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Now that we’ve gone through the importance of both mechanics and theme it’s time to discuss which one you’ll want to focus on when beginning to develop your game. Before we do though, I want to be clear that in order to make a great game you need to have a great theme and great mechanics that work well together. For that to happen you’re going to need to be developing both mechanics and theme simultaneously as soon as possible.
When you’re at that initial idea phase and early development, theme and mechanics will probably be developed separately (and therefore the existence of this blog post). However, shortly thereafter you need to be constantly looking at them together (for example, does this mechanic match the theme? Does the theme make sense for what mechanics I’ve implemented?) throughout development.
Furthermore, you shouldn’t rely on the fact that there are a small number of games where a fantastic/popular theme, without much consideration of mechanics, was highly successful (Cards Against Humanity, Exploding Kittens) or vice-versa (Dominion): it’s almost guaranteed that your game isn’t going to be one of those lucky ones. Unless you’re making an abstract game (in which case, you don’t have to focus so much on theme), you need to be putting in substantial effort into both mechanics and theme.
So, without further ado, in the early stages of game development you should focus on developing your theme first. The reason for this is that theme gives your game direction, whereas mechanics are just how the game is played. Like we said in “Game Basics: Theme” your theme is your ‘why’ and it ties together the actions, game terminology, components, and what you do in game. You’re going to want to know what that is before you start developing your mechanics further (assuming you have any).
Remember how we also said that most of your theme comes through the actual gameplay? So, if you start developing a bunch of mechanics and have no theme, that could cause some problems. Namely, how can your mechanics bring out the theme if there is none or it’s not clear what it is exactly? Additionally, in the absence of theme, mechanics are just a ‘beginning’, a set of actions, and an ‘end goal’ (ie. points scored, player elimination, etc). Those mechanics should be tying together (beyond being the way to play a game from start to finish) and they probably don’t because there’s no theme to direct them. That's why you need to have that theme (at least the backstory part) first, and then make your game. It’s where your players start in game, it's the start of an explanation of a game, and it should be where you start to develop your game.
Let’s say, perhaps, you go the other way and develop mechanics before theme. What happens then? Well, developing mechanics before theme in game design is like creating a machine without a purpose. In the end you’ll have a machine that has all the parts it needs to work, but it won’t have any use. There’s also a possibility of a lack of a logical order of operations. In most cases, you could find a use or problem for the machine to solve, but most likely it won’t be very efficient at solving that problem. There’s a high probability that in order for it to be useful you’ll need to rearrange and swap out a lot of the parts.
The same thing happens when you don’t develop your theme or ‘why’ (aka problem) before creating a game. You’ll have something that works, but it won’t be useful nor efficient. You’re going to want to develop your theme first so you don’t end up with a ‘machine’ that you’ll have to paste a theme onto (aka create a problem for it to solve). It’s not going to work out well for you.
Lastly, I’d like to point out that this blog post isn’t about inspiration for game ideas, but rather it is more about the initial stages of game development. Your game idea can come from a cool theme, interesting mechanics, component restrictions, or whatever else; it doesn’t really matter in the long run. Besides, who am I to tell you where your inspiration should come from? The part that really matters is what happens after that. That’s the part where you spend your time trying to transform this idea into a physical game that someone can play. There’s a lot of work required to make that happen and, in the long run, making your theme your initial focus will make the design process focused and easier for everyone.
That’s it for this week. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at the core of your game.
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Board game designer and developer discussing the ins and outs of game design.