Crafting a Story through Design

Benny and I have been design peers for a while. Both from his Twitter feed and his interview with Bellwether Games, it's clear Benny approaches design from a different angle than I do. Benny's all about story and theme, whereas I tend to be more mechanically driven.

I don't necessarily agree with Benny's approach, but I appreciate the perspective. Furthermore, it's important to note that many of our customers purchase games based on theme alone! For this reason, I asked Benny to walk us through his approach using his game Streets of Laredo as a backdrop. If you're like me, his post will get your mind whirring!

Guest Column by: Benny Sperling (@Benny275)

Game design and storytelling often reside at opposite ends of the creative spectrum.  Some gamers would have you believe that games should be abstract creations where the players push cubes to score points. Or, at the very least, they find such things perfectly acceptable.  I disagree whole-heartedly!  I like the idea of creating a story and telling it as the game progresses.  To be clear, I’m not talking about storytelling games, although Daniel Solis’ Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is brilliant. I'm talking about bringing story to your board and card games.

As a designer, I want to weave a narrative from the players' experiences that THEY can change with THEIR choices.  As a child, I was drawn to Choose Your Own Adventure books for this very reason.  At the onset, it is important to decide on a theme to help tell your story.  Is your theme something that has never been done?  Is it a theme that is near and dear to you?  Or is it a theme that capitalizes on an existing mechanic?

For me, Westerns are interesting. I admit I’ve fallen in love with my new home in Texas because it’s just as Larry McMurtry (the writer of Lonesome Dove) described: sweeping plains, cowboys, and good cheer. My latest game, Streets of Laredo, is about telling the story of the old west from my own perspective. Laredo came out of my desire to tell the tale of land developers hiring and building within a single town and making an effort to dissuade their competitor's efforts… usually through gunfights.

In telling your own tale, be sure to avoid thematic holes. Thematic holes are gaps within the story, elements that are missing or done incorrectly.  These gaps create problems with flow and disrupt the narrative.  In game design, thematic holes represent a part of the story that doesn’t make sense or is missing, which can be disruptive to players who are really into the theme.  With Laredo, there were plenty of thematic holes early in development.  The game featured Bandits and Rustlers, but no way for the sheriff to “take care of them” and prevent them from hindering players. As a result, I implemented the Jail. The Jail allows players to kick the Bandits and Rustlers behind bars when they are causing trouble (if the player chooses to do so!).  Be very mindful while playtesting to look for those gaps in realism and the story.  Players will pick up on them if you don't.

“Hiring a new sheriff to keep watch on your street? I don’t think so! That sheriff needs to come work for me.”  It’s great fun, because the players can actually act out their stories while they are playing Laredo.  Each card played represents a new chapter in the player's tale. The Deputy helps a player by modifying a rolled die to create a matching pair of dice.  This is extremely helpful for players to create pairs, three of a kind, or four of a kind, not to mention it reduces the randomness that comes with dice rolling. Luck plays a role in games with dice and a random draw of cards.  The Deputy and many of the other cards in the game feature ways to reduce the luck and increase the strategy.

Essentially, if you’re taking pains to create a fiction and a world, make sure the fiction is sound enough to stand on its own.

How does one go about designing a mechanical framework for this story to dance upon? If you recall, I noted that game design and storytelling rest at two opposite ends of the creative spectrum.  Game design is about thinking of ways to layer this story onto mechanical parts.  For Laredo, I chose poker dice, which are six-sided dice with a 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace.  They’re thematic, obviously, as cowboys played poker in saloons.  The players roll dice on their turns to attempt to form the best poker hand after 3 rolls.  Each of the cards features a poker hand and rolling that poker hand allows the player to play that card onto their street. By playing a card, players construct buildings, hire folks, or bring in livestock.  On the following turns, cards played to a player's street provide a benefit to roll more dice, modify rolled dice, or affect the game in other ways.  For your design, ask yourself what would be an interesting thing in the world for players to do that also supports the fiction?

Next, I chose cards instead of pawns or figurines, because I knew I could convey the information more easily with cards. The theme comes alive with card art! Even when you’re using cheap clipart for early prototypes, you allow your players to connect to the game thematically: the dashing sheriff, the sly bandits, the pristine bank.

I then had to ask myself how the cards would make it to each players’ street to represent their hiring’s and holdings?  Back to the dice! In Laredo, business deals are made in the saloon. Rolling a poker hand of a set value (i.e. a pair, a straight, etc.) allows the player to play a card to his street. The card represents someone the player hired, a building the player constructed, or animals that were purchased.  Each card has to feel thematic!  The bandit cards copy existing buildings to indicate the bandits are robbing the building.  The sheriff cleans up the gunfight cards and takes one for his land developer.  The Bank supplies an extra activation for a price.

The last mechanic I chose to add was the gunfight mechanic.  Initially, it was too easy for one player to get lucky with their rolls and run away with the game.  When gunfighting, the players are trying to improve their own street, but also disrupt the streets of their opponents.  Each card was given a gunfight value which gave every card multiple purposes and the player a choice: You can gunfight or play the card to your street.

Consider your next game from a thematic perspective.  What kind of story are you going to have the players tell?  What elements fit that story?  How can you fit mechanics into the theme of your story?  Should you use meeples or cards?  Poker chips or dice?  What will help draw players into the story and make them feel like they are telling a story with the designer?

Once you find answers to these questions, you may find you’re not only creating a game, but a rich story.


My style and yours are very similar! I really like how you laid this information out and Streets of Laredo sounds fantastic. The Poker dice in particular I find very creative and using poker hands to play cards is so cool!

Mechanics are the heart of the game, but theme is its soul. No one will play a game twice if gameplay isn't compelling, but the theme is the reason they try it in the first place (recommendations from friends excluded). Theme may be an optional layer, but why would you ever opt not to give your game more depth?

Consider that different players play games for different reasons. Most of the folks reading this blog lust for variety and crave innovation, so we'll play anything with a mechanic we've not seen before. Some of us, and many others, play a game not for the intellectual challenge, but for the experience, like a interactive movie or a video game off the rails. A lot of players don't really care what game they play as long as they get to play with people they like and laugh a while. Ultimately, a game with no theme, or mere window-dressing can only satisfy the first and third groups. You may come away with a story of an exciting twist or lucky roll, but your imagination was never sparked and you were never carried away to another place.

There are absolutely five-star abstract games, and I can't say Tichu would be improved with any kind of story or theme, so there is a time and a place where flavor can hurt your design, but for me, I'd rather fight Dragons and shoot six-guns than move a card from one pile to another.