When designing a board game, both mechanics and theme are massively important. Mechanics are the rules that makes the game work. Theme helps with understanding what you are trying to achieve when playing the game.
Let’s use the social deduction card game Resistance as an example. The theme for Resistance that you and your friends are in a resistance group trying to overthrow the government, however, there are government spies that have infiltrated the group. One of the mechanics of the game is to assign Character Cards face down to all players. This facilitates the fact that you and your friends do not know which person to trust as their identity is hidden. When Mechanics and Theme are used effectively, players will have a great immersive experience. Players will understand what they are trying to do (Theme) and how they can set out to do it (Mechanics).
Now the question is, when designing a board game, which one do we want to focus on first? Sounds like a chicken or the egg question; however, I think that there is a definitive answer.
During our conversations on this topic, I argued that it was more effective to start thinking of the theme before we thought about how to implement these ideas from a mechanics standpoint. I brought up three points to support my claim.
- Existing mechanics limit creativity
This is bound to happen when brainstorming with mechanics in mind. I believe that people will naturally draw examples from their experiences. When you think of the ideas of drafting cards, suddenly games like 7 Wonders and Blood Rage come to mind. When you think of building an empire, you have Settlers of Catan and Monopoly popping up in your head. We naturally pull ideas and inspiration from our experiences and this will limit creativity and influence creative decisions. As a result, the game you are creating will feel more like a skin versus a fully innovative, never-before-seen game.
- Endless possibilities when creating stories
I believe that everyone is capable of having innovative ideas. Since we were young, we could think up crazy and extravagant ideas that may rival the limitless creativity found in our dreams. Brainstorming stories and theme are a great way conjure up new and innovative ideas because there are no restrictions to how crazy your ideas can get. There are literally limitless possibilities. This is awesome and super exciting. Once you get this idea that really resonates with you, you can start trying to make sense of the logistics and mechanics of how to make the game work.
- Conveying the story through mechanics
All game mechanics can be good and bad. How do we know which mechanics work best for us? If you can find mechanics that can convey the story that you want to tell, that is the best mechanic for you. As an example, if I create a Seer character who has the ability to look at the top 3 cards of the deck, I am telling the player that this character has the power to look into the future. From this example, we can see that not only did the story provide ideas for mechanics, it also adds another layer of immersion for the players. So, start with the story first and use the mechanics to tell it to your players.
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