LESSON 2 : Theme Building VS Mechanic Building - The Cardboard Designer

LESSON 2 : Theme Building VS Mechanic Building

A card from my ill-fated game El Presidente, it was where my inspiration came from when picking this posts player experience.

How do you start to think about your game? Where should you focus your energies when putting pen to paper. Should you focus on how it’s going to look first of all? Should you aim to get the core mechanics fleshed out?

There are 3 main things that drive the creation of a game at the earliest concept stage. The player experience, the core mechanics, and the theme of the game. Having an initial understanding of what the players experience should be, and then either an idea of core mechanics or the theme is the point where I have enough to start putting pen to paper. The missing element is just as important but it can grown organically as we start to refine ideas from this point onward.

Whether you decide to build games that are driven thematically or mechanically is very much personal choice. There isn’t a right answer here. There are pros and cons to each, and there are perhaps different optimal pathways for each, but both provide a stable base from which you can build.

We are going to pick a simple player experience and then look at how we might approach that from a mechanically driven design perspective, and then from a thematically driven design perspective. For this exercise, the player experience will be – “the player wants to feel like they are the general of an army.” Pretty straight forward, but it will suffice 🙂

Mechanically Driven Design

This extensive list of mechanics that can be found on BGG (board game geek) should be bookmarked on your toolbar in a folder marked VERY IMPORTANT if it’s not already. It offers both an exhaustive list of mechanics and provides you with examples of games that utilize said mechanic, which means you can find let’s plays to assist with your research.

If we were thinking mechanically about the player experience, obvious candidates from the list emerge which could include:

  • Static Capture – pieces are captured when another piece occupies or passes over their space.
  • Critical Hits and Failures – dice are rolled, and those exceeding a target number generate a success. Certain rolls (typically the highest and/or lowest on the die) generate additional success or extreme failure.
  • Area Movement – The game board is divided into irregular areas to determine adjacency and movement.
  • Battle Cards – performing a single action uses a single card

The above are by no means the only choices available, but as I read through the BGG list and think about how to make a player feel like a general, these were the ones that popped out to me. Maybe pick a mechanic that seems completely at odds with your player experience. The auction mechanic doesn’t immediately say military to me, but perhaps it leads to a game involving limited resources and arms dealers?

From here, we can start to think about what we want our core mechanic to be, and look at the requirements of that mechanics. Ask yourself “how can I utilize mechanic X to make my player feel like a general in the army?” So: ” How can I use critical hits and failures to make my player feel like a general in the army?” I immediately think of raining artillery down on enemy troops, so maybe this could be a game about accurately firing guns and mortars across a board, using dice to indicate the success and any damage delivered. Perhaps I could incorperate the irregularity of area movement to grant bonuses or penalties to troops and artillery. How might we use regular d6 (six sided dice) or another dice size, or perhaps even custom dice to account for things like wind and visibility.

Your brain will start to churn out ideas, so let your imagination wander a bit. If you come to a dead end with one thought, move onto the next. It is important at this point in time to not hold back – jot anything down that comes to mind. You can improve or lose these things as you refine ideas.

Be sure to constantly check in with yourself – using the question: “How does this improve the player experience I am trying to create?”

A small point to caveat. In this example, I started with the player experience and then selected a mechanic. You don’t have to do it this way. Your starting point can be your mechanic and you can then decide how you want the player experience to flow within that mechanic.

Thematically Driven Design

I will confess that my preferred method of design is to approach things thematically – and usually I will even decide on my player experience a step after I’ve picked a theme.

Lets work through how the process might look at approaching the player experience through theme. “The player want’s to feel like they are the general of an army.” So thematically how might that look? Wars through history obviously stick out here; the world wars, civil wars, famous historical encounters. We’re not limited by history, what if our players were working together as generals of the Earth Defense Union, repelling alien invaders? Being a general isn’t all about war, what could we theme more in peace time? Could we be in charge of an army base perhaps, or acting as the military advisor to government. Maybe the latter of those examples doesn’t have the same action packed idea to it as war, but there are plenty of games out there that focus on political intrigue – Secret Hitler being a popular example.

Once we have decided on a theme, we would then start to refine what specific actions and game play the player would be doing in this particular theme. If we were collectively defending the earth, it’s likely that we’d need some combat mechanics and the ability to build forces or create powerful defenses with special actions? If it were more about political intrigue we might need keep our identities secret from one another, or enact missions and actions that might give ourselves away?

Don’t try to find a mechanic to fit the actions that you are trying to carry out. You will be able to refine that in more detail once you have found the ideas you like the most and see how you can apply them to best suit your needs.

Which to use?

Well, that is entirely up to you! Which do you find more fun? What do you find easiest to work with?

To maybe help you decide, here are some of my pros and cons of each method:

Thematically driven design:

PRO: the game will have a strong identityCON: if an idea isn’t working it can
be hard to “let go” of it
PRO: component and artwork ideas
are easier to flesh out
CON: can be difficult to include abstract
elements to a game
PRO: can be easier to bounce ideas off
people when you’ve a strong theme
CON: themes are sometimes unconstrained
and the game can grow massively in scope

Mechanically Driven Design

PRO: strong mechanics don’t have to bend to fit the theme, the theme can changeCON: the theme may never really cement itself with its mechanic fully
PRO: can often be play-tested sooner and maybe without a theme at allCON: the player experience can sometimes be hard to define depending on your familiarity with the mechanic
PRO: can iterate upon existing games that use the mechanic as a starting pointCON: it can be easy to throw several different mechanics at a game at once – and then be left with a lot of work to tune them


I’d love it if you could share with me what you came up with below!

Pick out one of the mechanics from the list and if necessary watch a couple of let’s play videos of games suggested. From the chosen mechanic, what sort of player experience do you want to create? How could you use the mechanic in interesting ways? Pick a mechanic that you think would be difficult to fit into the player experience that you’ve selected. Is there an interesting way that it could be utilized?

Now think about something the you read or watched recently. A book or comic maybe? Or a tv show or film? Pick something and jot down the themes of it on a piece of paper. If you were creating a board game, what experience would you want to give the player to emulate that theme. What would that look like as a board game? What mechanics would help to realize that experience, how would you implement them into the game?


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