Game Design – Theme First Design

I designed my first project – Heartland – theme-first. Theme-first design is the idea that you design the game’s story first.  Next, you worry about the mechanics. Many games don’t need their themes to be good games. The designer or publisher pasted their themes onto a solid set of mechanics. In Heartland, I derived the mechanics from the theme.

Heartland is set in an alternate-history Mississippi-Ohio Valley. Heartland’s theme involves farming, gathering resources, and buying water. My first thoughts surrounding the theme were, “How can the players get water?” Since water is scarce, it will be a high commodity. I decided that is must be a regulated commodity. That is when I settled on a bidding mechanic. The players must bid on water rations to plant their fields and feed their livestock. Bidding makes you ration your money and plan well. That makes for some interesting decisions.

A second thematic decision had to do with how the seasons affect the struggle. In a world where resources are scarce, the events of the seasons would have a greater effect. They would affect all players, and the player that prepared the best would make it through. This is when I came up with the idea of season cards. The game lasts three years or three sets of seasons. Players draw the season cards during every round. They affect the game right then. There is also an effect that takes place in a later season. For example, a tornado is destructive at the time, but it could present a future opportunity.

Those are two mechanics in a game full of mechanics I’ve enjoyed from other games. I’ve also tweaked a few for my own spin on them. No matter what I add to Heartland, the theme remains at the center of those decisions.

How does theme affect your design decisions? How much value do you place on the theme?

I'd love to hear your questions and comments!