CMON Feature Friday: Mechanics and Theme

Board games are the result of a lot of different elements coming together to create a whole. It takes a team of people, from the designer, to the artists, playtesters, publishers, and more to bring the game from a few scribbled notes on a piece of paper to the finished product on the table. We don’t see all of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into a game. When we sit down to play, the major considerations are: What am I trying to do? and Why and I doing it? Or, to put it more simply, Mechanics and Theme.

For this week’s CMON Feature Friday, we’re looking at that relationship, and how it’s evolved over the years.

Games in their earliest form, like Senet, Mancala, and Go, were relatively themeless. They focused heavily on the mechanics of the game. Today, we refer to games like this as Abstracts. The reasoning behind your actions is less important than the actions, themselves. As gaming developed over the years, they gained more theme, more of a story to complement the mechanics. Chess, for example, would be considered an Abstract by today’s standards, but considering the variety of names and powers the different pieces have, and the fact that the board was meant to represent a battlefield, it is an early example of design trying to incorporate a story to bolster the actions that players can take. 

Today, we are spoiled by the variety of games available to us. If you were to pick pretty much any subject, you could probably find a game themed around it. And it’s not just themes that are in abundance. There are tons of different mechanics employed in games today, with new approaches being designed all the time. If you want to play a deeply strategic worker placement game, or assess values in an auction game, or just try and stack stuff in a dexterity game, there is a title out there for you. 

Sometimes, modern games will have more of the focus on the mechanics (like an abstract), while other games will be very thematic, relying more on the experience of the play, and sometimes, the design is such that both elements come together in an equal balance. You can play any of these types of games and have a positive experience, but there are a few things to consider. 

Which is more important to you, theme or mechanics? You can find both in perfect doses in a game, but knowing which side of the coin appeals to you more can be important when trying to decide which games to play or buy. 

Why do you play the games you play? For some of us, games are a way to exercise our brain muscles and solve a complex problem. We like to pull apart the layers of a game to find the pathway to victory. For others, games are an escape. They’re a ticket to another world that allow us to leave our present mindset and fight orcs or explore outer space for a few hours. 

What will your evening allow for? You may have a whole day set aside for gaming, or you might just be squeezing in a quick session between putting the kids to bed and crashing, yourself. Consider whether you have the cranial capacity to take on a mechanic driven brain burner, or if you’d be better off escaping into a thematic narrative game.

Finally, think about who you’re going to be playing with. What types of games will they enjoy?  This a good rule in pretty much any gaming situation, but you want to make sure that the people you play with will enjoy the experience. That will keep them coming back for more. 

Mechanics and theme are not mutually exclusive. They are parts of a whole that come together to make a complete board game. When we dissect games in this nature, it can help us identify what elements we love about them and what hooks us in to playing them. Identifying these factors can help you decide what kind of games to play or buy, and why they might be a good fit for you.

We want to know what you think. Let us know on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #CMONFeatureFriday if theme or mechanics are the deciding factor for you when buying a game. 

CMON Feature Friday: Mechanics and Theme

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