Game School: Theme or Mechanics, which comes first?


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The perennial design question, which comes right after “Do I really want to spend all of my nights and weekends working on this?” is what to start with? Theme, or mechanics? I’m not going to bury the lead on this story – the correct answer is neither. Or both. Or one and possibly the other first, depending.

Don’t slap yourself in the face

A lot of game designers get asked this question. I know this because I’ve asked a lot of them this question myself. Now it’s spreading and I’ve even got people asking me this question, probably in hopes that I’ll turn around and ask someone on the inside of the industry. I’ve gotten a lot of different answers too, but I think they all pretty much boil down to this:

Do what works for you and don’t limit yourself to a black and white “this then that”.

In other words, stop slapping yourself in your own damned face with this and just get on with making a game. There is no one right answer here as each developer works differently in their own space. The way you work may not be immediately apparent to you until you start actually working on your designs. Don’t let hunting for the perfect way to start actually get in the way of your starting! Just get your brain working on a simple gaming problem. I want a zombie game. I really like drawing cards from a central deck and run with it.


I still enjoy this question though because I like to know how other folks work.

There is no simple start

I think the majority of people who ask this question are really asking “what’s the best way to start designing a game?” I know that’s why I started asking it. And what I was really looking for was a good way to bootstrap myself into a working game design.

The tough answer is, there is no simple start. At least, not at first. You’re going to have to do this the hard way (just like anything worth doing, right?) Start with whatever you’ve got to work with. Do you really want to make a game about rabbits stealing carrots from Farmer Orange? There you go, you’ve got your theme. Now start thinking about games you already know and what you could borrow from them to make a rabbit/carrot/farmer game. Are you excited about cards? Want to make it a worker (rabbit) placement game?

On the other hand, you may have an amazing idea for a deck builder, but are having a hard time coming up with a theme to match it. Think on this – does the game play actually suggest anything in and of itself? Are you constructing something of an engine to churn out more somethings? Are you subtracting things to win or adding them? Now think on things in your life that you’re passionate about (other than perhaps game design, although…) and start matching them up.

As you begin to think more about game design, the mechanics you enjoy, the themes you love, you’re going to start finding the ideas coming faster, in both theme and mechanics. In fact, as you get deeper and deeper into this hobby, I’d say you may find yourself having a hard time not thinking about game design. I find myself watching people interacting in every day life and thinking about what kind of a game I could build around it. Getting on and off of a crowded train suggests something to me, as does trying to photobomb your friends.

The biggest take away though should be that, in a game that’s really well designed, it shouldn’t matter which came first. Theme, mechanics, whatever! The game works well, feels like your actually doing what the theme suggests and holds together over multiple plays. Who cares where the designer started? Can you even tell? It worked for them and the game is good.

Do your homework

The only way to do homework as a game designer is to play games. Buy ’em yourself, head out to a local or semi-local convention, find a friendly local game store – whatever it is you have to do, get yourself playing other people’s games. Find what you like, and find what you don’t like. Expose yourself to new and interesting mechanics and themes. And above all, think about how the game works after you’ve finished playing it! Wow, that was a neat way to do what that game just did! Asking the question “how did they do that?” is the perfect way to delve deeper into the mechanics.

As your doing this though, be aware of a few things. Think on the theme. Did it meld with the mechanics? Were you sitting there wondering “what does this have to do with milking cows?” in a milk the cow game?

Always be on the looking for new things that suggest ideas to you. Whether its a neat theme, a mechanic you haven’t experienced before or even the text on a single card that sparks a new idea. It doesn’t matter whether you start with the theme or the mechanics, as long as your process works for you and you start creating fun games.



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