Design: Be Like Water My Friend

Over the next few weeks, Whose Turn Is It Anyway will be running a series of guest articles about board game design.
In the first article, designer and publisher Joost Das, looks at the age old question of Theme vs Mechanics. More specifically, as a designer, should the building blocks of the games design be based around theme, or around mechanics?

Be Like Water My Friend

Even if you’ve only been involved with the board game scene for a little while, you’re more than likely familiar with this discussion: What’s more important in a board game? Theme or mechanisms? It can promptly split the gaming community into two camps.

Are you kidding me?’ some will say. ‘Give me interesting choices to chew on and a plethora of strategies to try out, and I don’t care if I’m pushing brown cubes over a grey board. I can look beyond the exterior,’ they will proudly claim.

The other camp might counter: ‘I walk right past games that breathe such drudgery, glorious gameplay or not. I can easily disregard poor mechanisms if I can pretend to be a pirate for half an hour.’ Finishing with a practiced ‘Arrrgh’, to hammer home the point.

Well here’s the shocker. As a designer, regarding theme and mechanism as two separate entities can be detrimental to your work. It’s not a chicken or egg issue. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Most games benefit greatly when their creator goes back and forth between mechanism and theme, slowly shaping it into something greater than the sum of their parts.

Admittedly, that’s easier said than done, so let’s slowly walk through the process.

Mind you, we’re talking about relatively complex games here. Games that would take more than a few minutes to explain and have multiple moving parts. Well designed games like Ingenious, Yinsh or even Dixit have little need for theme. With only a few rules to adhere to, these games can offer good gameplay without a thematic backbone.

But as soon as your design gets a bit more involved, finding a good theme early on can help you out significantly. Theme can be more than simple eye-candy. If applied well, it will be of great help in your design process and the perfect tool in conveying complex rules to your audience.

Don’t Handcuff Yourself

Every creative process needs an origin. And there is no reason to think that a game that started with an intriguing theme would be in any way inferior to one that spawned from well thought out mechanisms.

In fact, coming up with a fresh new setting for a game can instantly generate an endless stream of ideas. How often did your mind start to wonder off with: ‘What if I made a game about…’ followed by an exciting period of feverishly writing down dozens of rules to support the theme you’ve just come up with. Yes, starting with a fresh theme can be a fantastic launchpad for a new project.

It can also, in time, become a factor that is damaging to the final product. And you might not even realize it. Let’s use an example to show you what I mean.

Say we’re off to make a game about something no one has ever done before. A game, for instance, about undercover Narcotics agents who have infiltrated a Mexican drug cartel. Ohhh, the excitement and tension that would bring! Trying to gather enough evidence against the highest crime lords while cleverly directing attention away from yourself. A stealthy game about weighing risk against reward. Can you see the players sweating nervously because their actions might blow their cover? The glory in their eyes when they can make a big bust at exactly the right time? Give the whole thing the looks of a 90’s drama movie and we’re well on our way to creating a unique and interesting product. Right?

Well, no. At least not if we were to marry ourselves to this specific theme. It might be a wonderful starting point, but it should be just that, a starting point.

It’s unbelievably restrictive for the design process to adhere yourself to this particular world and all its limitations. Total devotion to this theme will result almost certainly in a clunky and unfun game.

Presenting, for instance, a realistic scenario like the drug trafficking in Mexico, players expect real world rules and laws to apply here. What if some rule would significantly increase the fun of the game, but would make no sense in this setting? What if it turns out it’s far better to have players constantly betray each other? Do you toss out this possibility because real Narcotics agents wouldn’t do that on a regular basis?

Not to mention the biggest danger here: Not opening your mind to new ideas because your head is firmly stuck in the Acapulco of 1992.

Allow yourselves all the space you need to come up with the best possible game. If that means saying goodbye to the idea that ignited the whole design process, so be it.

The best way to go about this is to identify what made the idea of the original theme so exciting in the first place. It’s almost never the setting itself. Far more likely it’s the feelings that bubble up while you’re imagining yourself and others in the setting you’ve constructed. In the case of our Narcotics agents, it was the tension of being surrounded by your enemies. Trying to see how far you could go to gather evidence (resources) without blowing your cover. The life or death decision exactly when you uncover your identity and try to bust the head of the organization you’ve infiltrated.

There. That’s the core. That’s what makes the game tick. That’s what will get the players on the edge of their seat. If you’re able to catch that feeling in your game, you truly are well on your way to a great game. All the rest should remain optional.

If it turns out that Mexico can still facilitate all the rules that make the game great, fantastic. If the rules fit far better in another galaxy where aliens are smuggling clones of extinct species, we should leave Mexico and move to outer space.

The Power Of “Of Course”

Let’s approach this from the other side. Say you already have a gorgeous system of interlocking gaming mechanisms. Why then worry about the theme? Isn’t that just to get more people to buy your product? Bling, distracting from the true beauty of your design?

Besides the fact that it will be heartbreaking to have people walk right past your beautifully designed game just because the outside doesn’t look cool enough, imagine reading the following in a rulebook:

In phase B, you have the opportunity to discard any number of paper notes from your hand until the total sum of the numbers on these notes matches or surpasses the number on the upper right corner of one of the cards displayed in the blue area of the game board. If you do so, you gain possession of this card.

Or to put it in other words; ‘Buy phase: you may buy one of the items in the market place.’

There you go. A very basic example of theme at work. Translating a mechanism of your game to an action known to most people on Earth will save both you and your audience a ton of work.

Call it the power of “of course”. Of course, I get a bonus when defending my troops if they are in a bunker. Of course fighter jets cannot fly backwards. Of course I cannot move my ships onto land and of course coal is less valuable than diamond.

Also here, look for the core of your game first. What’s the central mechanism? What’s the main concept that makes it so interesting? What sort of feeling does it generate while everyone around the table is playing?

Most likely these things aren’t as alien as they might seem at first. And if you’re able to link this to an intriguing theme it will not only make the process of writing rules a whole lot easier, it can open the gates for new inspiration to come flooding in.

Bruce Lee

I’ll leave you with a quote from our friend Bruce Lee. He has done little in the field of board gaming as far as I know, but he had some words of wisdom anyone should adhere to.

‘Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own.
Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless.
Like water.

You put water in a cup, it becomes the cup
Put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Water can flow, or creep or drip or crash
Be like water my friend.’

Whether you approach game design theme first or mechanisms first, don’t stop going back and forth between the two. Take a few steps back every once in a while and see if you might need to kill a few darlings here and there. Keep adapting both until you feel confident they are in symbiosis with each other.

Move your theme to a slightly different setting or sacrifice some rules in favor of others to strengthen the world you’re trying to set up. Freeing yourself from strict devotion to your theme or rule set can be liberating. And a liberated mind can come up with fantastic ideas.

‘Be like water my friend’

FableSmith is a one-man (board)gaming company run by Joost Das. Responsible for game design, illustrations and graphic design, Joost does most things from initial concept to full product. Past games have been the colorful coop Oh no… INVASION!!! and the fast-paced 2 player game Ortus.
This year will see MEGA project The Darken, a deck-builder/dungeon crawler and the much smaller but hilariously idiotic Hylaria. It will also see the digital version of Ortus, as well as an infinite Memory game, playable on mobile devices.
You can check out a whole lot more on or tag along on Twitter, @fablesmith. See you there!