Yesterday, I showed my current rules draft to a close friend who's not an experienced gamer. I maybe expected a little feedback on mechanics, or questions about gameplay. Mostly, I didn't expect much of anything. I was just excitedly sharing a bit of work with a trusted someone who's also excited about the project.
The initial reaction that I received threw me for a bit of a loop. It was essentially, "It's all mechanics. As a new gamer, I don't care about mechanics."
As someone who's been gaming for several years now, my initial reaction was a pretty hard "WTF?!" How could someone not care about game mechanics? I just couldn't wrap my head around that.
Thinking back on that interaction, though, it's weird. Game mechanics are one of the things I consider very heavily when deciding if I want to purchase/play a game, but they're not what initially draws me in.
I don't buy "Action Point Allowance: The Game" or "Hidden Movement II: More Hidden Movement." I buy games because I want to terraform Mars, explore ancient pyramids, or hack and slash my way through a dungeon.
About the only exception to this that I can think of are some abstract games like Patchwork. The idea of making a quilt doesn't appeal to me enough that I would want to buy the game (although I'm sure it does to some), but a 2-player tile laying abstract strategy game sounds fun - and it is. I like Patchwork a lot.
Games like that tend to be the exception more than the rule, though.
Theme is important, sure, but I'd forgotten just how important it is to someone who doesn't have a lot of tabletop gaming experience. When everything is new, theme is the thing that will drive your decision to play a game.
It's not that I don't have a theme for These New Worlds, it's just that I hadn't put any time into developing it yet. I knew roughly what I wanted the story to be and getting the mechanics right has been my top priority, so I just hadn't gotten there yet.
I still don't think it's a thing I need to focus on yet, but after my friend's gut reaction, I decided that it was something I wanted to pay a little more attention to up front. I wanted to put something on paper, even if it ended up getting tossed aside and redone later.
So I put on my storytelling hat and wrote a quick introduction to the game that gave some background and set up the story, and I'm glad I did.
Figuring out in 500 words or less how mankind got from where we are today to colonizing a distant galaxy did something I wasn't expecting: It immediately gave the game a very precise focus.
I knew the objective of the game from the start and that hasn't changed. In fact, I doubt the mechanics of the game will change much, if any, based on what was written today, but now it all feels more... valuable.
I have story reasons for why things are the way they are. I can give a solid explanation for why resource points don't carry over between rounds. I now know where the technology in the game comes from and why it costs what it does. I better understand the story implications of the First Contact deck and what it means to explore and colonize a new world. I understand the motivations that drive PvP combat to occur. Most importantly, now I know why it's important that players do these things, beyond just working toward a win condition.
It hasn't changed the way I have to fine tune and balance game play, but it changes the context in which I think about those actions. They feel less sterile now.
That's helpful as a designer, I think. It will help me stay focused and allow me to make revisions and refinements that not only improve gameplay in terms of the mechanisms of play, but also in ways that reinforce the story.
It's also going to make for a much more engaging rule book, when I finally get around to writing a more complete version of it. I'll be able to pull in story elements about the rules I'm outlining and add flavor text to bring the game to life.
I'm glad I went ahead and gave this a little attention.