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Designer Diary: Mechanisms or Theme? — Underwater Cities and Other Games

Vladimir Suchy
Czech Republic
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Board Game: Underwater Cities
Which comes first: a game's mechanisms or its theme? In a March 2018 interview, Kuba Šotola opened by asking Katka from Delicious Games and me about the theme of our upcoming release, Underwater Cities. The question started me thinking about theme vs. mechanisms in game design and about what I focus on first. I've come to realize that it really depends on the game — and sometimes they both come first!

The mechanisms are the essence of a Eurogame. As a player, that's what I'm looking for — innovative mechanisms. The theme is less important. For example, when I'm playing my favorite game, Castles of Burgundy, I know I'm building something in Burgundy, but that's about it. Of course I also appreciate games like Amun-Re or Terraforming Mars with mechanisms that nicely tie in with their strong themes.

Even though I play games mostly for their mechanisms, as a designer, I often develop theme and mechanisms simultaneously.

Board Game: Shipyard
Let's look at Shipyard. I started with the action-selection mechanism — the idea that some actions would be chosen frequently, but you could get paid for choosing actions no one else had used recently. As soon as I had that mechanism outlined, I decided on the theme of shipbuilding, then each individual action was designed around that.

One action gets you smokestacks or sails for moving your ship. (I liked the idea of setting the game in that slice of history when both sailing ships and steamships were viable.) Another action gets you a canal for your shakedown cruise. Another action gets you crew. Everything, except the core mechanism, was designed around that theme.

From gallery of sucd

Board Game: 20th Century
Theme was integral to 20th Century. I had this idea for an auction game with two different methods of payment, and I knew I wanted to make a game about ecological principles — about the tradeoffs we have made between economic and ecological prosperity. I ended up with a game that has multiple auctions in which you pay with the science or money your economy produces, but you also might have to "pay" by taking on garbage or pollution. The theme worked really well with the mechanism that interested me.

Theme can inspire game design, but you have to be sure it doesn't tie your hands. During development, you might discover that you need to alter a mechanism to make the game better. It's hard to make that change if it goes against the theme. For example, in a historical setting, it could be difficult to explain why the farmer should collect taxes from the nobility, even when you know that mechanically the game needs that rule.

Of course, some themes are more flexible than others. In a fantasy setting, you can find a way to justify anything.

Board Game: Last Will
My strongest theme may be in Last Will. You've inherited a nice sum of money from your rich uncle. Whoever can spend it the fastest will get a huge fortune. Some people play the game just for that experience.

The same theme is in the movie Brewster's Millions, which I didn't see until I read the Last Will reviews that mentioned it. I didn't get the theme from the movie. I was actually trying to make an economy-building game in reverse. The idea of a game in which you try to get rid of your resources goes hand-in-hand with the theme of Last Will — and once I had that solid theme, I could build all the mechanisms around it.

Last Will started out as a pure card game, by the way. The worker placement mechanisms came in later.

Board Game: Pulsar 2849
So in Last Will, theme came first, and the development process was mostly about refining the mechanisms. It's not always that way. Pulsar 2849 started out as a historical game about noble families in a period of coup d'état.

The playtesters' response wasn't as positive as I would have liked, but they agreed that the dice-drafting mechanism was good, so I revised the design. This time the game was set in the Early Middle Ages in Great Britain. The prototype required a lot of material, and I discovered that it would probably be too expensive to produce, so I revised the game again.

The third revision was still built around the idea of choosing stronger or weaker dice and receiving balancing compensation. Most of the supporting mechanisms were inherited from previous versions, but I added a traveling component that inspired my revised theme. Now the game was about English merchants visiting villages.

These revisions took about five years, and finally I had a game good enough to license to Czech Games Edition. They liked it, but their playtesters weren't keen on the medieval setting.

From gallery of sucd

From gallery of sucd

So we made some changes. England became a huge star cluster, the merchants became interstellar energy corporations, and those villages off the beaten path became pulsars. Sören Meding gave the game beautiful futuristic artwork, and we were suddenly in the year 2849.

And it works! Those mechanisms didn't care if they were in medieval England or a 29th Century star cluster, but I don't think the theme feels "pasted on". You know you're building something in Burgundy — I mean, in space.

Board Game: Underwater Cities
Testing of Underwater Cities

Underwater Cities is another game I've been working on for a long time. Like Last Will, the game is based on a design idea — worker placement where the available actions are always changing. I played around with lots of mechanisms inspired by this idea, and finally I settled on one in which the actions don't change, but you have the ability to augment them with cards, so an action that might be somewhat weak could become really good if you combine it with the right card from your hand.

From gallery of sucd

For most of the game's development, the cards were the workers, and I was thinking of it as a "card placement" game.

Once I had the core mechanism, I looked for a theme to build around. I liked the idea of building cities under the sea — you don't see a lot of games like that — and that theme led to all the domes and tunnels and kelp farms that you need to support an underwater economy.

From gallery of sucd
Board Game: Underwater Cities

I ended up with 220 cards, each unique, each related to the theme of settlement on the wet frontier. Milan Vavroň's artwork has brought the theme to life, and we're coming out with it at SPIEL '18.

Vladimír Suchý
(Diary translated by Jason A. Holt)

Board Game: Underwater Cities
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