Designer Benny Sperling talks becoming a thematic mechanic.

Welcome to another edition of Meeple Speak. This time our guest writer is Benny Sperling. Designer behind the game, Yakatori and Button Shy Board Game of the Month Club (link) games – Archiwrecks and Pocket Pairs.



Thematic Mechanic

by Benny Sperling

Benny Sperling

Oh hello there, I suppose you stopped by to understand what is happening with this title. Is it suggesting that someone work on theme or that the person working has a theme? Neither is the case however. This is more about devising board game mechanics or mechanisms from a thematic idea.

Yakitori. Image by Ken Graizer

One of my great passions when I’m designing a board game is to see if I can make theme tie as closely to the mechanisms as possible. I feel like I was able to do this with Yakitori (Daft Concepts) where the players are buying food tiles, skewering, and then flipping them to the cooked side and lastly selling it. In this sense, the mechanics of making yakitori, a Japanese street food, are faithfully represented. To wit, the cook buys a food item, typically chicken, skewers it, then places it upon a charcoal grill, flipping it so both sides are charred and then selling it.

I did giant monsters wrecking a cityscape. We called it ArchiWrecks (ButtonShy). One player acted as a the “builder” and built a city of dice. To me, it just made sense. Architects help build buildings, what do gamers have lying around to build stuff out of? Dice! The other player was the “monster” and had to act like a giant monster to wreck this city of dice. I had to get clever with this, how would a monster wreck a city? They’d blow fiery breath, they’d smash their terrible claws down, they would break off pieces of buildings and wind up and bowl those hunks of brick and mortar at the foundations of the standing buildings.

I also stumbled upon inspiration for a Soccer game and a Hockey game that I pitched to a certain publisher to see if it is a fit in their catalog. Mechanically, soccer and hockey are similar in that you are moving a round object (ball or puck) down the playing surface and ultimately attempting to land the object in the goal. I was struggling mightily to make a hockey game, it has long been a favorite sport (Go Wings!) and I wanted to make a hockey game that I would enjoy playing with my friend Donnie who is also a hockey fan and board gamer. Did I mention I struggled with this? I tried to make a “game” out of a game. Though I still had the central mechanism of flicking a small disc into a goal. I tried adding in dice and cards and deck-building and a board and minis. Everything that should be in a “game.”

I guess it sort of worked. But it wasn’t fun! It wasn’t hockey! It lacked everything I love about hockey; the deke around defenders, the shots on goal tipping off the crossbar and end just above the diving goalie. So I stopped, I got out of the head space of “this is a game.” I went back to the shot on goal that I liked. I started mucking about with cards folded on a crease as defenders, and flicking the small disc past them and taking a wild shot on goal that narrowly missed the goalie and was in for a goal!! And that was when I knew I had something cool! Something that was hockey.

Forbidden Island by Matt Leacock

I have to give Matt Leacock props on Forbidden Island/Desert (GameWright), he makes you feel like you are on a sinking island or being buried in sand as it blows along. It is a “game” but it’s also the experience of those things, the island sinks! The desert encroaches on the dig site and buries it all in sand!

It doesn’t have to end there. What I’m saying is look at your theme, really look at it. What is it made of, what does it do, how does it do it, why, when, where? All of it. Take it apart and really look at what you have. Stop trying to make a “game” when you can make an experience, something the players will talk about and feel like they were involved.