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How to marry the theme and mechanics in your board game

Should I start with theme or mechanics? Here are some thoughts on whether either of these approaches is best or if there is a better way.

Joe Slack, Blogger

May 6, 2022

6 Min Read

Here’s a question that new game designers ask all the time: Should I start with theme or mechanics? I would argue that it doesn't matter where you start as long as you end up with theme and mechanics that are in strong alignment.

But your game doesn't even need to start with a theme or a game mechanic. I often talk about how I feel that the vision for the game is a better starting point. The vision will really outline what experience you are creating for your players and will help guide you in the right direction as you get feedback and make changes to make your game better.

To help you identify the vision for your game and get you moving ahead faster, make sure to check out my 10 Minute Board Game Design Blueprint.

However, I've had ideas for games that have come from many different sources - theme, mechanic, vision, or even a name that popped into my head.

The starting point isn't nearly as important as the end point.

While working on an early version of your game, you won't know exactly what theme and mechanics will stay and which ones just won’t function well. You're simply testing out ideas to see what works and what doesn't.

But over time, you'll want to ensure that the theme and mechanics really align well in your game.

So, let's take a closer look at how to marry your theme and mechanics well to provide a more immersive board game experience for your players.

Do all games need a strong theme?

First, we should look at the question of whether a board game really needs a theme or not.

There are plenty of examples of great abstract games with little or no real theme. For example, Chess, Go, Tak, and Blokus.

There are also lots of fantastic games where the theme is pretty light and could be interchangeable with just about any theme. Consider for example, Azul, Sagrada, or Santorini.

So, we can see that a game can be both successful and well-designed without necessarily having a theme.

At the same time, a theme can draw you into a game and make it a much more immersive experience. But sometimes forcing a theme onto your game will lead players to say that the theme is “pasted on.” In other words, the theme it's pretty interchangeable - it's not an integral part of the game at all.

It's usually a good idea to have some kind of a theme on your game rather than go for a very black and white abstract feel like Chess or Go. If you end up pitching your game to publishers and it gets signed, they will be the ones to ultimately decide on the theme, but having some sort of theme will make your game more accessible and will likely generate more interest from a publisher.

So, the answer is no, every game doesn't necessarily need a theme, however, it's more likely to be successful if there is some sort of theme associated with the game. So, if you can figure out a theme that works well for your game, go for it!

Marrying theme and mechanics in your game

A rich theme can really draw people into your game. It can make players feel that they are part of this specific world that you’ve created.

In order to truly integrate your theme and mechanics, you’ll want to think about what roles the players are playing as and understand the world that they live in and what they would want to try to accomplish, and how they would go about doing this.

I'm working on a co-designed game called License to Grill, which is about trying to outdo your friends at a barbecue by taking over the grill and cooking your orders to perfection. In real life, when you want to cook a meal well, you have to pay attention to things like the temperature and cooking time. Not only that, you may want to marinate your food or baste it with some sauce while it's cooking.

So, we made sure that the focus would be on time and resource management. Everyone has a limited number of actions they can take on their turn, which would mimic what you might be able to accomplish in a couple minutes in real life. You can't do everything at once, so you'll have to decide whether to focus your time on putting a new order on the grill, taking something off, or serving your food.

However, you’re sharing the grill with all the other players, and some may decide to turn up the heat, so you'll have to react and try to get your orders off the grill at the best possible time.

All the actions and gameplay are very thematic, because they are the types of things you would think about if you were really sharing a grill with your friends and trying to outdo them in real life.

You just have to be careful that your game doesn't turn into a simulation, which is a different experience entirely. You’re making a game, so it should still be fun and engaging, not just replicating real life tasks.

You'll want to think about what types of resources players would want to get and how they would obtain them. Are there berries that will ripen somewhat randomly at different times? Will players have to race to get what they need? Would it make more sense for players to buy these things at an auction?

Also, think about the mechanics that would best fit into this experience.

Is there a lot of risk-taking in your game that would fit well with a press your luck mechanic? Are you sending off workers to complete tasks, in which a worker placement mechanic might work best? Are players collecting items that would become more valuable the more they have? Set collection may work perfectly in this situation.

Final thoughts

In order to marry theme and mechanics well in your game, you really want to think about what’s happening in your game and the roles that players will take on. Determine how they would need to accomplish their goals and what makes sense for them to get there.

Also, make sure to ask players how they feel about the theme. Does it match with what they're doing? Are there other actions they would like to take but can't?

Over time, you may realize that your theme just isn't working or maybe that your mechanics are not aligned with your theme. It's OK to change either of these. Or both! When you're designing a game, nothing is set in stone. Any changes that make your game better while still holding to the vision you have for your game are always worth considering.

I’ve put together a guide that helps you document your theme and mechanics (along with other important aspects of your game), including the changes you make to these over time. It’s called the 10 Minute Board Game Design Blueprint.

Download it now to help you turn your game idea into a reality!

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