So, after you’ve become a dedicated boardgamer (see part 1 of this series), what is the next step in designing a boardgame? Like in any field of creativity, you need to find inspiration. There are a number of ways in which boardgame designers are inspired and this is very closely linked to the different fundamental approaches to design. For the purposes of this blog post, I will simplify these into the mechanical and the thematic methods.
The Mechanical Method
This is how the great euro game designers – such as Reiner Knizia, Stefan Feld and Uwe Rosenberg – produce top flight games year after year. The starting point of their game design process is usually an idea for a mechanism, such as the many types of auctions that are found in dozens of Knizia’s games or the production wheel in Rosenberg’s Ora et Labora. In extreme cases, the game is built up from various mechanisms and then a theme is added at the end. More often, a theme is chosen during the process, which then guides the selection of further mechanisms. These mechanisms are often reused from game to game, in different combinations or with new twists.
I have tried, and failed, to design games using this approach. The difficulty is in finding something new from a mechanical perspective. However, even if you are not going to discover the next great board game mechanism to follow on from worker placement, card drafting or role selection, there are others ways to design something original. The most obvious source of inspiration is games that you already know and like. A game might feature a particular mechanic that you think works well or that might be adapted to form the basis of your own game. Or you might draw two or three mechanics from different games and then put them together to see how they interact with each other. You should already have in mind what sort of game you’d like to design – a pure abstract or a euro, how many players, roughly what sort of game length. If you are thinking of a quick card game, then you could build it around a single mechanism. If you’d like to design a heavy-weight euro, then you’ll need a set of mechanisms.
The Thematic Method
This is perhaps best exemplified by wargame design. Wargame designers take a theme and often spend hundreds of hours researching it before beginning to design their game mechanically. But the thematic method is also typical of Ameritrash designers and some eurogame designers, such as Martin Wallace. In this approach, the game mechanics – whether they are new or off-the-shelf – are chosen to support or complement the theme.
It is much easier to find thematic inspiration than it is to find mechanical inspiration. A theme can be taken from history, fantasy, science fiction, technology, current events, or even your daily life. Sources can include fiction and non-fiction, comics, films and TV series, documentaries, lectures or your personal experiences. On the other hand, difficulties often arise when trying to translate your chosen theme into a game or, later in the design process, when you may have to choose between retaining a thematic element or sacrificing it for the sake of the game itself.
In practice, very few designers take a purely mechanical approach, while a thematic method inevitably involves mechanics at some stage because without them there would no game. And there is no reason why you can’t take a different approach with different games, depending on where the inspiration came from or what type of game it is.