Theme Vs. Mechanics

“This titanic struggle becomes more apparent in the world of tabletop gaming.”


It’s time for another blog post! This time I’m talking about theme vs mechanics. There seems to be a great divide in the world of gaming on which matters more. Some say that theme is what gets them into the game and others say that mechanics matter most.  I mean just look at that epic battle in the featured photo (totally ignore that mess behind me)!

This titanic struggle becomes more apparent in the world of tabletop gaming. Where gamers have developed two terms of endearment.

Ameritrash:  This is what those in the mechanics camp call games with all theme.  These games tend to be highly thematic but usually have mechanics that rely heavily on luck rather than player skill.

Euros:  This is what those in the mechanics camp call the games they like.  Wait a minute why is the mechanics camp getting to name both…  anyway these tend to have very tight mechanics that rely on heavily player skill.  However, many have ‘themes’ that are nothing more than a skin that can be exchanged for another easily.

Look how sweet that looks!

The game I think of most when I hear Ameritrash is Fireball Island. This is the type of game that is all theme no ‘substance’.  I’ve played this game a grand total of two times.  Then my friend sold it because it was worth a ton of money, boo.  While that made me sad I have super great memories about it.  Fireball Island makes my head explode with excitement! Those kinds of memories are what games are all about.


So here then is my question, if the point of playing games is to create a memorable and joyful experience, how can call Fireball Island trash? I don’t think we can, which is why the term Ameritrash has always bothered me on some level.  After all I certainly don’t think my way of having fun is trash.

I’d totally allow it

Contrast this with Dominion, this game has very tight mechanics and luck has little do with whether or not you are going to win.  However, the theme is inconsequential it could be anything and the game wouldn’t feel any different really. Just take a look at the made up card to the left.  While it’s text might be humorous you could re-skin all of Dominion to be Old Spice commercials and the game would still be played most likely, by those who enjoy.   Whenever I play Dominion though, I feel like I’m playing multiplayer solitaire though.  My experiences have been memorable for the wrong reasons.


Now don’t get me wrong my way of having fun isn’t the only way.  Some people love games like Dominion.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  So I wouldn’t call it trash either, just because I don’t like it.  What if this battle didn’t have to be a battle though?  What if there was a better way?

Obligatory Morpheus Meme

That’s right it doesn’t have to be either/or.  In fact in my humble opinion the best games are those that marry theme with mechanics.  If the mechanics feel like they belong to the theme it really reaffirms and increases immersion.  If those mechanics are very tight then all the better. On the inverse if the theme feels appropriate to the mechanics then it gives them a greater sense of purpose.  It can take something as dry as “roll x” and make it feel like you are firing your turbolasers to knock out that enemy fighter.  Speaking of lasers and fighters.

Picture 5
Pew pew pew

X-Wing by Fantasy Flight Games exemplifies this approach. Not only does it feel like you are having Star Wars dogfights, but the mechanics are very solid.  It is in fact one of the few games that I think plays just as well casually as it does competitively.  No easy feat in my opinion. It’s an excellent marriage of theme and mechanics.


So at the end of the day what you should take away from this is that it doesn’t always have to be about theme vs mechanics.  You can have both, and when the two come together well it’s a beautiful thing. Remember though there are no bad games, only the right game for the right person.  So even if you love mechanics or you love theme you are still doing it right.  No need fight!

Take care and enjoy your games,

Kevin M. Hamrick






Rules As Written Vs Rules As Intended?

when we say “I believe this is how the rules were intended” what we are really saying is “I believe this dynamic is what the designer intended/didn’t intend to exist”.

Hi, and welcome to my blog.  This is my first blog post, ever, and what an issue to tackle. If you didn’t know by the title what I’m talking about, then what I’m talking about is whether or not tabletop games should be played rules as written (RAW) vs rules as intended (RAI).  Before I get started though I’ll just go ahead and say that rules as written is what I do myself.  So that will be the reference point for my post here.


Games Workshop Guy knows!


I think that it would be more helpful to define some words I like to use before I go much further so here we go.

  • Mechanics:  If you are new to tabletop gaming, this simply means the rules of the game.  For example if rule X states that you roll a single six sided die to see how far you move that’s a mechanic.
  • Dynamics: This means the behaviors that players may exhibit because of the rules but aren’t explicitly stated by the rules.  For example in the second edition of the miniatures game Warhmachine  players could not measure an action before taking it, such as moving.  However, each Warcaster (a certain type of miniature you could take) was able to measure it’s control area (which extended from the miniature) at any time.  So players would use that rule to gauge the distances they normally couldn’t pre-measure for.
  • Game Aesthetics:  This one may sound sort of counter intuitive, but it has nothing to do with looks, instead it is defined as the emotional output that players have when they play a game. Something a little deeper than “it was fun” of course.  For example many players feel that the turtling dynamic of risk is unfair and imbalanced.

So what does this have to do with RAW vs RAI you might ask?  Well everything, because when we say “I believe this is how the rules were intended” what we are really saying is “I believe this dynamic is what the designer intended/didn’t intend to exist”.

Game aesthic
Now that’s the kind of game aesthetic that designers want to produce!

In my opinion though, that’s nearly impossible to discern.  We’d have to know how much play testing went on.  We’d have to assume that the specific dynamic didn’t show up in those play tests or that if it did the designers didn’t notice it or were too lazy to fix it. That all seems unlikely to me, especially since I’m a design student and an aspiring designer.  Designers don’t strike me as the lazy type or as the type to lack attention to detail, very much the opposite. I might be bias though so here’s something else to think about.

When a designer makes a game they experience it like so

Mechanics —-> Dynamics —-> Game Aesthetics

When a player experiences that same game they experience it like this

Game Aesthetics —-> Dynamics —-> Mechanics

So in essence a player may have already formed an opinion long before he really understands the mechanics behind it.  For instance a common complaint you may hear is “well the rules may allow it but it violates the spirit of the rules and is unfair”, what they are really saying is “that dynamic causes me to feel a game aesthetic of unfairness and I don’t think the designer wanted me to feel that”.  To be honest I don’t think they did either, but a designer designs not for anyone person but for a certain milieu (a fancy way of saying social environment).  Not only that but as I said the designer experiences the mechanics first, because before he can play test it those have got to be on paper.  During the play testing process he or she will be watching for dynamics and how those dynamics make players feel.  Ultimately every designer (at least the good ones) wants to make things people enjoy and love to play.

Hard working game designers.jpg
Could you imagine putting in this much work just to be like “Muahahahaha I hope they hate this one”

It’s for these reasons that I almost always play strictly rules as written.  To me it’s just too hard to know what the designer was thinking, what they play tested, how many iterations it went through, etc etc.  As a friend of mine said, the only thing we know for certain is what they put on paper which is the rules.

Before I go though I do want to add one more thing, games at the end of the day are about having fun.  If you and your friend get together and decide playing a game differently than what the rules as written specifically say is more fun for you, there is nothing wrong with that.  As an aspiring designer I would just be glad that you are having a blast with my creation and hey I’d probably take notes of your house rules and perhaps incorporate that in a future design or edition.

Thanks for reading and I hope you all enjoyed this blog post. If you are interested in reading more about some of the concepts I talked about in this post I highly recommend reading Players Making Decisions: Game Design Essentials and the Art of Understanding Your Players by Zack Hiwiller.

Take care,

Kevin M. Hamrick