Design Lesson 2: The Marriage of Theme and Mechanisms

Design Lesson 2: The Marriage of Theme and Mechanisms - 8/12/20

In my last blog post I talked about the mechanisms that inspire a game design. To me, a great starting point in game design is focusing on the mechanisms of a game. Do you want to create a worker-placement game or an engine-building game? Or something else completely? Start with the mechanisms that you want and begin your design.

So when does theme come into the game design process?

I think some designers start with mechanisms and bring on a theme later, while others start with theme and find mechanisms that work well with the intended theme (the later is the approach I took with Queen Bee). Regardless of the approach you start with, I think it is important to evaluate how well these two things (theme and mechanisms) fit together. You certainly don’t want a theme that feels “pasted on” or mechanisms that aren’t any fun.

One of my favorite game designers is Travis Hancock with Façade Games. Some advice he has shared with me about his game design process is that he builds his prototypes pretty themeless (and in his words, “ugly”) and then adds a theme to the game after it gets to a point where the mechanisms and game play are reaching their final stages. At that point it becomes a process of balancing the game and fine-tuning everything so the game is as seamless as possible. His argument for the “ugly” prototypes is that if you can get a group of people together and they can have fun with a game when it is ugly then how much more fun will they have once you add a theme? I love this philosophy in game design, and if you have played any of the games by Façade Games then you will know that they have some incredible themes that mesh flawlessly with their mechanisms. I think that is the marriage that you want between those two items. Does the action that you are taking with the game match the theme? Are there any deviations with your mechanisms that don’t match the theme?

For example, in Façade Games' new game - Bristol 1350 you are trying to race out of town before you contract the black plague. During the game, you will likely “mingle” with people. When this happens you run the risk of contracting the black plague (does this sound familiar with social distancing and 2020?). If you get the black plague then you lose. If you get out of town in a cart where no one is infected then you win (and so do the other players in your cart). The mechanisms of racing to avoid the plague, mingling with others, and avoiding the black plague work extremely well together. I believe that it is because of the flawless marriage between theme and mechanisms in the games by Façade Games that leads to their games being so fun to play and their audience continues to grow.

So, when do you bring on a theme to your game design? I don’t think it particularly matters. What I do think matters is that you have a theme that meshes well with your game play and mechanisms. I don’t think people seek out games about the black plague, stained glass windows or bird-watching. But people have loved and continue to buy Bristol 1350, Sagrada and Wingspan because the mechanisms are fun and married well to the chosen themes.

Going back to Bristol 1350… the game wasn’t always about the black plague. At one point it was a Roman themed chariot racing game. But Travis couldn’t quite get all the mechanisms to tie to the Roman theme. So he ditched the theme for the black plague theme. I think the key takeaway there is to always be willing to ditch something that doesn’t work well. Don’t allow prior decisions you’ve made hinder your game design if it isn’t working well or if it begins to feel forced. Always be open to change and you will create something awesome!