Step 5: What Comes First: Theme or Mechanic?

I don’t think we even need to discuss where ideas come from. If you’re really looking for game ideas (and many times when you’re not) you will find them in almost everything. Eventually, when people know that you like to design board games, you’ll find that they often recommend turning a current situation you’re in with them into a board game.

Some people have asked what comes first though – is it the theme or the mechanic? Well there are actually a few more variables that could come first, such as: Title, Genre or Components.

Theme: I would hazard a guess that a lot of games start with the theme. “Hey wouldn’t it be cool if there was a game about trying to escape a mall infested with zombies?” Theme is what gives the game a unique flavour and often will help drive some of the mechanics.

I used to work for 7-11 back in the day and I remember learning that candy bar manufacturer’s pay more money to 7-11 to be placed on the top shelf, instead of a lower one. Makes sense – and it was the theme I liked that motivated us to make our very first finished board game called Top Shelf. It’s never been published, but it still has its place in our history of game design as being our first design! With just that theme we came up with a tile placement game where you’re trying to make matches to get more of your product sold than your competitors.

I showed Top Shelf to a company at a convention and they liked it enough and asked us to send them a prototype. They asked us to take the theme out of the game and just make it a completely abstract game as that was the kind of publisher they were. We obliged but as we did so I felt the game lost some of its magic. Possibly that’s just me as I’m more of a fan of theme-based games than abstract games that have no or minimal theme. I like to feel like the game is telling a story as we’re playing it.

Mechanic: Sometimes we come up with a mechanic first – like tile laying, pick up and deliver, resource management etc… As we fine tune some of the concepts, we throw around some possible themes that might fit. Eventually we lean more to one theme and progress from there.

I had this idea for a tile laying game that had some pick up and deliver mechanics to it. As I started to develop it I made it about delivering various meats on something I called a Smokeboat. Later as the game kept improving we moved the theme over to the Greek Islands and the game became Santorini. It still has the pick up and deliver mechanic but it fits much better with the theme.

Title: Sometimes you come across a title and you think,

“Dang, that should be the name of a board game!” Well, I think that at least! For us we’ve had these titles way before designing any aspect of the theme or mechanic: Pants on Fire (seemed like it would be a great game with bluffing), Mage vs. the Machine (seemed like a cool battle game concept),Hog the Remote (seemed like some sort of quick reaction game about TV) . Some of these made it to prototype phase and Hog the Remote has ever been to a couple publishers already. We actually have a thread on our forum dedicated to possible game titles.

Genre: Since we’re trying to be as well rounded as possible when it comes to designing board games, we want to explore every possible genre of games: kids/family, dexterity, Euro-strategy, war simulation, party games. In my other spare time I work as a children’s entertainer as a character named Bertolt. I thought it would be great if Bertolt had a game of his own. So we set out to create our first kid’s game. We toyed with an idea about Bertolt packing clothes for a trip, but it didn’t work. We then came up with this concept of quick reaction mixed with audible clues. It turned into Bertolt’s Jungle Jam. Eventually it became just Jungle Jam when we pitched it to publishers as they wouldn’t know who the heck Bertolt was. Currently it has been retitled again as it shares the name with a game that was in a court battle against Jungle Speed. We don’t want to be associated with that at all! But our game does actually involve making jam, so we’re now calling it Jam Slam. It’s currently in the semi-finals of a contest for best Canadian Game Design!

Game Components: This is more rare, but it’s possible an entire game can be started because of seeing something you’d like to see in a game. Often Sen and I will go to school supply stores and just walk up and down the aisles. Those stores are great because they often have things in the main primary colours – and in huge quantities. One great example is seeing these miniature coloured popsickle sticks at a dollar store. We bought them for no reason except they seemed like they could be cool.

These sticks have sat in our supply box for a couple years doing nothing. Then just about a month ago I had this idea on how to use these sticks in a game. We’ve spent the last couple of weeks working hard on it and we’ll need to spend many more to get the balance just right, but we’re excited about our new game, possibly called Rune Masters.

So there is no correct answer as to what should come first when designing a game. I think that’s part of what makes designing board games so interesting. Anything can get you started about making a game.

Starting with this post I’m going to add some Game Design Challenges. If you want to flex your designer muscles then give them a whirl. The goal is to be a more well rounded game designer who is able to design any game if requested (imagine having that job?!).

-Jay Cormier

This post brings back a lot of great memories, but even moreso, it brings to light an important aspect of our design philosophy. The “V” from your MVP mnemonic – being able to see the possibilities in all sorts of things and to be able to take the mundane, turn preconceived notions on their ears, and make something fun out of a bunch of cubes and a piece of cardboard is what game design is all about. And then, from that sandbox-type free-for-all, being able to reign things in and create a viable ruleset…wow. It’s a process, but a great one.

-Sen-Foong Lim

Write a description of 5 possible games. Each game should start from a different point: Theme, Mechanic, Title, Genre and Component. You don’t have to design the actual game or even any rules, just write a sentence or two about how each would work.


Step 4: Persistence pays

The third part of my lovely acronym MVP is the P…Persistence!

in 1981 Abbott and Haney sold 1100 copies of Trivial Pursuit and lost $60 on each of them. They stuck with their idea and 3 years later in 1984 they sold 20 million copies.
Fortunately for Abbott and Haney they had a great game, and possibly more importantly they had persistence. They could have tucked their tails between their legs and counted their losses after 1981, but they believed in their game and stuck it out.
In this business you have to be persistent. Sen and I started seriously designing board games in 2005 and it’s taken 5 years to get one game to market. Mind you we both have “real” jobs and have only been able to work on this in our spare time.
In those five years we’ve submitted over 14 games 20 times to a variety of companies. So we’ve had our fair share of rejections. With only two of those games being published we’re only batting .100 so far. That’s actually a pretty decent average so far from what I’ve heard from other designers in the industry.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, when you get rejected from a publisher they will give you some feedback on why they don’t want it. Sometimes it’s things that you can’t do anything about – as was the case when we submitted our game Junkyard to Buffalo Games.
They loved the game and kept it for a few months while they deliberated over it. They said it fit perfectly with the kind of games they like to publish. Unfortunately they ended up passing on the game because the components were made out of wood and they only had experience in making games with cardboard because they manufactured it themselves. Not much we could do as it was imperative that the game be made out of wood…or possibly plastic.
However, sometimes you get feedback that can help your game! For our game Jungle Jam we were rejected by R&R Games because the scoring was too fiddly. They said that everyone enjoyed playing it but the parent playtesters were worried that the scoring bits would be lost.
Fiddly Scoring Bits
We were saddened of course, but after thinking about it we found a way to include the scoring onto the cards themselves thereby allowing us to remove the scoring pieces altogether! This game is now currently back out being shopped to other publishers.
Adding scoring onto the cards!
I look at rejection as a part of the process, but there are ways to reduce how much rejection you get, which I’ll get into in a future post! Just remember that if you believe strongly in your games, stick with it. Be cautious with how much of your own money you pour into it because you could lose it all – but as long as it’s only costing you time, keep with it!
-Jay Cormier

With every bit of feedback we get, not only does the game that got rejected get a bit better, but all of our games get better. Because we subscribe to an overall design ethic / aesthetic, many of our games have similarities, however subtle. So sometimes, when we get feedback that changes how we look at one game, it can possibly change how we look at some of our other previously designed games and it definitely affects how we proceed on current and future designs.

To bluntly state “man, they don’t know what they’re talking about – our game ROCKS!” after getting the rejection letter is just being egotistical (even though many of our games do, in fact, rock ;) ). It’s only through getting feedback that we can really improve our product and tailor it not only to gamers, but the publishers who have sometimes very different agendas (i.e. $$$) than the people who will end up playing the game itself. And so we must expose our work to constant criticism and feedback. It’s all in how we choose to view the responses, really.

“We must learn from the past to change the future”.

There’s a game in there somewhere…

-Sen-Foong Lim