Themes vs. Mechanisms

I've been interviewed by numerous people about design, and my least favorite recurring question is "How do you design: theme versus mechanism?" Frankly, I think it's a silly question, one that completely sidesteps the nuance of design, but is also misleading that those are the choices for designers to pursue. It's especially troubling for new designers seeking advice and insight into the greater world as it indicates two very false choices. Theme versus mechanism is a steak restaurant that only asks Medium Well or Well. Those shouldn't be the only options. 

There's a similar debate in digital design in regards to how much to let data steer your designs. When Zynga first exploded on the scene, data became the rallying cry and in some minds supplanted the need for designers. Thankfully for product types such as myself, this didn't pan out. While you have folks in every camp, because tribalism, the reality is that you need a little bit of quantitative data to give you the what, you need qualitative data to give you the why, and you need intuition and expertise to give you the how. If you pursue just one at the exclusion of others, you lose a viable tool.

There isn't one, single, right way to design games. The other truth is that in the same way people learn in unique and varied ways (text, pictures, audio), people also conceive ideas and find inspiration from a variety of methodologies. You should not ignore the variety of tools available to you. Pursuing design through a very focused, singular lens will make it more difficult for you to innovate and present fresh ideas, which I think should be true of every game. That's a personal high horse, but one that I think is important. 

If your goal is to make a pirate game and you only do so through a thematic lens, you'll likely add a ship, and gold, and boarding actions, and you'll probably end up at the same place many people have done. Instead, what if you asked how to  craft an experience around the 16th through 18th centuries Caribbean theater, which includes merchants, piracy, storms, and more? Similarly, if you say that you wish to make a Worker Placement game, well, you'll probably have a game where you place a worker to get a resource. Your individual action spaces may be different, sure, but in the end, you haven't contributed something meaningfully distinct to the genre. Perhaps instead you ask how you can alter the core interactive experience of a worker placement by eliminating blocking, or altering what it means to block someone. 

In this post, I'm going to outline and explain the model I use as one potential model to follow. I'm going to provide anecdotal examples from my own efforts to hopefully prompt and color your own thought process. Ultimately, while I don't think this is the Right and Only pursuit, I do believe it is more fruitful than theme or mechanism as pillars, and hopefully you'll find more success in your efforts as a result. My method is a simple formula:

Define your Experience. Identify the Mechanisms that will help you solve it. Wrap this in a Theme to aid your creative efforts and to make the experience more intuitive for your audience. 

Define Your Experience: This is the most difficult part of design, but it's incredibly important as I feel it is the pillar upon which the rest of your design rests. This is the mental journey stage of the design as you look inwards on the goals and philosophical pillars that will drive everything. The good news is that with time this will get simpler and simpler as you'll draw on your muscle memory and familiar ingredients that define your style. 

For example, I have a few regular items that make an appearance in most of my games. Firstly, I want my games to be interactive. Lately, I'm far more interested in non-aggressive interaction, which is a further modifier to that point. Because my designs tend to be interactive, they tend to have a tighter player count (2-4 players), because too much interaction with too many players quickly skews from "interesting" to "chaotic nonsense." I tend to enjoy nuanced, interesting, and powerful card content. 

Lately, I've been approaching big genres, like Drafting (Solstice/Imperius) and Deckbuilding (SPQF) to see what I can do. "But Grant, isn't that a mechanism?" Sure is, but instead of asking how I can remake Dominion, I'm trying to instead address what I think is the neat, core, gooey center of that genre. Deckbuilders are about a constantly expanding engine with often a single purpose. With SPQF, I tried to think of new ways to have that expanding engine create a fun, satisfying experience. I saw an opportunity to make it more interactive than typical deckbuilders. In a minute, we'll cover some of the mechanisms that helped me do it. 

Components are also useful, though more so if you're a designer just interested in experimenting with something (Ex: I want to make a game with dry-erase markers) or if you're a publisher trying to target a price point. With SPQF, I wanted the game to have table presence, which to me is components beyond just cards. Tactile items that draw the eye and add perceived value to the package. I've been fascinated by tableaus lately, which is what drew my attention for SPQF.

You can think of your Experience as your mission statement. At work, we refer to this as your "X Statement" or "Razor Statement." For SPQF, my (wordy) mission statement might be something along the lines: Create an interactive game with fun components that fits uniquely within the deckbuilder genre. Now, this is written more for public consumption, which wouldn't be the case really for anything you're making. I tried to be brief, which makes the wording a little more vague. 

Let's summarize how this mission statement might guide the rest of my work. By interactive, I mean your decisions should affect other players. I mean you're frequently engaging with them as you take your turn and make decisions. This means you're not buying one card from a stack of ten and comparing engines, but playing your opponent. By fun components I mean the game isn't just cards. This might mean resource tokens, tokens to indicate states, a board, perhaps a spatial component, miniatures, or more. The word uniquely sent me on a long journey of analysis in which I examined the key elements of many deckbuilders. This included the type of card content, the economic arc, how cards are purchased, how and whether players interact, and what determines victory. Finally, deckbuilder told me that players would be beginning with a deck of cards from which most, if not all decisions would emerge. Players would recycle this deck and use its cards over and over again. It mean the deck would evolve and would be different at the end of the game versus the beginning. 

With the five bolded words I have quite a bit to drive my behavior. I have a high level roadmap to guide my decisions. With that in mind, we need to reach back into our toolbox. 

Define Your Theme: Theme is a really useful tool, but also the most misused tool. Theme is horribly confused with art choice, but that is a deeply distracting diatribe for another day. I put theme as the parenthesis for the graphic above, because I think it acts as a beautiful wrapper to guide your decisions. You'll notice that once I defined my experience the world was my oyster. I could go anywhere. While that openness may seem compelling, it's also crippling. If you can do anything, you might do nothing. 

I examined a variety of themes that were  interesting to me for SPQF initially. I've really wanted to make a game about rebuilding after the apocalypse, but this theme turns many people off and has really dark connotations, or "go tos" like zombies and mutants that are toxic for some. I  covered science fiction with Solstice, so that was a no-go. This made me think about the part of the apocalypse I liked, which is rebuilding. More precisely, rebuilding civilization. I then thought about making a game about civilization, and as I just read "The Storm Before the Storm" and love The History of Rome podcast, I looked to the Ancient Romans and Greeks. 

Civilization. Voila. This gave me the wrapper I needed to start creating the individual pieces of my game. First, I thought about the high level ingredients that comprised Roman civilization. This is deeply abstracted, sure, but it was useful. I thought about famous characters like Julius Caesar and how leadership and key politicians played a big role. I thought about the Romans' incredible feats of engineering and military accomplishment. I thought about how every civilization needs an economy built on agriculture (food) and industry to fuel the things like military expansion. Finally, I added science. While arguably related to engineering in this case, it gave me another philosophical vector to pursue. 

I then thought about who or what the cards would represent. Ultimately, I settled on the cards representing a sliver of society, a demographic subset. Your deck could be very political in nature, representing the Senators of Rome. Or perhaps it represents the farmers in Sicily and North Africa that feed the empire? 

This theme also helped me think about the victory conditions, the ways by which a successful civilization is judged. There are multiple cards that score VP for having excess or solid infrastructure, which represents economic success. The expansion of your civilization level represents the growth of your cities or your borders. Certain cards in your deck represent key, pivotal figures. 

Theme may not always provide the answer, but it may provide justification or logic after the fact to aid you in presenting and teaching the game. One of SPQF's key mechanisms is how you put cards up for sale and acquire them from other players. This idea was derived primarily through a mechanical lens as I examined and studied other deckbuilders. BUT, after it was designed, and looking at how my cards represented people, ideas, and demographics, the mechanism fit perfectly with the explanation of immigration and the transference of ideas between cultures. 

When I began actually designing the game I had to design 48 unique cards. Without the theme, I would still be designing them. Them gave me a rough basis to answer "what does agriculture mean in this system?" It forced me to think about "How will military exist in a game without conflict?" Theme helped me abstract mechanisms aligned with categories and provided the basis for so much of the game.

Ultimately, I think very few people will recognize SPQF as a very thematic game. It doesn't revolve around characters, it isn't rooted in a world/board, and so much of it is very abstracted. But, theme played a very heavy hand in its design. It has all the fingerprints of a civilization game, even if it would take a team of archeologists (or this post) to reveal that truth.

Define Your Mechanisms: Once you have your experience, and you're using a theme to encase all of your decisions, you can start picking mechanisms (or designing them) to fulfill these needs. In most cases you should flat pull mechanisms "off the shelf," so to speak. Don't re-design something that works just to do it. I wanted SPQF to be interactive, but non-violent. One of the methods emerged through the game's neat mechanism of card acquisition. Cards you don't use "go up for sale" for one round. And, you can buy these cards from other players. But also, I looked to Glory to Rome and Race for the Galaxy for their following mechanism. 

Note: While Eminent Domain is also a deckbuilder with a follow mechanism, I haven't played it in a very long time and the game isn't deeply influential for me. I attribute my thinking more to the two examples cited. 

There are several deckbuilding standards I also borrowed. Five card hands. Reshuffle your deck when needed. Acquired cards enter your discard pile. I spotted a "race condition" finish point used in many games. 

You can also tweak and evolve mechanisms you enjoy. I really love Concordia's final scoring mechanism, where the cards you acquire also define how you're judged at the end of the game. While I didn't pursue it as thoroughly as Concordia, the Monuments in game are directly inspired by this. Monuments reward you for having certain cards in your deck, which basically provides one avenue for you at the start of each game. I also love the combo power in Star Realms/Hero Realms. By this, I mean how the game's cards provide secondary bonuses if you play two of the same color. 

I liked this, but I don't like how in Star Realms it's not uncommon to have 10 cards in front of you with a variety of primary and secondary actions that need to be resolved. it's a little clunky, while it's easy for me, I've watched some people struggle with the series of decisions (and tracking which cards have been resolved). This lead me to my game's mechanism of using a card for its actions, or using it to modify other actions. Therefore, instead of two cards effectively doubling (in Star Realms), you still only use one card's actions...just a better version of it. 

In the end, while I'm not sure it's better or simpler, I do know it's different

Every game is a huge pool of mechanisms and you will need to decide where to borrow entirely, where to tweak, and where to craft entirely from thin air. You'll need a way to determine the first player and turn order. You'll need to define setup and how initial cards are dealt. In a worker placement game can players gain more workers over the course of the game, can they not, or is it sometimes yes and sometimes no? 

The truth, is that what you decide to do here becomes far simpler if you have your experience and theme defined. If your goal is to simulate the Caribbean with a focus on ship combat, it probably doesn't make a lot of sense to use worker placement. If you really want to use worker placement, you can use these viewpoints to answer why it helps and why it doesn't. You can create a Plus and Minus list and compare and contrast. You may find you enjoy a mechanism so much that it forces you to recalibrate your theme or experience entirely. But, examining your mechanisms in context means your game will be more intuitive and more cohesive. 

Ultimately, mechanisms are one of the simplest decisions to make. Designing new ones, not so much. But, when you decide which ones to use, at least as a starting point, you do so with the specific intent to solve a problem. You're filling in a Mad Libs paragraph originally written by your experience and theme. Yes, this might change, especially as the red pen comes out. But, it's better to fill in clearly defined blanks as opposed to having to conceive the numbers originally in a paint by numbers piece. 

I hope this post has been useful. If you have any questions, thoughts, or critiques, leave them in the comments below to continue the discussion. Thanks for reading!