From Idea to Thematic Design

- Design Discussion #1 -

Hello my wonderful readers! After a bit of a break to get my blog scheduling in order and to do my first few early play-testing sessions of The Labyrinth of Crete, I'm excited to be back to regular posting and to give you all my first design update on The Labyrinth of Crete. (Click here to read my first post along with my announcement of the game: "The Labyrinth of Crete")

So, I spent a long time trying to decide what to write about in my first post about this game... and I finally came to the conclusion that it only makes sense to start from the beginning. Where did the idea for this game come from? And how did I then take that idea and begin to design my game?

Early Prototype Development and Testing

The Problem With Theme

So I'm going to make a bit of an outlandish claim here... but bear with me. I am willing to bet that of all the prototype games from new or aspiring designers that have failed, at least 75% of them were trashed because of theming. Now don't get me wrong, I am not saying that a bad theme makes a bad game. In fact, this claim has nothing to do with whether or not a game has a "good" or "bad" theme. The choice of what theme to use for your game isn't what the issue is. It's all about WHEN you choose the theme for your game.

About a year ago, I came up with what I thought was a great variant on a good mechanic in a terrible game. I was so excited by the idea, that I designed a whole game around that one mechanic. And the game worked out pretty great! The more I played it and gradually changed things, the more playable, enjoyable and balanced I found it becoming. But here's the thing, my game had no theme... and why you were taking the actions you were taking or what the goal was wasn't established. It was just: Here's how you play. Try get this many points. So, when I thought the game was getting closer to its finished product, I eventually just tacked a theme on to it and tentatively called it "Into the Catacombs". It had you playing as archaeologists searching for treasures in the Catacombs (which didn't really make any sense) and fighting animals like snakes, tarantulas and rabid dogs (which also really didn't make any sense).

I play tested and refined "Into The Catacombs" for a long while and very quickly realized that this game kind of sucked because, thematically, it really made no sense. So, I reasonably thought, "Okay, let's just change the theme to fit the gameplay" and I changed the title to "The Labyrinth of Crete" and instead the game had you collecting old items and fighting bulls and the Minotaur. This theme made a bit more sense for my game's mechanics... but you could tell that it still wasn't quite right and that it had just been tacked on as an afterthought. My gameplay had you discovering and rotating hexagonal tiles to move around, and the items that I had plastered with my theme didn't really make sense with what the items actually helped you accomplish. All in all, the game still felt like it was super disjointed, even though the mechanics and gameplay aspects were solid. And so, with a heavy heart after 4 different re-themings and play testing and alterations happening over a series of many months, I had to ditch the project that originally seemed to have had such good potential. The game just didn't work.

Now, you can probably see where I am going with this. I ditched this project about a year ago and, while it may seem obvious at first, it's taken me a long time of reflecting on it to finally learn where I went wrong. The problem with my game was not that I had bad theme ideas. The problem with my game was not that the gameplay was bad either. The problem was, I designed a whole game and then tried to find a theme to match what I had already built. In reality, what I should have been doing is adjusting and building my mechanics to make sense with my theme. There was no connection between the two because I didn't design the game with a theme in mind. The only way to make a game that has a truly immersive theme is to be designing the mechanics WITH the theme. This doesn't mean your game has to start out from the very beginning with a theme, but the sooner you incorporate a theme into your actual game, the better.


Because your game's more natural development will lead to players having a smoother and more organic-feeling gameplay experience. You can typically tell when a game has just had a theme slapped on at the end or when the design of the gameplay itself didn't take into account what thematically makes sense. Maintaining thematic design throughout your project ensures that your game has an overarching flow of understandability.

"Sophus" contemplates a face-off with two formidable Cretan Bulls that he

has encountered within the twisting tunnels of The Labyrinth...

Thematic Design

How do you design mechanics and theme together? And, which comes first: mechanics or theme?

This debate has been at the heart of plenty of online discussions, podcasts, videos and more, and I certainly don't intend to end the debate here. Instead, I'm going to take the approach that many others have taken and say, "It doesn't matter."

Every designer has their own process when it comes to developing the ideas that they have. A great game can come from being inspired by a great theme idea or by a great mechanics idea. For myself, I tend to start with mechanics first... but that doesn't mean that you can't start with an idea for a theme and develop the game from there. The important thing is not which comes first, but that you begin designing theme and mechanics in conjunction with one another as soon as possible. This is called "Thematic Design" and it's how I have been trying to approach my work on The Labyrinth of Crete.

A couple of months ago, I came up with some clever dice mechanics for a dice-building game that I thought had the potential to really shine if I could make them work. I'll go more into the mechanics of my game in future blog posts, but for now, I'm going to focus on how I have tried to learn from the mistakes that I made in designing my last game. After I sketched out my dice ideas on paper and began to think about how I would start designing a game around them, I remembered the sting of my last failed project and how I had realized that the mechanics are just one half of good game design. Having an immersive theme that is intertwined with those mechanics is just as important.

So, I thought, "Man, I was so excited about my Labyrinth of Crete theme idea... and I still have lots of the storyline and some character ideas sketched out, what if I just totally go for it and design the rest of the game to make sense with that theme?"

And off I went...

Over the next several weeks (often instead of doing homework or paying attention in my college classes), I did everything I could to make sure I was designing my game thematically. I took what had been no more than a few ideas for dice-building mechanics and began to transform them into not just a game, but an experience (at least... that's the hope). When questions arose like "What would this character's goal be?" or "Would the Minotaur move, attack, and worship differently then regular characters? Or would he NOT do any of those?" and many other questions along those lines. As I decide player's goals, resources, options for gameplay and more... I don't come up with mechanics first and then try to fit them into the theme. Instead, I ask myself questions about what the theme needs in reference to my already existing mechanics and add mechanics with respect to that. By asking myself what my game needs with respect to the story itself, I hope to create a game that helps players feel as immersed as I can in their characters, goals, and the Labyrinth of Crete.

Early vs. Blind Play-Testing

I'd like to take a real quick moment before I finish up today's post to address the several emails and forms I have received from those hoping to play-test The Labyrinth of Crete. Right now, I am still in the very early stages of deign and prototyping, which means that the game is constantly going through changes: redesigning, reprinting, editing, etc... So, for now, I've decided to keep these early play-tests to my own regular gaming group.

As I get further along with the process and certain parts of the game's design begin to solidify more, I will be beginning blind play-testing and rulebook proofreading. So, if you are at all interested in getting on-board the game design train, feel free to click on "Playtesting" above and fill out the corresponding form. Or, you can easily contact me directly with any play-testing or other questions you have at

That's all for this update! Be sure to subscribe to the blog if you haven't already as next week and beyond I'll start going into some more details about the game mechanics themselves, the components, etc... Also be sure to follow my new Instagram page (@cameronartgames) to get behind the scenes looks at The Labyrinth of Crete and my thoughts on any and all things board games.

Wrap-Up Question:

What's your favorite game that has a well-implemented theme?

Let's discuss in the comments!

Click here to read Design Discussion #2 - "Making Prototype Components"

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