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Triangular theory of board game design

Page: DesignArticle.Article200904210253PM - Last Modified : Tue, 13 Jul 10 - 6081 Visits

Author : Eric Pietrocupo

Euro Design Problems

Everybody says that a game is composed of a theme and mechanics. According to the kind of designer you are, you will approach your game design either from a theme point of view or from a mechanic points of view. Which mean that the idea that inspired you to start was either a theme (ex: pirates) or a mechanic (ex: auction). Both approach are good, it all depends on your taste.

In many euro games, you can easily see the separation between the theme and the mechanics. Many times, people would say that the theme has been pasted on the game. Or some would say that the game is dry. For example, in "Hey that's my fish" they could have replaced pinguin by frogs, iceberg by nenuphar and it would have given exactly the same results. The reason why many games seems to have a theme pasted on the game is because there is nothing that justifies the relation between the theme and the mechanics.

Let's take an example: Gheos. The theme behind Gheos is that you are some sort of god and you have the power to change the landscape of the world. Meanwhile, civilisation on the board tries to survive theses changes. Now one of the mechanic in that game consist in picking cubes of a corresponding civilisation in play to mark the level of ownership of that civilization. In fact these cubes are civilization shares which are used to score victory points.

I really like the theme of that game but playing it does not actually makes me feel like if I am a god which has the control over a world. If we take that share mechanic described above, this mechanic breaks the feeling of the game because it's anti-immersive. A share holding mechanic does not represent very well the look and feel of beign a god. Gods don't buy and sell shares of civilizations in the world.

I don't say that it is not impossible. I just say that in the common knowledge of the people gods don't to that. Most of the time gods own one or multiple civilizations. Still the designer could want to create a world where you speculate the owner ship of civilizations. I could be something that Gheos wanted to implement but failed to generate the feeling.

Instead they should have used mechanics that fits to the theme. For example, I said that as beign a god, I would probably control a civilization. So each player should have a civilization of their own that they could see grow and expand. This is one of the fun of beign a god? What else could be fun as beign a god? For example: placing a tile at a certain place and see everybody die or fight each other due to your actions, that could also be fun. It stmilate the feeling of power and superiority. So creating and destroying civilizations is fun. Owning shares of a civilization to score points is not fun.

Another example: the famous Reiner Knizia makes a lot of number games since he is a mathematician. I played Beowulf the movie game where the mechanics consist in placing numbers in rows and columns to score points. Does placing numbers has anything to do with beowulf? No, so it makes no sense. Using a mechanic like this for Beowulf makes the game anti-immersive.

The 3rd element of game design


Triangular Theory of board game design

So this leads me to the 3rd element of the triangular theory. The mechanics you chose must have some relations with the theme in order to generate the right feeling you want the players to experience by playing the game. So the third element in the formula is the feeling which could also be the "experience".

Of course, video games are better at generating feeling and experience since here it's a full audio video media. But still, there are ways to generate a certain amount of feeling in a game. For example: in a horror game, you might not be able to scare people, but you might have mechanics that can stimulate tension, risk, discovery of a puzzle, etc.

The 3 elements of board game design could be illustrated by the triangle in the picture.

  • The theme of the game requires a certain feeling. For exemple: In a horror game, you could want people to feel tension.
  • To generate that feeling, you need a mechanic. For exemple: If you want to generate tension you could implement a time limit in number of turns. Or even use sand timers.
  • Finally you need to explain this mechanic with a theme. For example: The time limit is explained by the day and night cycles like in fury of dracula.

So here you have a perfect cycle where you have a mechanic, where the theme is explain it. But the feeling generated by the mechanic match with the theme. So tha the theme does not seem pasted on the mechanic.

When designing a game following the theory above, you can now approach the design from 3 different ways. So you can now either approach the game either by theme, mechanic or feeling and then define the two other missing elements.

Of course this theory of design is pretty abstract. You never detail all your mechanics to know if they actually all fit. It is more a general guide line that you should follow and keep in mind when you designing a game.


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