POLL RESULTS: Familiar Themes vs. Familiar Mechanics

Earlier this week I asked which mix of familiar or unusual mechanics and themes you preferred. I asked mainly because Reiner Knizia once advised on Twitter that a design shouldn't be too unusual. To do so would turn off too large a section of your audience. Basically, if you're designing a game for the larger hobby market, he advised either making the theme unusual or the mechanics unusual, but not both.

That seems to hold true for a significant portion of poll respondents. Here's the breakdown of 82 responses.

Unusual Themes + Unusual Mechanics         35      43%
Familiar Themes + Unusual Mechanics         34      41%
Unusual Themes + Familiar Mechanics         11      13%
Familiar Themes + Familiar Mechanics         2        2%

What are we to take from these responses? Bear in mind that it's a very tiny sample from an admittedly skewed pool of respondents. Most respondents want unusual themes AND unusual mechanics, which is surprising.

I expected the #2 response to be much greater given Knizia's advice. After all, unusual mechanics may be easier to learn if you're familiar with the basic premise of the game. But no, it seems the respondents prefer lots of novelty in both categories. If they must sacrifice some novelty it would be in theme, not mechanics.

A smaller subset would rather have an unusual theme and familiar mechanics. I imagine those respondents would be amenable to themed expansions of a game franchise, take for example the numerous Fluxx or Munchkin expansions. I'm curious!

And by far the fewest respondents favored total familiarity. I imagine those respondents have a handful of genres they really like and explore those games very deeply, perhaps pursuing complete mastery?

So, how did you respond? What do you prefer? Share your thoughts in the comments!


  1. i missed the poll, but unfamiliar x2 seems to be the cult of the new to me. i know that i for one have played many a game over the years, and when a new game comes out, i'm looking for something radically new. i wonder why, since videogames seem to churn out fps after fps, with few changes other than theme it seems to me... i feel that the knizia comment is more directed at a sort of mass commercial audience, giving them enough of something new, but nothing too scary either.

  2. I suspect that what people say they want and what actual works for them are not identical.

  3. Yeah, my sample is probably more skewed towards novelty than the mainstream. Still, surprising to see unusual mechanics beat unusual themes so handily.

  4. "I expected the #2 response to be much greater given Knizia's advice." - I think more truthful data would have reflected this. I bet those who say they want both unfamiliar theme + mechanics mostly play games that are such. Otherwise the wilder indie games would be more successful than they are.

  5. It might be most useful to think about Reiner's advice in terms of what makes an enduring and widely popular game. Lots of gamers might well be interested in trying out a game with novel themes and novel mechanics, but a publisher or design is much less likely to create something timeless and evergreen by going that route. How many novel design are played once, then stored while their owners go back to Settlers or Fluxx for another dozen plays? Or, think about which movies endure in the mainstream, versus which indie masterpieces the intelligentsia bless. Reiner is essentially the Michael Bay of board gaming.

    (This effect is probably even worse in games than in movies, since you have to generally convince others to play a game with you, but you can watch an idiosyncratic movie by yourself, if you're so inclined.)

  6. If I do pursue more odd themes and mechanics (which I probably will), I should probably include solitaire rules variants for the reasons you state. It gives players who like novelty a channel for fun even if they can't convince anyone else to give the game a try.


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