Sunday, December 15, 2013

Theme-first vs Mechanics-first design (also Yet Another New Game Idea (YANGI)... Rondel Role Selection)

Theme-first vs Mechanics-first Game Design

Frequently in game design forums, the topic of "Theme-first vs Mechanics-first" comes up. It's a common question asked of designers in interviews as well. In game design circles, this is the Chicken/Egg discussion all over again.

Every designer has their own answer to whether they start with a theme or a mechanism, and many of them would probably agree that both methods are feasible. I've personally done it both ways, but I think my preference is probably theme-first, which tends to make for a more thematically consistent game.

But in reality, I think it's an iterative process. Whether you begin with "I want to make a Civ game" or "I want to make a game with just 16 cards, where each card has an Action, an Icon (supporting one of those actions), and a Color"... either one can end up in the same place. In the case of my recent game MicroCiv, I started with that mechanism, and I needed a theme that could support 4 different aspects. I decided pretty quickly that a Civ game could support that with actions such as Conquer, Explore, Discover (technologies), and Culture. Once I had that theme, I was able to more specifically define each of the actions in my game, and it informed the other components necessary (territories and technologies).

I think most of the time I start with a theme, but even in those cases I might have a main mechanism in mind. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that I often have a main mechanism in mind, I look for a theme to use it with, and then I let the theme direct how the rest of the game shapes up. So even when starting with a mechanism, I pretty much approach a design "theme-first."

That said, I have a new game idea, now fully prototyped and played, and this one has no theme as yet. It's been completely mechanics first, and as a result, the game feels very much like a Eurogame to me... which was kind of my goal, so I guess that's a good thing. However, it's possible the game is lacking due to a missing theme.

TL;DR Summary:
Even if you start with a main mechanism, it's best to find a theme early and let that drive later design decisions - it makes for a lot more thematic consonance and therefore a stronger game.

YANGI: Rodel Role Selection

Here's the current status of this new game, which has no title or theme at all, so for now I'll call it "Rondel Role Selection":

I have always really liked the idea of the Rondel mechanism. Mac Gerdts has built several games around this mechanism, and several of those have been excellent - I've liked Antike, Hamburgum, and the best one, Navegador. I didn't as much care for Imperial, but the Rondel works well there as well.

Stefan Feld used a variant of the Rondel in his recent hit Trajan, combined with a Mancala mechanism. When I read about that, I had an idea how that "Rond-cala" mechanism might work (as it turns out, I was wrong), so I have some designs on using my incorrect assumption for the Rond-cala. One of these days I'd like to get back to that. Somehow the idea of a Rondel came back to me the other day, and I started to devise another game...

In this new idea there is a rondel, made up of 7 Action tiles laid out in a circle. There's an 8th spot in the circle which does not have an action tile, in that space a pawn is placed. Unlike other Rondel games, this game just uses 1 pawn, not 1 pawn per player.

On your turn, you will advance the pawn clockwise around the Rondel - the 1st space is free. If you want to move further you can, but you must leave a coin on each space you pass over. Whichever action tile you land on, you pick up... you get to keep any coins that are on that tile, and this is the action you will do. After the action is completed, that tile will be replaced in the open space left by the pawn. So the order of the tiles will change over the course of the game, as players decide to jump ahead on the Rondel.

The actions on the Rondel are actually a Role Selection game. Like Puerto Rico, there's a privilege for the player taking the action, and then there's an action that all players get to participate in. In all cases, players may choose to take a coin instead of the action or the privilege.

The actions in the game are:
* Buy Red cubes for $1 OR Sell Green cubes for money (Privilege = Collect Red cube)
* Buy Blue cubes for $1 OR Sell Orange cubes for money  (Privilege = Collect Blue cube)
* Buy Yellow cubes for $1 OR Sell Purple cubes for money  (Privilege = Collect Yellow cube)
* Buy any cube for $2 OR Build any building (Privilege = Buy any cube for $1)
* Combine Red and Yellow cubes into Orange for $1 OR Buy a Blue building (Privilege = Combine Red and Yellow cubes into Orange)
* Combine Red and Blue cubes into Purple for $1 OR Buy a Yellow building (Privilege = Combine Red and Blue cubes into Purple)
* Combine Blue and Yellow cubes into Green for $1 OR Buy a Red building (Privilege = Combine Blue and Yellow cubes into Green)

Then there are buildings of each color that give you some points and abilities/benefits which I hope will encourage players to want different actions or specific actions, which will make them want to jump ahead on the Rondel.

The game will end when one of the Building stacks runs out, and at that time players will count the score from all of their buildings, plus 1 point for each Green, Orange, and Purple cubes (no points for Red, Yellow, or Blue cubes)

So far the game definitely works, and while it definitely needs some tweaks to the buildings (and a theme!), I think it's well on the way to being a proper "Mediocre Euro."

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