appeared during the development process but the ultimate test of each idea was ‘does this fit with the core theme?’. If not, it was much easier to discard.
Theme first games also give a consistent base to design future games and spin-offs, and fans of that theme will likely be fans of other products (even non-board games) that are produced. Novels, merchandise, video games, comics, and movies are all products of a theme (not mechanics). Creating this additional content is far less time consuming than starting from scratch, as the world already exists (in a sense) and is only enriched further by spin-offs. Back to Nevera, the board game developed as a way of introducing players to the world on the journey to a much more ambitious project which is the Nevera video game – fans of one are likely to be interested in the other, but also allows Daniel to bring both video gamers and board gamers into a shared world.
The challenge of designing theme first is that you can be tied to the theme so strongly that it restricts the ability to create good mechanics (or sometimes actively contradicts them). If your game is trying to accurately portray a realistic theme in excruciating detail then at some point the game will just break down in either complexity or balance. The alternative however is some level of abstraction, and when that happens it (temporarily) disconnects the players from the experience (“…well that wouldn’t happen like that in real life”) or adds additional mental load when rules cannot be easily incepted by the theme (“…but that doesn’t make sense”).
For a game to be successful it is going to have to have a unique hook – in either its theme or its mechanics. Starting with mechanics first is a good way to showcase a unique mechanism that will hook players (which by the way is really easy to do in a micro game format). Raiders of the North Sea has a fairly unique take on traditional worker placement games by taking an action when you both place and subsequently pickup a worker. Though commanding vikings to pillage and plunder isn’t exactly a unique theme, the game certainly had a unique mechanic that as able to draw players in.
Mechanics are much quicker to develop and test (as well as discard) than a theme. Building a rich and storied world (or, at least, researching in detail an existing theme) is time consuming. Mechanics can be tweaked, tested in isolation or focused playtests, and tweaked again until there is a certainty that the game ‘works’. In essence, good mechanics tend to be simple and elegant whereas good theming tends to be rich and deep.
Starting mechanics first is also great for designers that plan to approach publishers. If the game is not tied too closely to the theme (at least initially) then the theme that is layered on top can be flexed to fit the market without requiring huge changes to the game. To illustrate – I have a friend who refuses to play Caverna because he hates farming games, and I’ve always wanted try and re-skin it as a space exploration game (without telling him) to see if he will enjoy it.
The downside of designing mechanics first is that a game can feel like it does a lot cool things that just don’t translate into the world that’s been created. I have had this particular challenge with Micro Dojo – the mechanical movement is well represented by the sparring in a dojo, but the traditional euro game concepts of gaining resources, building buildings, and obtaining victory points is quite abstract and detached from that theme. An alternative approach is to change the theme entirely (including the name), which then has a knock on effect on some of the other mechanics that have been designed. Watch this space to see whether Micro Dojo becomes Micro Daimyo, or something completely different…
Choosing to start Theme First or Mechanics First is likely not a choice that is actively made, but stems from the core idea that the original game develops from. It is certainly possible to change tack partway through the development process, but understanding the benefits and limitations to your approach will help focus the design.
As a theme first designer I suggest that you start work on mechanics (or spin offs) much earlier on in the process, so that you don’t fall into the trap of having a lush and vibrant setting that is inaccessible to the players.
As a mechanics first designer, I suggest cementing a theme early on (even a vague one) to centre the design around. This will aid in the creative process of fleshing out mechanics by asking yourself how the theme translates into the mechanical framework you’ve put in place.
Finally, whichever approach you take, make sure that the theme and the mechanics work seamlessly together for a great player experience.