Mechanics vs Theme – Game Design Discussions


Here at BrainGoodGames we have thus far put a focus on mechanics in our games. We feel that mechanics are what keep games interesting over a long period of time. Mechanics are the core of most games, and are what makes you think when you are playing. Strategy games in particular rely heavily on mechanics to create ambiguous situations for the players to ponder. Manipulation of the mechanics in various situations create varied situations which the players may find more or less familiar. This is all part of building a heuristics tree for the game, and for games in general. I think this sort of thinking and heuristics generation is what makes many strategy games so satisfying for people. While theme can be very immersive it will give you a different sort of satisfaction.

Some games have extremely engaging stories or themes that can create intense feelings of immersion. This can be extremely enjoyable, and in fact I think many people play games mostly for that sense of immersion or for a feeling of escapism. The theme of a game will probably not be enough to keep someone playing a game for a long period of time. A story is never the same as the first time you experience it. Some stories are very interesting and can stand up to multiple playthroughs, but in my opinion the games that will keep players coming back over and over are games with interesting mechanics. This is not to say however, that theme isn’t important.

Immersion and engagement of players is part of most games and can be extremely enjoyable. A great theme can do wonders covering up lacklustre gameplay. Ideally though a game will not need its gameplay to be covered up. In my opinion the best games are those where the gameplay and theme work together, reinforcing each other. Some games have mechanics that feel thematic – they remind you of the theme and feel like an accurate representation of the action depicted. This method helps to immerse players in the game, but also makes the rules of the game more memorable and intuitive. If a game has a series of actions players must take, with a bunch of little rules they must follow it can be very confusing. If however all of these actions and rules relate to ideas a player already has, then they may more easily remember the rules.

theme vs mechanics

Mechanics also come from themes in some ways. Many game mechanics are based on real world situations. This is especially a popular method in the design of Eurogames. For example in Puerto Rico the game is based on creating and shipping goods. There are a lot of steps to go from having nothing to shipping a good. You must first harvest materials, turn the materials into the goods, find a boat that will hold all the goods you want to ship, negotiate a price for the goods and so on. Puerto Rico focuses on some of these steps and they create a wide variety of situations which players must navigate. The mechanics of Puerto Rico are representative of the theme of shipping goods and they tie together nicely. Most people have a general understanding of the process and this helps players remember the rules. Certainly, many people will find the theme or storyline to be quite dry, but the mechanics create extremely interesting strategic decisions.

Further, sometimes when a game has mechanics and theme that are very tightly intertwined sometimes you can encounter something I like to call emergent theme. The way some thematic mechanics interact can create situations that feel very true to the theme of the game. This is a rare situation in my experience, but is very valuable. If a game could regularly create emergent theme it could create its own stories without the creators of the game adding extra content. In theory you could create a game that had satisfying mechanics and a new story every time you played. Some day I hope to make a game like this!

Once again I would love it if anyone had any comments or would like to discuss any part of this post. Reply here or tweet @BrainGoodGames!

Caleb Friesen