Brainstorming Board Games: Theme vs. Mechanics

It’s rare that a complete board game idea, including theme and mechanics, comes to you at once. Yet neither is complete without the other. So where’s the best place to start when you’re brainstorming and digging in to a game design?

Starting with a Mechanic

Many board games are almost purely driven by the rules and the puzzle of the game—theme isn’t always a factor in players’ experiences. Dominion by Donald X. Vaccarino falls into this category. If you remove the kingdom-building theme, the game is still enjoyable and interesting.

The problem with starting with a mechanic is that sometimes mechanics just don’t work the way you thought they would. And when a mechanic is your whole game… where do you go from there? Back to the drawing board.

If you’re lucky, your mechanic will work exactly as you imagined it would and you can add a theme from there. But you have to get very lucky.

Starting with a Theme

Theme is often just as important as mechanics in board games. Players need to know who they are, what they are doing, and what world they enter when they play a game. But a clever theme is no replacement for a solid and interesting game.

If you start with a theme, you’ll have to think up a mechanic that fits perfectly—but the mechanic also has to be fun and meaningful for players.

Starting with an Experience

Instead of considering mechanics or theme first, some designers instead aim to create an enjoyable and challenging experience for players. This requires a seamless integration of theme and mechanics such that neither could exist without the other.

Focusing on experience is more likely to evoke specific emotions or reactions from players. The best way to start with an experience is to decide what the style of the game will be and how you want players to feel. Next comes the tricky step: finding a theme and mechanic that are inseparable.

Though this is far more difficult and time consuming than starting from theme or mechanics, a well-designed experience-based game is often a memorable one that players are likely to remember.

At Genius Adventures, we hope that all of our games are experience-driven and succeed in sending players on great adventures in colorful worlds.