If you are active in board game design, you may find yourself embroiled in this question, “Which is more important, Theme or Mechanics?”. Although the answer must gravitate around a balance of “both” to create a great game, there are arguments for prioritizing one over the other. Consider these reasons to focus on one before the other when you begin your next game design project.
Focus on THEME…
When the game is driven by an Intellectual Property
At BARD Games we are driven to make games that celebrate a unique artist, comic or other intellectual property. Leveraging an existing brand or story requires the design team to consider what is known about the thematic world, what customers expect when they play the game and ensure that the game celebrates the characters, stories and ‘cannon’ of the world... even if your game includes some surprises.
The box, rules and core mechanics of Fickle all celebrate the fairy art of Amy Brown.
When the game launches a new world
“World Building” is the loving term given to the broadest example of a focus on theme. To build a World, you are creating environments, characters, story lines, art and much more. As your World unfolds, the resulting game (and comics, cartoons and figurines) must support your thematic creation, if you want customers to come back to your growing world. Good luck creating a kid friendly world about dreaming babies for your multi-tiered, engine building Euro game.
The Dubious Alliance series (out of print) focused on players as Orcs, inviting player immersion into a darker game world
For toy, casual play and family games
Speaking of kid friendly, the more a game is targeting kids and family casual customers, the more likely theme will drive the buying decisions. In this case, your theme could be THEE reason to buy the game (hello pie in the face), and the rules don’t have to be very good. If you are not designing toys for kids, then you still need to make a good game… But how many “ok” games are bought for the abundant miniatures or love of the ongoing Marvel Universe?
Focus on MECHANICS...
When the game is Complex
Complexity is a relative term; Euro and Wargammers set a higher bar for game night then a horror themed “Roll and Move”. As designers the focus on rules, scoring systems and “game breaks” increases substantially as the game grows more complex. Gamers who love complex games demand well tested, challenging rules, often accepting a familiar or light theme. Keep in mind, a great game system with an immersive theme compliments the game. Just consider that poor mechanics will raise more ire from “Alpha Gamers” than a modest theme will.
Dwellings of Eldervale (by Breaking Games) is a challenging Worker Placement game, with an amazing theme to enjoy!
When the game is part of a system or expansion
If the vision for your design is a series of related games, expansion products that build on the core game or the beginning of game system, then you really must have foresite for your game mechanics. You are not just testing rules, you are making decisions about icons, turn sequence and player actions that impact products you have not made yet! This is where mechanics must be the focus… deal with theme later. If you have a great game system, customers will return for each of the fantasy, scifi-horror and chibi versions.
Once you know the core mechanics of the Pocket General system (Pacific Rim Publishing), you can apply them to most any war.
When you are creating a game to pitch to publishers
Publishers must consider the same balance of Theme and Mechanics. However, they often have a view of the board game market that is different than the story you had in mind when you designed your prototype. Their existing customers, current brands and art access means they are searching for great mechanics to match to existing or potential themes. If you are designing a game to pitch to publishers, save some thought (and money) on building one theme, because the publisher is likely going to what to know what themes could work for you best designs.