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Subject: Which would you say comes first -- theme or game play? rss

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Krister Nielsen
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Hey everyone,

I've been considering creating a board game for years now but never seem to get around to it. Out of curiosity of what other people think i would like to ask a question regarding this first push into the board game design business.

When creating or designing a board game, which one out of these would you say comes first?

A.) You visualize a theme for the game (setting, story, characters, graphics etc).

or

B.) You formulate how you want the game to work (game play, rules, mechanics, components etc).

or

C.) A healthy mix of both (game play, rules and theme go hand in hand).

I've been pondering this question all day. I finally came to the conclusion that i personally prefer to start with an interesting theme, and then build the game play and rules around that. So what are your thoughts on the matter?

Thanks!
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Daniel Danzer
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What works best for you, comes first.

For me, it depends. Sometimes a theme catches me and I think: hey, there`s a game in that. or a mechanism. or a grid. or whatever. No matter.
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Darrell Hanning
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For most people, I think the analogy of writing a book is apt. Which do you come up with first, in writing a book - the main setting, or the characters?

The theme is supposed to drive you towards an end point. If you have got out of bed this morning, and decided, "Today I will design a game", your efforts are likely to be abysmal, IMO. If, however, there is a theme for which you wish there a game (or a game that does certain things that haven't been done with that theme, before), then you have something towards which you can work.
 
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Luke Morris
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I'm ALWAYS A.
"Mmmm I'd love the game to be about that. Right, now how can I make the mechanics feel like that concept?"

I guess I'm more of a dreamer than a gritty designer
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Carol Carpenter
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For designers (except probably Reiner Knizia), they probably have some favorite theme and work from there. I am currently trying to design a game about one of my favorite topics from history and trying to make the mechanics align with the theme.

But for players, the game play has to work. It could be my favorite theme in the world, but I won't play it again if the mechanics aren't right. Conversely, I have played games with themes that I normally would never care for at all (bean farming, Vikings) and I really enjoy the game.
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A. B. West
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hdnine wrote:
When creating or designing a board game, which one out of these would you say comes first?

A.) You visualize a theme for the game (setting, story, characters, graphics etc).
or
B.) You formulate how you want the game to work (game play, rules, mechanics, components etc).
or
C.) A healthy mix of both (game play, rules and theme go hand in hand).

Either A or B - but you really do need to choose. Sometimes they come artfully together and sometimes you have to push the design one direction or the other, but I've come to the understanding that 'fun' in a game is either A or B. By 'fun' I mean the desire to have an experience again. A game delivers a 'theme' experience or a 'mechanics' experience. I don't think a perfect mix of both is possible nor desirable.
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Paul Nowak
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A bit of both. Both Gype games came to be first in concept (since it was H.G. Wells and Chesterton who had the theme, so to speak) and then when I found mechanics that complimented it clicked.

I have another mechanic from an old game that is out of print that I'd like to tweak and re-theme, but I have not settled on a theme for it yet.
 
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Jim Harmon
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For me it's usually theme or theme/mechanic together. I rarely start with a mechanic but it has happened a couple of times, I then have to fit a theme to a mechanic which usually feels akin to shoving a square peg into a round hole.
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richard atkinson
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I feel that it can go either way. I have had good ideas starting from both ends. A good theme can inspire you to come up with (or borrow!) mechanics that fit really well. Also, a new or different mechanic may be helpful in suggesting ways to integrate a theme. Ultimately, the game can fall short if either of these components are left lacking, so both end up being important and need to be well thought out. But, how you get there: more or less irrelevant.
 
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Rebekah B
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I think I only have one game design that started with theme. The rest have started with either an idea for a primary mechanic or some kind of challenge (either self-imposed or from a contest). Then again, themes are much harder for me than mechanics, and I rarely end up with a theme that I love.

I do try to figure out a theme early, however, so that any secondary mechanics can build around it.
 
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Mostly A - probably 80/20.
 
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Timo Kilpiäinen
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From games that have been at least prototyped...

Six to category A

four to category B

And about 50/50 on not-yet-prototyped boards

So yeah, I mostly just get random ideas which then turn into games. And these ideas are random. (I created a tetris-type-solitaire-boardgame with premiliminary school students and desks as pieces while watching my students do their exam... random)
 
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Andrew Eveninger
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I got something between - i think at start about particular type of game in particular mechanic. - For example - i want adventure game based on cards and going in the middle stretching mechanic and theme of game. Or i want sport tile laying game. etc.
 
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Steven Metzger
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For me, theme might be the ignition, and come first...

...but mechanics must always become first, as the design develops.
 
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J C Lawrence
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None of the above.

I start with a problem, an abstract logical problem. Next comes a scoring system to represent incremental solution of that problem. Then I start working on mechanisms and theme to support and reinforce that scoring system, looping back to the the scoring system as needed for minor adjustments. The only thing that never changes is the problem. That's inviolate. Everything else, scoring, mechanisms and theme, is discardable (and all three are frequently discarded and replaced during development).
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Krister Nielsen
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Interesting... what kind of problems is it you start with? Is it a question like -- "how can i make a fun game about fishing" or similar? Please give us a hint. ^^
 
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badalchemist
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hdnine wrote:
I've been considering creating a board game for years now but never seem to get around to it.


Get some paper and start making some games! It sounds like maybe you're too caught up in trying to find the "best" way to do it so that you succeed on your very first attempt. Just accept the fact that your first games are probably going to suck or need serious revision.

To answer your question though, go with whatever you find most interesting. If there's a mechanic that you really want to use, design a game around that mechanic and figure out a matching theme later. If there's a theme or topic that you're passionate about, design a game around the theme and figure out which mechanics are representational.
 
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Northern Rommel
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metzgerism wrote:
For me, theme might be the ignition, and come first...

...but mechanics must always become first, as the design develops.


I agree with steves view on this.

It is a process that goes full circle generally. First you decide the theme, then the mechanics, then make the theme fit the mechanics in a way that both are priority.

But the mechanics must absolutely always work. If not, then patchwork solutions to faulty mechanics will quickly become obvious and tend to discourage all but the genre oriented fanatics.

 
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Eric A Martin
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20% Theme
20% Mechanics
60% Play testing

Theme and mechanics should always both be shredded by play testing.

I doubt there is any published game that is the same as its initial vision in either mechanics or theme.

(E.g, Adama can be a Cylon in BSG)

The 'feel' and 'fun factor' of the game are what you're designing, not mechanics or theme. They're the means not the end.

EM

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Phil Walker-Harding
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This discussion is always interesting!

Here's a little article I wrote about the issue a couple of years back if anyone's interested:
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/160758/theme-vs-mechanic...
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J C Lawrence
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hdnine wrote:
Interesting... what kind of problems is it you start with? Is it a question like -- "how can i make a fun game about fishing" or similar? Please give us a hint. ^^


Example: Competitively optimise logistic pipes toward shared targets while the set of available actions, products and pipelines continuously mutates (with forced obsolescence) due to player actions, and the players control the rate of time passage.
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Steven Metzger
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clearclaw wrote:
hdnine wrote:
Interesting... what kind of problems is it you start with? Is it a question like -- "how can i make a fun game about fishing" or similar? Please give us a hint. ^^


Example: Competitively optimise logistic pipes toward shared targets while the set of available actions, products and pipelines continuously mutates (with forced obsolescence) due to player actions, and the players control the rate of time passage.
Mmm...rusting.

In most games, especially those that don't have much direct conflict (many Euros, but some games that aren't classified as such), "efficiently investing capital towards victory points" is a basic concept of this.

Anyways, JC explained and encouraged his "solution-first" standpoint to me about six months and, while I like it, my ideas just aren't coming that way - at least not quite yet. I imagine a mechanic that would work really well and consider how players would enjoy that kind of gameplay.

Trying to balance the endgame and find a decent winner is tough if you're not considering it from the start of your design to the finished product. What I tend to have trouble with is deciding on an endgame trigger, which is NOT a good thing. The "solution" really is like the bottom of the pyramid, mechanics are the middle, and theme generally takes up the top (including art and production, which you should NOT be screwing around with before extensive playtesting).

Figure out how players win concurrently with the mechanical design of your game.

I think that's all I wanted to say...
 
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Joel Mayeski
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I thought about this a bit before replying and realize I typically approach game design with a problem too. "I want a game that does this:" and then I try to find a theme and mechanics that go with it.

An example is: I want a game that plays 2-4 players, plays quickly, is VERY simple and is a race game with secret identities. *

I then try to designed a game/mechanics that fits what I'm after and work the theme into it, making changes to fit the theme I settle on. Occassionally, though, I do say "Man, I'd really love to design a space exploration game, or a game based on this or that book!" too, so it does vary.

* P.S. - the above mentioned game SHOULD be making an appearance on BGG here soon (although I've been waiting almost 1 1/2 weeks to get listed as a designer first...)

 
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Krister Nielsen
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I must thank everyone for their valuable insights into board game design. It is always hard to take the first step and even harder to get the project completed, something which i have a real issue with. I seem to favor coming up with these great ideas and starting them, but sadly i never finish anything.

I have this idea for a game though and will try and think of some interesting mechanics to go along with it. Maybe I'll surprise myself for once?

Thanks!
 
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David Gregg
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It depends on what inspires you. You might think of a cool mechanic and decide to build a game around it. Or you might dream up some adventure and think how cool it would be to relive it in a game. Either way is fine as long as you are able to move forward with your creativity.
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