Another way to design a game is to design mechanics-first. By “mechanic” I’m talking about specific ways the game works. For instance, in Monopoly, designers call the movement mechanic “roll-to-move.” In 7 Wonders, the way you get cards is through the “drafting” mechanic. Mechanics represent the way we play the game. If the theme is the story, the mechanics are the math problem behind the story. A good game needs both.
I have a small design project that I’m working on that started with mechanics. Using the Gamer Deck: Mechanics, I drew out a few random mechanics. They were area control, resource management, bidding, and point-to-point movement. Area control is like the game of Risk, taking over a controlling a part of the map. Resource management involves gathering and budgeting particular resources. Bidding is offering a price for a service or resource. Point-to-point movement can be as simple as Candy Land.
So what can you build around these mechanics? I chose a game about mowing lawns. “Lawn Mowers” is about a group of kids who canvas a neighborhood in the summer. Each one is attempting to control the most amount of yards and make the most money. To do so, they have to budget their time and fuel. They also have to choose the best route through town. They must also manage their clients and outbid the other players for their yards.
Sound like fun? I went through that exercise to prove I could design a game mechanics first. My usual process would be theme first because that is how I think. I just wanted to travel outside my comfort zone a bit. There are lots of mechanics that one can use to make a game. The best way to learn these mechanics: play more games. All designers will say that gaming is the best inspiration in their design. If you plan to design, you have to play games, and choose different types of games.
What do you think? What draws you to mechanics-first design over theme first? Why is it easier/harder for you?