The 54 Card Guild: #9

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If this is the first time you're seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain everything. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. There are over 25 people in it. It's a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you're interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

Thematic development for your game is one of the most confused elements of design. That elevated it to the top of my queue for things to talk about for the 54 Card Guild. To get to the point as rapidly as possible, there is a great deal of confusion between what is thematic, and what is flavorful.

Flavor is provided most often by the visual elements of the game, and include things like:

  • Miniatures (as opposed to cardboard tokens). So many war games are deeply thematic with simple, cardboard chits with numbers.
  • Illustrations -- Essential to a game, but not thematic!
  • Flavor Text -- Smart barbs about the story of the world on the card. This world building doesn't make Magic: The Gathering thematic.
  • Shaped Tokens -- Custom meeples or resource tokens, versus cardboard or generic tokens. Caverna is not more thematic because it has cow tokens versus brown cubes.
  • Stories -- If the rules have a lengthy narrative introduction, it sets the stage, but this isn't theme.

Now, I'm not going to lie to you. I'm probably in the minority with this analysis. I often see folks use the phrase "this game is so thematic" because it has resource tokens of a particular shape, or fantastic art. If you go to BoardGameGeek.com, you'll find that the "most thematic games" tend to be "games with miniatures."

Furthermore, I think it's important to note that flavor absolutely enhances one's enjoyment of a game. I love a game with miniatures. I just do. I love brilliant illustrations. I love fun, tactile components. Those are the things that make a product truly great. But, we're discussing theme.

Therefore, if these things listed above are not theme, but are instead flavor, what is theme? I made a simple graphic to illustrate the two main pieces of the pie. You can replaced these sentiments with synonyms and such, but, effectively, these cover the gist.

ThemeDiagram

There it is. That's it.

The left side is far more important to the overall equation, I believe, but having some smattering of both is what turns your game into one that is thematic. Let's look at these items piece by piece.

Player actions indicative of the theme. You do things in character.

If you wish your game to be thematic, you must first answer: What is the player's perspective? Who are they?

Secondly, what is their motivation?

Thirdly, what are the tools by which they'll accomplish their ends?

If you can answer these questions, you can begin to leverage mechanisms and player actions that will support their character. This is the heart of a truly thematic game. The reason most Feld games are not thematic is that randomly choosing from a pool of dice and building collections has very little to do with building an estate. That doesn't make Castles of Burgundy a bad game at all, but it does mean it's not very thematic. The manner in which you purchase goods in The Speicherstadt is incredibly fun, but has little bearing on the purchase of goods at the docks. And frankly, if Feld just mimicked yet another auction, well, the game might not be very original.

In Magic: The Gathering, the theme is that you are powerful wizards. Every time you play a card, you, the wizard, are summoning creatures, and spells, and amassing an army to defeat your opponent.

In Modern Art, you are a gallery director trying to make the most money on art. You buy, sell, over charge, and swindle your opponents to manipulate the market.

In Last Will, you are a millionaire trying to become a zero-naire, so you spend your money and buy things every single turn.

In Android: Netrunner you're building a program as a hacker to penetrate the defenses of a mega-corp. Across from you is a dedicated system administrator, slowly updating the hardware to stay one step ahead of you.

In Star Wars: Armada, you are a fleet Admiral moving your fleet around to position them for victory. You're building a battle plan, and giving orders, and hoping they are executed well by their captains.

In Fief, you are the lords and ladies of the great houses of France. You are building alliances, marrying, and scheming to end up on the throne. When you cannot achieve your ends with words, you do so with arms, which require a war chest.

For some of these examples above, I specifically chose games that aren't often thought to be thematic, but demonstrate the qualities I believe to be thematic. In all of these games, your actions resemble those of a character who, in a story, would be doing the same thing.

In Project Gaia, my 54 Card Guild project (Rules Here, PNP Here and Here), I don't think the game is super thematic, but it does support it in a few ways.

  • Players are unique, immortal beings, represented by their deck. This is similar to wizards being different in Magic: The Gathering.
  • Players build, augment, and destroy the planet to shape it as desired. This is how they win the game.
  • Players create creatures and landmasses, which roam and dominate the planet surface.

Looking to games like Black & White on the PC, it seemed only natural that as a god you can change the landmass to your liking, create new beings in the blink of an eye, destroy chunks of the planet, and create natural disasters. All of the cards are built around this idea, and they come from your hand.

Experience has a narrative arc. 

A thematic experience tells a good story, ideally one of your creation. I think some games do a good job of telling you a story to experience, such as Mice and Mystics, whereas in others, you create your own story, like in X-Wing Miniatures. I tend to prefer the latter method, as I think it's infinitely more replayable, and I think stories of one's own design are more memorable.

My two favorite storytelling PC games are EVE Online and Battlefield, not because of their rich narrative or cutscenes, but because the games provide a foundation in which I could be creative, thrive, and become the hero. I have stories that feel unique to me, that I still remember, and that are worth telling.

Merchants and Marauders and Clash of Cultures are two of my favorite storytelling games. They both provide a vast sandbox and a wide array of choices to dictate the path you'll take. You can be a merchant, a scoundrel, someone doing the dirty work of others, or a little of everything. You can create a peaceful civilization, one built on trade, or one that dominates its neighbors. You get to put your footprint on things and tell the story from beginning to end.

Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective also does this well. You choose who to visit and speak to. You and your friends craft theories, debate red herrings, and put forth answers to solve the case. You share in the triumphs and, most likely, the defeats.

Project Gaia is weak on this front, as the elements of the world are, by design, relatively generic tiles. If the players were allowed to design an ice planet, or a swamp, that might change things. The game's goals are also very mechanical -- you're trying to score against various pre-defined goals that are abstracted from the planet. If players were able to define their own conditions, or have ones as a part of their deck, more stories might evolve. Or, perhaps if players attacked their opponents and had a war in the end?

Ultimately, this is not the strongest game for a narrative arc, and really, it's tightly focused around its mechanisms and has a relatively short play time (about 45 minutes). There isn't much room for narrative, and if you're sticking to the 54 card limitation, I wager you're in the same boat.

The Assignment

The assignment this week is optional for those who wish to create a more thematic game. First, answer these questions:

  1. What is my player's perspective?
  2. What is their motivation?
  3. What are the tools and resources by which they'll accomplish these?
  4. What mechanisms would support the 3 answers above?

Secondly, create 3 short stories, no more than 300 words apiece, that describe a single session of your game. Each should be a different story to demonstrate the variety and breadth of the game. Once you have the stories, return to the 4 questions above, as well as your content and mechanisms, and see what ideas emerge to help foster those stories.

Questions?