Theme Attracts You, But Mechanics Keep You

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I was discussing the age-old hot potato of theme vs mechanics the other day with the Boardgame Opinions team.  The question had been phrased as, “Which is more important: theme or mechanics?”  Not surprisingly, opinion was divided on the subject.

I feel like I’ve heard most of the arguments on this topic before, but then Amy, our community manager, made a great point.

She said, “Theme attracts you, but mechanics keep you.”

I had to stop and think about it for a minute.  Is it always theme that draws me into a game?  Am I never attracted by mechanics?  Let’s investigate…

No theme, but I love it.

Traditionally, I’ve always come down on the side of theme.  I’m also usually in the minority in my immediate gaming peer group.  Many of my friends are big Euro gamers and aren’t too fussed about theme as long as the mechanics are solid.

Now obviously, you would ideally want to have both.  I would argue that the best games have great mechanics integrated really well into a great theme.  Although, as Steve was quick to point out, my favourite game is Hanabi, which is virtually themeless.  Go figure.

Abstract games typically don’t interest me.  There are a couple that I like, but it usually takes a fair amount of persuasion from Steve (who really likes them) to get me to play them.  The lack of theme really bothers me.  I just don’t know why I’m doing what I’m doing in an abstract game.

When the designer makes an effort to provide a plausible theme, it can transform an abstract game for me.  Santorini is a great example.  It’s essentially an abstract game, but adding character powers and a pretty board brings it to life.  The theme doesn’t even make sense really, but it still draws me in.

Abstract, with lots of theme

I can be reasonably forgiving of lacklustre mechanics if I really like the theme.  If I can picture myself running through a tunnel being chased by zombies, I’m quite happy just rolling some dice.  Many of my friends won’t give a game a second look if the mechanics aren’t solid though.  It’s a deal breaker for them.

Amy was in two minds throughout our discussion.  You could see her agreeing that you don’t want to play a game with poor mechanics, and yet the theme was clearly important to her.  Then she suddenly said, “Theme attracts you, but mechanics keep you,” as if a penny had dropped and resolved all of the competing arguments in her head.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I like it.  It’s like buying a car.  When you first see it, there’s an initial reaction to the looks: the colour, the size, the style, the interior.  They can impress you or turn you off immediately.

However, if you’re going to make an informed decision, you need to ask about the mechanics: mileage, fuel consumption, handling, etc.  Ultimately, before you make a significant purchase like that, what you really want to do is have a test-drive.

The first thing that attracts me to a boardgame is usually the theme and the artwork.  “Ooh, that looks interesting!”  Not knowing anything about it, what I really mean is, “That looks pretty!”  Then I usually want to know about mechanics.  “What kind of game is it?  A war game?  A Euro?  A co-op?”

Ideally, you want to play the game before buying though; you want to have a test-drive.  Then you can experience the theme and see the mechanics in action.  After that, you can easily make up your mind on whether or not to buy it.

Deck Building
Is it fun to play though?

It can be difficult to assess mechanics (much like it is for a car) without that test-drive though.  Describing a deck-builder doesn’t easily convey what it’s like to play a deck-builder if you’ve never played one before.

If you’re an experienced gamer who’s familiar with lots of different mechanics, it can still be difficult to assess since many new games attempt to combine mechanics in new and interesting ways. 

“It’s a deck-builder where you draft cards to add to your deck each round.”

“Oh, I’ve never come across a game that mixes those two things – I wonder how that would work…”

It might sound unusual, but is it actually interesting to play?  Cue the test-drive…

Unless you’re a hard-core abstract/Euro gamer who lives for mechanics and for whom theme is entirely superfluous, I think Amy’s observation is spot on.  I think theme/appearance will nearly always be the thing that attracts people to a game.  It certainly is for me.

I’ve played plenty of pretty games that were not fun to play though.  To keep me interested, a game really needs to have engaging mechanics and again, I think that’s true for most people.

How about you?  Would you agree with Amy?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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