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Themes & Mechanics 1.0

Bruno Faidutti

February, 2005

Just as many readers fantasize of writing, many gamers dream and hope of creating a game and seeing it published. A gamer is much more likely to carry out his dream, because designing a game takes undoubtedly less time and personal investment than writing a novel. Both cases are alike in that there is no formal method to apply to each problem. Advice from an established game designer will not be in the form of formulas, but merely examples and recollections of past memories.

The question most frequently asked by journalists and by new designers is about the original inspiration for the game—of the tiny spark of creation of the small universe that is the game. Which comes first? Is it the literary aspect (the theme), or the technical key (mechanics), that starts the machine which ends up forming the game?

The typical answer, if a little simplified, is that there are two opposing schools of design; American and German.

The American School worships the theme. This school thus gave rise to various simulation games like wargames and role-playing games. The rules are created for the express purpose of reproducing (sometimes with maniacal detail) a historic or literary situation. The American School does not always end in simulation, as it also produced collectible card games, starting with Magic, which create their own universes, and many humorous board and card games in which the theme can be suggested by gags, and not brought forth by simulation. For American authors, the theme is not only the starting point, but is also firmly imbedded in the centers of the play, which undoubtedly explains the sometimes baroque character of their creations. From this school, you will sometimes see rules piled upon each other that all suit the topic, but do not always mesh well with each other.

The German School, and in particular its most well-known authors : Reiner Knizia, Wolfgang Kramer, and Klaus Teuber (the three K's), produce games built around mechanics. Here, you find abstracted, almost mathematical systems. The theme is almost a decorative element, added at the last moment, and sometimes changed by the publisher without the author's participation. A game set in medieval England can be moved to India (Taj Mahal), or Japanese warriors can be suddenly turned into Australian aboriginals (Wongar). For twenty years, the German school has produced both small and rather light card games as well as large board games of great strategic depth. Their success relies upon the simplicity of the game rules and the internal coherence of their mechanisms. For German designers, theme is secondary, and it's the mechanics that drive the game. This undoubtedly explains the slightly cold character—a bit abstract—of many of their creations.

Of course, the reality is far from being this simple. While there are many wholly abstract games (mostly games of pure strategy or pure chance) and some games almost without rules (mostly role-playing games), the majority of modern games mix the two aspects. The richest games that come to us from Germany or the United States are those which manage to create a synergy between theme and mechanisms, whose universe sticks to its rules, and whose rules stick to its universe. Having the schools of classification make it possible to understand the main tendencies, but it is not practical to totally classify games and designers. Reality often places games and their creators in the grey area between the two influences. Better still, these last few years have seen German designers more and more concerned about theme and universe, while the American designers are inspired by beautiful German mechanics.

I think of myself as being influenced by German designers whose elegant and effective systems I admire, as well as American creators, whose imagination and humor I envy. I do not have a "working method" which I apply in a systematic way to create a game. Sometimes the game grows from an original mechanism (or a less original mechanism that I just like and want to recycle), and sometimes from a topic which excites my imagination. The important thing is not really the starting point but the way in which the two elements interact during the development of the game. In the creation of a game, the relationship between theme and mechanics, in my experience, is more dialectical rather than complementary. It is not a question of artificially plating a topic onto clever mechanics, nor brutally applying a set of mechanics to an amusing or exciting topic, but instead finding a symbiotic relationship between the universe in which the game will exist and the systems which will facilitate this. In the end a game, even an abstract one, is nothing other than a storytelling machine—a story being a chronological list of events linked together.

The example of Boomtown will show how collaboration between authors can help set up the correspondence between theme and mechanics. The origins of this game is clearly a mechanism: one of many small, clever systems that Bruno Cathala covets in secrecy. One evening on the telephone, he described to me an original bidding system. Cards, die rolls and unspecified pawns are on sale, one per player, and the bidding determines simply who will choose first. The sum paid by the highest bidder is distributed among the other players so that the player who chooses last receives the largest part of the bid. That was it, and Bruno thought of using this system within a much larger game, the deep space Puerto Rico project, which we had been dreaming about for a year or two.

I thought that in order to keep the game from becoming bogged down in calculations, it would be necessary to make sure that it is impossible to evaluate the cards with precision. This led me straight to the idea of using dice for production—an idea inspired by one of my favorite games, The Settlers of Catan. The theme then flowed quite naturally, there were mines whose contents were uncertain, and tended to blow up. In the very first playtest version each mine had both a production die and an explosion die, which we quickly dropped for simplicity. The other mechanics, and in particular the idea of mayors and saloons, were suggested by the theme, and would undoubtedly be quite different if we had been making a game set in space or involved with court intrigues.

Boomtown thus was born from a mechanism, but the theme was not added at the last minute; it was there during the first tests, and it created its own cards and small rules which make up the sphere of play. If a game is a machine which generates stories, each playing is such a story which is written turn by turn as the players use the machine. In order to experience the full pleasure of the game, each player must be immersed in the story in the way that food is both tasted and smelled by the eater.

Mechanics can sometimes be enough to sustain a game, due to the thought required in a game of strategy, or drama caused by a game of bluff or chance. The theme helps to immerse players in the game, by providing a human dimension to the tale. This is why the most successful games are those which have a sufficiently fascinating topic so that the player "believes in it" or can at least "pretend to believe in it." That's why role playing games, where rules are designed to be discreet and easily forgotten, are the ultimate form of game—like novels are the ultimate form of literature. I say that all the more easily, as I have hardly played role-playing games for a good long time.

- Bruno Faidutti

(Translated from the French by Frank Branham.)

(This article originally appeared in Des Jeux Sur un Plateau magazine.)

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