Theme vs Mechanics: Finding Common Ground

Written by Alex Harkey

There are few certainties in tabletop gaming: you should always occupy Australia, everything can use more Cthulhu and every civil discussion of theme turns into an argument between supporters of mechanics and advocates of theme. I’m not actually sure how we arrived at this point; theme and mechanics have long been blended together in wonderful games. Somewhere along the way it was decided that we need a Hatfield-McCoy feud in tabletop gaming.

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A problem occurs when this debate occurs in the context of game design, more specifically a discussion of theme first design or mechanic first designs. The trouble is that these debates are probably more interesting than they are valuable. This clash of ideas gets portrayed as a binary; an either/or, a false dichotomy as a starting point for game design.

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The reality is that the relationship between theme and mechanics is a gradient rather than a binary. Discussion would be better served in terms of successful approaches to game design. Are any of us better designers because we refuse to utilize an alternative theme/mechanic starting point? Can an artist become more successful by restricting their color palette and refusing to use the color blue?

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Seriously, we need blue in order to appease our leader Cthulhu

The goal of this article is to give game designers a wider selection of achievable starting points when weighing the importance of theme. A method I usually suggest to new game designers is to identify a target blend of theme/mechanics you wish for your design and scale up or down based on the needs for your design. I’ve described one such scale below, but feel free to create your own. I’ve included examples of games I feel are representative of each category.

Supplementary Theme:

Plenty of games are criticized for a weak theme and for good reason: these games could have their own wardrobe for as easily as they could change between themes. Rather than attacking weak themes, we’re going to look at the benefits of a theme (even an ill-suited one) in comparison to a complete lack of theme. At the very least theme ties back into our Approachability topic in order to lower the barriers of entry for new players:

Establish the Terminology

One way theme can benefit players is when it includes a motif to facilitate in learning the game. The theme Egyptian theme of Ra makes little sense but exists for player convenience.

Theme Lesson #1: If you’re going to come up with the terminology for tiles, chits and other various objects in the game, the names may as well have a logical connection.

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Frame the Objective

If the primary goal of a game requires a strange explanation, a strong attempt at theme can lay the groundwork for even the oddest concept. Games in this category are usually driven by mechanics and have a customized theme in order to explain the objective of the game. Many games in this category could likely survive as abstracts, but either due to their complexity or for marketability the theme can put a cover image on the madness.

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Theme Lesson #2: At the very minimum a theme’s explanatory value should outweigh its added complexity.

One of the strongest qualities of abstracts is that they minimize unnecessary complexity. Applying a theme to a game should make it easier to understand, not more difficult.

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Once I figure out what Cthulhu is I’ll be able to play hundreds of new games from Kickstarter

Mechanically Justified Theme

There is a whole category of games whose mechanics technically make sense in relation to the theme, but can still not feel particularly thematic. These games can often be designed with theme in mind, but potentially settle for a more mechanically sound experience. Given these existing restrictions, artwork and components can really help to sell the theme to players within this category.

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Persuasive Theme

If a game can blend the mechanics, artwork, roles, language and objectives of a game together it achieves a high standard. Plenty of the value at this level is that players will acknowledge (sometimes subconsciously) that the existing game would require considerable effort to re-theme and skeptics may be more willing to buy-in to the theme because of this.

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Inseparable Theme

The final category generally comes from a theme-first design structure in which the theme is the core and it would be remarkably difficult to detach from the remainder of the game. At times this can result in “fiddly” mechanics in order to prioritize their conformity with the theme.

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Conclusion

Hopefully you disagreed with the categorization of one or more examples I used above. I find the differences in evaluation quite telling about how theme works in the eyes of a player. We have a human tendency to give allowances for thematic inconsistencies in games we like and use it as unquestioned criticism in games we don’t like. Terms like narrative, feel and immersion can be influenced by game design but all rely on uncontrollable factors such as player willingness and personal perspective.

Theme Lesson #3: Identify your own moral to the story.

You won’t be able to please a sizable portion of your audience regardless of what you do. Stay the course with your remaining design objectives and place the same emphasis on theme at the end of your game design as you did at the beginning.

We each join this conversation on theme with our own definitions and therefore different origins. Its hard to imagine this will never change and your role as a game designer shouldn’t be to satisfy every person’s appetite for theme. Join us later this month as we examine areas of theme which are under the control of the game designer and can contribute to a better game. Also can someone explain to me what Cthulhu is?

Further Exploration (Highly Recommended):

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4 comments on “Theme vs Mechanics: Finding Common Ground

  1. Thomas Amundsen

    I think you guys missed the intent of the author. The spectrum between theme and mechanics being presented is that of where you _start_ from, not what is emphasized in the final design.

  2. Glittercats (@PlayGlittercats)

    I agree with Max’s comment that theme and mechanics shouldn’t be seen as a one-dimensional spectrum, but I disagree that being high on both is necessarily better. Deep, narratively immersive games are great. But think of a game like “No Thanks” — it’s a great game because the mechanics are right out there with no theme needed. When my group plays Zendo, we completely ignore the intended zen-master-teaching-students theme because it’s just a distraction from the logical deduction that makes the game fun.

  3. Max Games Seidman

    The whole concept of a theme/mechanics tradeoff is ridiculous, and I think conceiving of them as a spectrum is not much more helpful than a binary. There are plenty of games out there that do a great job with both theme and mechanics (I like Letters From Whitechapel and Android: Netrunner as examples), which would argue that they are two mostly-unrelated axes: a game can be high in one, the other, or both. We shouldn’t shoot for the middle of a spectrum, we should shoot for the highest of all axes. Of course it takes more time to design games that are both mechanically and narratively sound, but why shouldn’t we strive for the best?

    Sorry for the criticism!

    1. Alex Harkey

      We always appreciate your comments and criticism Max! Thanks for taking the time to do so. You’re right, theme doesn’t always come at the cost of mechanics and both examples you gave are tremendous illustrations of this truth. Both are are polished, beautiful, complete designs but it isn’t always so clear to a new or growing designer how those games would look when starting out. Since the debate of theme and mechanics is a common clashing discussion I’m worried a new designer may be hesitant of where to begin. My hope would be this article can provide several more points of departure, without restriction on the strengths of both theme and mechanics for when they arrive at their final draft.

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