1. I’ve struggled that way as well, sometimes. I actually really like theme in games, but I also often ignore it when playing, which is silly because I enjoy when I can lean into it, even when it makes me lose.

    As for design, here’s why I find theming so helpful. It’s like a thesis statement in a paper (sorry, I’m an English teacher). It gives me focus. Without a theme, EVERYTHING is possible. I start throwing in every idea that occurs to me, and that’s silly. Furthermore, the ideas are all rather generic until I get a theme. When I can tie ideas to the theme, I find they make more sense, even if it’s a loose tie. And I get more creative, finding new ideas I wouldn’t have otherwise because I’m automatically excluding ideas that don’t fit the theme–when you have to skip a lot of low-hanging fruit, you start finding the more interesting ideas.

    Lots of designers, when asked, say they don’t start with theme or mechanism, but both. I’m not sure I TOTALLY buy that, but I believe they begin integrating them very early. I really think it helps you focus your ideas.