Does the Theme Fit the Mechanics or Do the Mechanics Fit the Theme?

I’ve played all sorts of games over the years, from the early 80s playing Dungeon and Dragons to contemporary times playing social deduction games like Coup, worker placement games like Lords of Waterdeep, miniature games like Malifaux, Freeblades, and more.

I’ve been toying with game design and have a couple of thoughts and ideas on creating games.

I’m curious, though, what are your thoughts on mechanics and theme?  The argument is that some games have themes that are just tacked on to the rules and mechanics. For example, there is an argument that the worker placement game Lords of Waterdeep, although a great game, doesn’t really have much theme. People suggest that you can add any other theme or setting and the game will still be the same.

A great site, the League of Game Makers, discusses this and probably does a better job explaining it.

I’d like to suggest an experiment. Let’s pretend we are working on a miniature game (tabletop war game), with miniatures that you push across the board. Think if Warhammer 40k, Warmachine, Malifaux, Infinity, Flames of War, and others.

Let’s start with the mechanics. In the game, to attack another model, you roll a number of dice equal to an attack stat and try to beat the target model’s defense stat. Simple enough. However, to do multiple wounds, you can decide to split your dice pool, and you hope each “split” equals or exceeds the target’s defense.

To explain further, let’s pretend model A has an attack value of 4 (roll 4d6 during an attack) and model B has a defense of 7.  Model A swings his sword and the player rolls 4d6 and gets a 5, 2, 4, and 3. That combined roll of 14 easily beats a 7 for one wound. However, the rolling player decides to split his dice after the roll, and combining the roll into two groups with the 5 and 2 together, and the second group with the 4 and 3 together. Both groups equal a 7 for two wounds, as both groups equal or exceeded the defense.

If the theme of a game is applied to mechanics, what setting would fit this type of mechanic?  Fantasy? High fantasy with magic, wizards, clerics, sorcerers and more. Or, does this mechanic fit modern day ninjas? Far future space fights?

What are your thoughts? What settings or themes can you think that might fit this mechanic better?  I’ve got my thoughts and it’s a simple mechanic that I’m playing around with to see what happens.


One thought on “Does the Theme Fit the Mechanics or Do the Mechanics Fit the Theme?

  1. In my experience – with three published games and several as-yet-unpublished ones under my belt) – the answer is “it’s a bit of both” and “it depends where you start”. Some games start with the theme because the designer has (or has ben given) a vision of the sort of action or event they want to capture. From there, the next step is “how do I convey, in rules, the action I can see in my head?” In those cases, the mechanics follow the theme. But, even with highly thematic games, you will eventually find yourself rationalizing or abstracting the theme to fit a simpler or more elegant mechanic than would necessarily be implied if you purely allowed the theme to lead the mechanics. Miniatures games are full of examples of this.

    By contrast, sometimes one comes up with an elegant game and wants to bring it to life with a theme. Sometimes such themes are described as “tacked on” – Lords of Waterdeep is an example, as might be Splendor. But even there you’ll see examples of mechanics following theme. In Splendor – as a game I know better than LoW – you have the patron cards. They are entirely superfluous to the central mechanics of the game, but they follow the theme and, incidentally, add further elegance to the scoring system.

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