Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The age old question...

Fellow designer and blogger Jack, of the Blog Creation and Play, recently had a post asking the question: "What came first? The mechanic or the theme"?  Jack and I got into the discussion about our various approaches to game design and it got me thinking that I need to explore my understanding of what a mechanic is a bit more. 
I guess when I think of mechanics, I am talking about something more specific.  I love the Dice Altering mechanic of Kingsburg and would love to do a game using some aspect of that mechanic.  Attica has a great clean mechanic of placing tiles to make sets for points that is so easy to play yet impossible to ever get the same results.  In both of these cases, the theme could be anything.  Kingsburg doesn't have to be set in a Fantasy kingdom where monsters are coming to attack.  It could be a sci-fi alien world or Criminal Empires of the Roaring 20's.  Attika is so loosely based on building city empires during Ancient Greece that it could just as easy be Farmers competing over shared land in a wacky game of trying to plant their crops around each other.

In the development of my game I started with a pre-existing idea.  Taipan.  I knew the game was going to be about merchant captains in the Far East sometime in the historical 1800's.  With setting chosen and fairly well locked in place, I started thinking about what I was going to need.
  • A Game Board: Knowing what that region looked like on a map made it obvious that there were going to be changes to the game.  
  • Dice?: No, I wanted to do this game to be played without dice. I would use dice if I had to, but for now I would do without it.
  • Decks of Cards:  I needed events like storms and pirate attacks to happen from time to time.  To balance that out I needed some good events to happen as well.  A deck of Event Cards seemed like an obvious choice.
  • Combat: If I was going to have pirates attacking the player I would need to have combat.  I already decided that I didnt want Dice, so that meant some other way of resolving combat.  I settled on another deck of Cards.
  • Cargo: I needed some way to represent each type of cargo that players were buying and selling. I also needed a way to gain random types of cargo. Cards seemed like the theme that was working so far.
So I had all my parts, but I still didn't have a mechanic.  Well, what is a Mechanic?  Wikipedia has this to say about it:

"Game mechanics are constructs of rules intended to produce an enjoyable game or gameplay. All games use mechanics; however, theories and styles differ as to their ultimate importance to the game. In general, the process and study of game design are efforts to come up with game mechanics that allow for people playing a game to have a fun and engaging experience.

The interaction of various game mechanics in a game determine the complexity and level of player interaction in the game, and in conjunction with the game's environment and resources determines game balance. Some forms of game mechanics have been used in games for centuries, while others are relatively new, having been invented within the past decade."

So the mechanics are everything from the rules to balance, and player interaction with the game, its parts, and other players.  So what this is telling me is....I dont have a game yet. Got it!

I started with movement.  I moved the ships around on the board and got a gauge of how many turns it would take to move around.  Next I started playing with Cargo and how cities produced Cargo.  This made me realize I needed City Cards.  Then I started intergrating when the player draws the event cards.  Now I had the mechanics of a game.  Event Cards, then Movement, then Combat (if the player encountered Pirates while moving), Port actions of buying and selling Cargo, and finally the End Turn where the clean up happens.

The game has changed since this humble beginning, but this was the slow process that brought the mechanics to my game idea.  Because I knew the game I was making, I guess knew some of the mechanics I wanted before I even got started.  I guess in that sense I did have some of my mechanics in mind before I started working on the game.

I think I have come back full circle to Jack's original Post: What came first? The mechanics or the Theme?


  1. Sounds like you answered the question of which came first, and the answer is: neither (or both). I think if you had only the mechanics or the theme initially, you'd know it, it would be pretty obvious; you'd either have a (set of) mechanic(s) looking for a context or a theme (and no game), rather than the early stages of a game concept. I actually can't even imagine coming up with a mechanic that didn't have some context for it (though I might change the context later), nor coming up with a theme that had not even a vague sense of possible mechanics, because that's not a game idea, that's just... well, not much of anything, really.

    I was trying to think of what one might call that initial, vague sense of game mechanics that comes with the theme when you're in the first stages of design. (I'm thinking about that idea of how you want the game to be, even though the specific mechanics will come later.) Proto-mechanics, maybe?

  2. I heard this song today "The Mariners Revenge Song" by the Decemberists. It made me think of an idea for a game:

    Its a co-op board game where players are trying to escape from the belly of a whale that has swallowed them whole. Ship wreck islands and various objects make up the terrain the players have to navigate inside the whale. I have lots of other ideas, but ill keep them to my self for now.

    In thinking about it I had some mechanics I wanted to play around with in about 10 seconds after I had the idea for the game. I wrote them all down and hope to work on it some time soon. Maybe Ill get to do a post about it sometime after the weekend.