Researching Theme

A few days ago I asked the excellent Cardboard Edison for blog ideas. They quickly came up with two, one of which is the topic of this post. It was a great idea, but also especially exciting as it's something they are apparently working on right now. I love a captive client!

How does one go about researching for a thematic game? More importantly, what is important in such an effort?

I have several steps, in priority order, that I'll walk you through now! For this post, I'm going to use Sol Rising as my primary example. I believe it's my most thematic design, is a mature design, so I feel my points have merit, and its creation closely mimicked the process I'll propose.

Step 1: Pick a Good Theme

I've written about theme in the past here. But, for the sake of brevity and a fresh outlook, I think a good theme needs to pass a few tests.

  1. Is it a topic that excites players who are driven by theme? Selling beans is out.
  2. Is it a topic that most people can reasonably intuit based on common cultural norms and expectations? For example, for Sol Rising, the required viewing to enjoy the game is at least one Star Wars battle scene, a single game of Homeworld, the Dominion War (name?) in Deep Space Nine, or some Battlestar Galactica. It's difficult to make a thematic game about Dolphin breeding in the Pacific. Most people probably don't know enough about it.
  3. Is it a topic that excites YOU? A thematic game is greatly about passion for the subject matter. Nobody is going to feel like an admiral of the fleet if you wade in tepidly.
  4. Thematic games are often great because they are a solid platform for fun, delightful components. I want to be cautious here and warn folks that good theme does not mean a fun coat of paint. It drives me batty when people fawn over a game that is "so thematic" just because it has custom shaped meeples.

Step 2: Define the Player's Perspective

Who are your players? What is their role? What is their point of view? In Sol Rising, players are admirals of fleets. They are in charge of multiple capital ship squadrons, fighter squadrons, and need to accomplish multiple objectives that will affect the fate of entire star systems and thousands of lives.

Alternatively, I could have made players planetary governors. Or ship captains. Or squadron commanders. Or fighter jocks. But, I didn't. I made them fleet admirals.

Why is this important? Well, it defines very clearly what you need to research and what decisions you put before your player. A ship captain, for example, needs to worry about his engine room. Or his position in relation to a specific ship. See: Captain Kirk fighting Khan. A fleet admiral? He doesn't care about your engines. He cares about your squadron and whether it's completing its defined task.

A common, and fair, criticism of thematic games is that they are over complicated. It often feels that when you're playing a very thematic game that the designer couldn't stop him or herself from saying "it would be cool if." It's like an improv session that never ends, as the "yes, and" never subsides.

Use the player's perspective to focus your efforts. Yes, your fleet admiral could care about crew morale. He could care about the engines on ship 2. He could care about researching lasers. He could care about the planetary atmosphere. OR, he can care about the things an admiral would care about.

Not only does this make your game simpler, more focused, and easier to research and design, but it'll make it more thematic!

Step 3: Research Broadly

I think it's possible to know too much about a topic and to dive too deeply into presenting it. Now, we can go back and forth on whether games can have more simulation properties, but for the sake of your perspective, I'm discussing 1-2 hour thematic experiences that are games first, simulations second.

I remember a designer at work, a professional musician, designed our music design for the game. And it was SO deep and complex. In a way, it missed the point of what people wanted, which was the high level experience of being a musician. Therefore, research broadly. As you identify opportunities for your design, dive more deeply into those elements.

Here are some of the things I researched for Sol Rising:

  • The Expanse Trilogy for narrative inspiration and designing a plausible solar system filled with political entities and intrigue.
  • Star Wars, specifically the Battle of Endor, for combined arms combat. By combined arms, I mean a mix of capital ships and fighters. Star Wars Armada takes this away a tinge from Sol Rising, but previously, you either (often) played a game about fighters, or a game about capital ships. Sol Rising is about both.
  • Homeworld, for mechanics about formations and commanding groups of units. One of the neat things about Sol Rising is that you don't control 20 ships individually, but 3-5 squadrons of ships.
  • Summoner Wars for card ability design.
  • Memoir '44 for incorporation of environmental elements.
  • Robinson Crusoe for Event system design.
  • Mice and Mystics for narrative game design.
  • Starcraft II for unique mission design. Every single player mission in Starcraft II presents a unique challenge to the player within the system framework.
  • History on Napoleonic Warfare, specifically for information on how cavalry affected the battlefield. I had the idea early on to treat my fighter squadrons as cavalry. I read both biographies of Napoleon, as well as historical fiction series.

As you can see, I sampled a broad assortment of other print games, digital games, fiction, and historical elements. The benefits of this include gaining a wide variety of ideas, not having a single heavy influence that might skew my game into a too derivative direction, and I largely keep things at a high level. This last one is important because I want to present a game where people who generally know what Admiral Ackbar does can make decent hunches about Sol Rising BEFORE knowing the ins and outs of the design.

Step 4: Abstract early, abstract often

This might seem counter to the premise of thematic design, but in fact, it isn't. Some of the most crucial thematic decisions you can mark are about where to input abstraction and where to get more specific. Again, thematic designers often make the error of making every mechanic a super deeply, broad element of their design.

The problem this causes is that your players will be overwhelmed. They'll spend so much time trying to make basic decisions that they'll never feel like they are in the game. Thematic design is about players making intuitive decisions that appropriately mimic their thematic equivalent. In Terra Mystica, there is this complex mana pool mechanic. It's very complicated, especially on an initial play. It's not thematic, at all, because no wizard in fiction ever has had to use such an abacus of mana. Being a wizard is about casting a spell. To be fair, I don't think Terra Mystica was trying to be thematic.

One example of abstraction in a design of mine are the defensive abilities in Sol Rising. In previous iterations, you might Overcharge Shields. You'd place a Shield token on your ship. The problem was that the opponent had to ask, and remember, what that token meant. There could be multiple defensive tokens in play. Both players had to remember when that shield would go away, as there were rules to account for that. At the recommendation of a tester, I made the defensive abilities one-shot abilities. Now, Overcharge Shields let you remove 2 damage. At first, this seems strange. Shields prevent damage, they don't remove it! But, if the end result is the same, in that I have less damage? And it's simpler to do? Well, it works.

In York, one of my most thematic tactics is Dig In. It simply causes more casualties for the attacker. You don't have to place fortifications, or spend time digging. You abstract that decision.

For Orb, a design I'm prototyping now, the player's perspective is that of a squad commander of elite infantry. You're not controlling individual units, but the squad. Therefore, when you deploy a sniper and a demolitions expert, you don't have a specific token that says "Sniper" with rules on it. No, instead, you draw cards related to those roles and you add 2 generic unit markers to the board. It's one of the abstractions of which I'm most proud because it beautifully preserves and supports the player's perspective and keeps them focused on the thematic decisions. I need a sniper. Instead of managing that sniper's footsteps, I'm instead managing a sniper's contributions to my arsenal.

Step 5: Stop and ask, how can we use this?

As you're conducting your research, as soon as you come across a nifty idea or fact, put down the book, or the game, and ask: How can we use this?

Begin prototyping, mentally, with your suggestions. The idea for formations in Sol Rising came very early. I was reading and realized that most games focus on controlling one ship at a time. I thought, a ha! Multiple ships. I then got out some blocks and began messing around with manipulating them for the sake of combat effectiveness. Eventually, with that seed planted, I went back to my research.

Your design should begin to take shape and grow as you research. What's less useful is 50 pages of notes and information with context or relationships to one another. What's more useful is:

  1. We want the player to be this guy.
  2. Being this guy means you do this thing.
  3. Sometimes this thing can be affected by another thing.
  4. And so forth.

Essentially, you should start building your core elements and applying layers as you research. Begin to channel and focus your research to channel and focus your design. Once you identify that you want Element A in your design, it'll help you evaluate all future ideas.

How can you use this? Answer that question as you go and being laying the foundation during research. This is much better than returning to months of notes only to find you're more or less at step 1.

Was this useful? Do you feel you're better equipped to research a thematic game? Share your thoughts and your personal ideas in the comments below.

Comments

I think all those pingbacks answer the question of usefulness ;-)
Thanks for the great post Mr. Rodiek!