Good Theme

Theme in board games is arguably the most misunderstood and conversational topics in our design space. Ignoring the "theme versus mechanics" approach to design argument, many designers, myself included, are constantly flustered and left head scratching when someone says one game is so thematic, yet another is soulless and empty. Or worse, the dreaded "the theme is pasted on" comment.

What does it mean for a game to be thematic? What are the components or decisions one needs to make to ensure he or she avoids the label of "abstract?" I have some ideas and after I share them, I'm curious to know what you think.

Your game should be a theme that people like. People love to joke "add zombies" when commenting on theme. And they are right.

In my experience, when someone says "this game has great theme," what they are really saying is "This game happens to have a theme I enjoy." I designed York from the ground up with Napoleonic Warfare guiding every decision. I know this time-period isn't for everyone, but I feel it's thematic.

One of my testers once told me the game was "rather abstract." I had multiple phone calls with him discussing this, trying to get at the root of the problem. Eventually, I found out he just didn't like the Napoleonic stuff. For a few months the game became the science fiction game Dawn Sector. Changing nothing other than the background story (i.e. instead of a civil war on a Russia-like continent it is factions fighting over a new planet), he suddenly said "great theme!"

People like Cthuhlu, zombies, mechs, super heroes and orcs. If you're going for theme, if that is a goal, consider using a theme that is widely recognized as something theme-oriented people love. I'll tell you right now, I'm the only person who considers York thematic as a Napoleonic game and that's because I've read extensively on both the history and fiction of the time. It's thematic to me. Were it zombies? My game would be more thematic. It's science.

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Have great art. I believe strongly that great art is essential for any game, but having great art strengthens a player's thematic resonance with a game. Board games can and should present players with a story of sorts that is interactive. Imagery helps fill the pages of that story in your players' heads.

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Look at games like Mice and Mystics. There is so much art and it is so good that it just reinforces the thematic nature of the game. Your cards, board, box, and rules are all opportunities to begin the story that your players will experience.

Make sure your art is detailed. Create scenes, characters, and moments. For example, look at the detail on the soldier below, illustrated by John Ariosa. Look at his wrapped shoes and tattered cloak. Look at his beard with dabs of gray. Look at his eyes, on the verge of tears, and creases in his face. This guy has been through the ringer. He has a story.

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Another game with outstanding art is Gubs from Gamewright. This game tells a story with every card.

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On the other hand, here's a card from Ginkopolis. Beautiful, but it's just a building. I'm not sure what its story is or why I should care.

Games with theme have great art filled with great characters and moments.

Mechanics exist for a fictional reason. This is difficult to do, and may lead to a fiddly experience, but your mechanics should exist for a fictional reason. They need to be rooted in some sort of fiction or reality (if you're creating a simulation). This might be a subtle difference.

  • Thematically bad: Players lose 1 coin every round to make the game harder.
  • Thematically good: Players lose 1 coin to pay rent every round. It costs money to live in NYC and create art.

That's a lazy, quickly thrown together example but perhaps you get my point?

Sometimes this is something you handle in the conceptual stage of a game. Sometimes it is merely a layer you add while refining how to present the experience. Sometimes, for the sake of the experience, you need to create mechanics that may not be as fictionally rooted.

For example, I created a rule in York where players could not build forts on city tiles. This was needed for the fun of the game. However, it's a bit strange fictionally. If not a fort, couldn't militants fortify a street in a city? It happens in Les Miserable, right?

There are also cases where a mechanic exists for a fictional reason but the way in which you implement it causes some thematic disconnect. Again, in York, the guerrilla faction has the ability to essentially move units across the map rapidly. This is an abstraction of cave networks seen in places like Afghanistan and Vietnam, but also, it's an abstraction of the notion that guerrilla militants are always where you least expect them. I think the effect is fictionally sound, but the step-by-step implementation is definitely off-putting to some. "Why can these guys teleport?" testers ask. Le sigh!

Here's how I tend to go about this question for my games. I consider the setting, the actions someone in that setting would take, then I try to think of the simplest and most mechanically interesting way that could be presented. It's a bit of a hybrid that I think serves me well, but also won't earn me either thematic praise or thematic slams. I think I tend to fall in the middle?

It's a slider. If you create something more for the story, you'll probably earn more theme points. If you create something more for the mechanics, you'll probably be less thematic. The goal is to hit the sweet spot of something that's thematic, but also fun to play and easy to learn.

Give players a clearly established character or point of view. Make it clear through your rules/introduction and also the decisions a player makes that they are a character in the world. Give them a reasonable point of view.

In Ginkgopolis I'm apparently a city builder, but nothing about the minute to minute mechanics really reinforces this. It isn't a great thematic connection.

But, in Farmageddon, I think it's clear that every player is a farmer. Plant crops, harvest crops, screw with your neighbors. In Memoir '44 you feel like a captain guiding your men. In Mice and Mystics you are one of the characters fighting through the story. In Modern Art, you are an art collector trying to profit from buying and selling works. I think Modern Art is actually really thematic, but it isn't a "fun" theme and its art is a tinge dry, but man, you feel like an art buyer.

Give players a point of view that's relevant, that's backed up by the actions you give the player, and makes sense.

Use fun components. People love to rail against miniatures, but they work. So do custom dice, custom cut meeples, and anything remotely 3 Dimensional for your board (see: King of Tokyo). The more you can get away from bland cubes, the more toy-like an experience, the greater your chance for a thematic game.

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I will argue that people who tend to be thematically oriented are also component fiends. Look at Fantasy Flight's core consumer and you know what I'm talking about. Their production values are off the charts and they don't release anything that's remotely abstract.

Plaid Hat Games also takes their components and theme very seriously. Look at Mice and Mystics or City of Remnants. Tons of custom dice, miniatures, glorious art, and more.

If you take your theme seriously, be prepared for a bump in MSRP. Experiment with cool components. Find ways to go beyond the cube. One potential publisher for York suggested we use punchboard squares to represent units. For one, it helps on the price somewhat, but secondly, with every square we can draw the Unit. Think about how thematic and cool Smallworld is visually.

Here's the Summary: Thematic games look great, are full of design elements driven by the setting and story more than mechanics and are typically about a theme loved by people who love theme.

What do you think?

Comments

Cards and events can be a great way to convey theme too, because you can tell a little story that fits your world on each one. When you can do that through rules text and still nail the flavor, you know you've got something special. Like Shivan Dragon.

Great article, Grant. This really helps me clarify my thoughts about game design and theme. As a game lover who is just stating to try designing my own games I've been thinking about what makes a game really fun to play. I'm finding that in designing my own games I feel a need to create a story in both the rules and the pictures and writing to help players feel they are entering into a unique world and experience. In this way I think games have much in common with graphic novels and storytelling in general.

Thanks! Welcome to the terrifying world of game design. You can always email me at grant at hyperbolegames dot com to chat if you have any questions.