I know some in the board game design community consider it sacrilege, but I’m definitely a theme-first designer. I make heavy use of my Catch Sheet day to day, while sitting in meetings, walking around, or wasting time reading articles online. Usually several times a week, I’ll be struck by an interesting economic interaction in real life, and want to build a game around it.
As I’ve gone over in the inception story (here, here, and here) for Valour, that design was entirely theme-first. I started making game notes based on the factual events from the history, and I was able to distill some really incredible game mechanics from them. While I’ve had to iterate multiple times in order to keep the rules and mechanics tight, it was an amazing starting point, and the reactions I get from seasoned gamers when they play Valour for the first time are universally positive, and many say that some of the mechanics are things they’ve never experienced before.
Now, don’t get me wrong — in now way am I arrogant enough to think that anything I’ve conceived of by starting from a real-life scenario and extrapolating a unique game mechanic is as revolutionary to boardgaming as, say, Dominion’s deck building, or Caylus’s worker placement/action drafting. And I also would never disagree with people who assert that games ARE the mechanics (I saw a comment online recently which implied that story without mechanics is just a novel). But theme-first game design is so much more than that.
But in my view, the mechanics we see all over the real world — in business, history, sports, gambling, cooking, traveling, or science, are rich in interactions which have not yet been tapped for the world of boardgames. In “startup” land, we have an aphorism “Get out of the office”, because you’ll never discover a problem worth solving by staring at your own desk; you need to meet potential customers in order to understand what’s going on in the real world. And I believe the same applies to designing games. Can your ideas be fresh when you’re starting from the tool chest provided by the last few decades of hobby board gaming? Probably. Can they be fresher starting by stacking bricks provided by the last millennia of human history and eons of the cosmos? I wager they can.