Mechanics & Theme
by Shannon Appelcline
The gaming industry as we understand it today really began in the 19th century. Sure, there were games before that which have stood the test of time, from Backgammon and Parchisi to card games to Chess and Checkers, but I think you have to generally accept those as happy accidents. By the 19th century, however, mass publication became a reality, and thus people could actually become designers, spending their time creating games for a profit.
Kriegspiel (1824) was one of the earliest modern games. It was a wargame which simulated Prussian battles along the French-Belgium border. It also largely set the direction for game development over the next 150 yaers. From the time of Kriegspiel forward, most new game designs have been simulationistic, which means they've been about modeling reality (or some other system of belief).
On Theme & Simulation
The history of gaming reads a bit like the Book of Genesis. Wargames begat roleplaying games (via Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons), then roleplaying games begat MUDs, then MUDs begat MMORPGs. Via another route, wargames begat board games, from Monopoly to Trivial Pursuit.
Since wargames have traditionally been some of the most simulationistic games possible (containing items like modifiers for the use of guns in a damp swamp on an Autumn Day), it shouldn't be surprising that most modern game designs that we consider in this column (roleplaying games, online games, board games) are simulationistic too.
Despite its silly racetrack design, Monopoly really is a game about selling property and trying to bilk your opponents for all they're worth in a capitalistic system gone mad. Likewise, Clue has a heavy sense of mystery about it. Pirate's Cove, a more recent family game design, and one that I actually like, follows the same idea of heaving theming. It's a game that's really about pirating.
Some of these more modern games don't necessarily try and directly simulate, but they're still heavily themed. There's no way that you could take the game and make it about something else, because the theming is a core part of the game, not just a veneer.
Though this is all the traditional way that games have been produced, it's no longer the only way. In fact, the idea of building games around simulation or theme has been somewhat sidelined of late. It's now known as "American game design" (or "Anglo" or "English" as you prefer). Because there's at least one other way to approach your game.
On Mechanics in Design
I consider building a game around theme to be a top-down design. You start with how you want the game to look and then figure out how you can build mechanics to accomodate those themes. However, you can also build your games bottom-up, by starting with the mechanics and then figuring out what theme will work with them. Even to me, this sounds a bit ass-backwards. However, it addresses a serious problem of traditional game design.
Most traditional American games are, to put it bluntly, bad. Often so much attention is put toward the theming and simulation in a game that no attention at all is put toward how the game works and what makes it fun.
(Clearly, by putting mechanics in advance of theme you face the opposite problem, where theme can get the short end of the stick. Honestly though, would you prefer to have a game with bad gameplay or bad theming? Some would probably say the former, but I think they'd be the minority.)
As it happens, in the boardgame arena, an entire school of game design has been built up around this idea of mechanics over theme; it's typically called "German Game Design" (or, sometimes, "Euro Game Design" or even "Designer Game Design"). It's centered around designers like Reiner Knizia, Wolfgang Kramer, and Ruediger Dorn. Their games are built on strong, innovative, and thoughtful mechanics, and their themes are often placed on top as a facade and little more. Reiner Knizia is particularly well-known for producing abstract games that have a light theme topping, and this is made particularly obvious by how his games are sometimes rethemed when they're republished (such as his game of Egyptian deities, Ra, which is being rereleased in German as Razzia, a game of combating mobsters, and possibly in English as an unnamed [I'd vote for Rah, Team, Rah!] fantasy football game).
It's also worth mentioning that most traditional games older than those from the last few hundred years are entirely mechanical. How much theme is there in Checkers? Backgammon? Even Chess just has a light facade of theme. The fact that these are the games that have stood the test of time says something important.
To design in this method you have to figure out first how your game is going to work. Will it involve trading? Auctions? Moving pieces around a board? Your figure out clever mechanics to execute these overall design choices, and produce a game with interesting strategy and tactics. Only then do you figure out what theme you're going to apply to your design.
These games all have a lot of good points. They allow for high levels of strategy and tactics because they've been built with strong mechanics in mind. On the downside, however, unlike American game designs the theme does not permeate the games, and thus they're always the feeling that you're playing abstractions, not simulations.
And Never the Twain Shall Meet
There's a strong feeling among players that the two fields of design shall never meet. However, that's a somewhat false dicotomy.
One of the better designed games I played in 2003 was A Game of Thrones. This game is a quintessential American wargame, but it features sophisticated mechanics for commanding (and sustaining) troops as well as auctions for gaining control of various positions of power. At the same time this couldn't be a game about anything other than George R. Martin's series of fantasy books.
I also think that German designer Klaus Teuber (of The Settlers of Catan fame) doesn't get enough respect for turning out games with above average themes and mechanics which are well melded.
(For every success, however, there's probably more failures. Age of Mythology was another wargame in 2003 that tried to combine theme & mechanics meaningfully. I personally found that the mechanics were flawed while the theme wasn't very deep.)
The catch here is that I don't really know hot to explain a method for this type of design. I think you need to have a two-step design process, where you build the mechanics upward, then you build the themes downward, then you make sure that the two combine together in the middle. When you're done you should have a game that (1) has solid mechanics; and (2) has a theme that can't be removed from those mechanics.
Clearly this isn't just as easy as starting with a theme or a mechanic and forging onward. Nonetheless, it has the potential to create the most meaningful games.
I've spent a lot of this article talking about philosophy and history. My point from a game design perspective is this: you should clearly understand that you have two broad methods for game design, top-down thematic design and bottom-up mechanical design. If you're trying to design a top-rate game, be it RPG, MMORPG, or board game, you should consider both elements and also make sure they meld well.
This article was inspired by two recent discussions of the mechanical basis of German games: Greg Aleknevicus' German Games Are Fraud and Greg Costikyan's German Boardgames as Fraud. I've surely repeated some of the things that each of them said, but the topic has also been simmering in my head for a while.