Games are stories. A game of Chess is a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Things happen for a reason, and one event leads to a next.
As game designers, we use mechanisms to create stories. There are two general approaches to doing this. The first approach designs a story first, and then uses a mechanism to execute the story. For example, I want players to score points by doing certain actions in the game. In order to execute those actions, I might apply a worker placement mechanism, a deck building mechanism, etc.
The second approach looks at a particular mechanism first, observes and understands the possible problems it could present to players, and then implements it in a way that highlights those problems. For example, a mechanism of selling cars presents an interesting and unique challenge to the players in terms of turn order. So the whole game is designed to center around taking advantage of the pros and cons of going early/late in turn order. In this approach, the designer doesn’t tell a story per se. However, by using a mechanism to create a problem, a story emerges organically as players work to overcome the problem.
Personally, I prefer the second approach. Those are the games I like to play, and those are the games I like to design. In tackling the problem, the players are more engaged in the story. They also tend to interact with the mechanism more, and with each other. Moreover, the mechanism that is being highlighted becomes the master of the story, and not a slave for operating a design.
Visual parallels exist in other areas of design. In game design, our materials are game mechanisms. In origami, the material is paper. In some works, the paper is used as a slave to tell a story. In other works, the design highlights the inherent characteristics of the paper being used.
My fiancee and I have been looking at wedding dresses recently. We saw a lot of nice dresses. Then we went to a store of Vera Wang. I was absolutely stunned by how the fabric materials were used in Vera Wang’s designs. Other wedding dresses are nice; but this is something completely different. The inherent properties of materials are used as part of the design itself. I try to replicate this approach in my game designs, such as Iberian Rails and Warriors of Jogu.
The parallel extends to architecture, cooking, etc., possibly everything one can think of that requires design. In cooking, some dishes are pretty “in-your-face” with what they are trying to accomplish. Others are more subtle and emphasize the natural flavor of the ingredients themselves.
The two approaches aren’t binary, especially in board games. In fact they often coexist in a same design. Some games lean toward one approach or the other though. For example, Puerto Rico's role selection mechanism is very much the highlight of its gameplay. Dominion also uses the deck building mechanism to great effect. On the other hand, worker placement isn't necessarily the highlight for Dominant Species, which focuses more on the story itself than the material used to tell it.