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Chat Transcript: Immersive Themes

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FastLearner
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Joined: 12/31/1969

The topic for the December 10th, 2003, Wednesday Night Chat was Immersive Themes.

I (and Darkehorse) edited the chat to clump conversations somewhat, and removed the pleasantries (greetings and such).

Please feel free to add additional thoughts!

Darkehorse: Let's start by naming some examples of games with good, immersive themes...

Oracle: warcraft: the boardgame

Darkehorse: Hmmm I am not too familiar with it. I thought it was still vaporspiel..

DarkDream: games with immersive themes?

Darkehorse: Yes.. the first few that come to my mind are Tikal and Goldland..

DarkDream: Is Lord of the Rings by RK one?

Darkehorse: Yes definitely..

SVan: are you talking about games that make you feel like you are actually there (or as close as possible?)

Darkehorse: Not so much that Svan, but games where the themes weren't added as an afterthought or weren't added so the game wouldn't be purely abstract.

SVan: ok i understand

Darkehorse: I.E. The theme of the game was a major factor in it's design from the very start.

SVan: an old game which you guys may know that does theme very well was HeroQuest

Darkehorse: Another good example...

DarkDream: Talisman?

Darkehorse: Yes.. also Talisman..

SVan: Cosmic Encounters, Diplomacy, and Settlers are all good examples

SVan: in my eyes

Darkehorse: Ok how about some games that don't do theme well, or games where the theme was added to make it seem less abstract...

Darkehorse: My first thought is the game Ra.

Oracle: carcassonne?

DarkDream: Bohnanza?

Darkehorse: Bohnanza! Excellent! They could have slapped on any theme for that..

Darkehorse: Carc is good.. they could have just as easily made that yet another rail game..

DarkDream: Bohnanza could have had horses, planes or anything on the cards

SVan: basically these games have generic themes?

Darkehorse: Ok... so let's brainstorm...(and there's no right or wrong answer) What differentiates the first group of games from the second?

DarkDream: I think it appears that you could more easily change the theme on the second group than the first

DarkDream: For example, with Carcassone, you could have space colonies

Darkehorse: Good point...

Oracle: with Settlers, you could do a settlers of the moon

DarkDream: With Lord of the Rings and the ways things are built in (Hobbits, bad guys and so on) you can't really do it.

Darkehorse: Ahhh so the mechanics of the game tightly tie the theme of LotR into the game system...

Oracle: the seafarers rules could do settlers of the solar system

Darkehorse: But oddly enough, do we all agree that Settlers is richly themed yet it is easily made into a space game or a prehistoric game or a religious game

DarkDream: Exactly

Oracle: actually, I was considering settlers for a poorly themed game when it was first mentioned as well themed

DarkDream: I agree, because the whole idea of building colonies is a fairly generic one to theme

SVan: that's what I mean by generic, not poor, but can be used with many different themes

Darkehorse: ok ok... So maybe settlers is an example of a 'generically' themed game.. so we will lump it into the second group.

Darkehorse: Ok we'll do an ad hoc definition and say 'generically themed games' are games that can be easily converted from one theme to another

DarkDream: good provisional definition

Oracle: for the LotR game, it is richly themed, but I think it does a bad job of it; the different tracks on each board seem very abstract; what do they have to do with the story?

SVan: is generic really bad? (open question)

SVan: maybe I'm jumping ahead

Darkehorse: No generic is not bad... But for the sake of this chat, let's say we want to make a richly themed game...

SVan: that's right we were discussing themes and making them into games

DarkDream: Each board, in LotR is meant to be an important stage in the story

Darkehorse: But you would agree that it has a certain level of abstraction? I mean you need X # of different symbols to progress, which is somewhat abstract (which isn't necessarily bad)

Darkehorse: Oracle: so it is possible to have a richly theme gamed that doesn't really work.. but why doesn't it work for you?

Oracle: because it is all-dependant on the story since it is richly themed, but then the game play doesn't really follow the story

DarkDream: All games need to have a certain level of abstraction, I agree it does have some -- in needs to

Oracle: the features on the tracks boards are all the same except for the exact order of them

Darkehorse: True but you don't want the game to follow the story 100%, because then it wouldn't really be a game.

Oracle: the cards for each board that do tie it into the theme feel like an afterthought to the game mechanics

DarkDream: What about the event counters, and the fact that the goal is throwing the ring in Mount Doom

SVan: it sounds like the theme is barely used

DarkDream: I think it is themed well, because the players must work together, which a strong theme in the LotR story

Darkehorse: Perhaps we need to make a distinction..

Darkehorse: But I can't quite put my finger on it.

Oracle: but I mean what's the difference between the shire and moria in the game?

Darkehorse: Why don't you give an example of a richly themed game that you feel doesnt suffer from LotR's problems..

Oracle: that's a harder question than it sounds like. I don't play a lot of richly themed games

SVan: did we have an official definition to the word theme? it could mean different things to different people

SVan: i should say do we...

Oracle: by richly themed, do we also mean a deep story?

Darkehorse: That's a good question...

DarkDream: Maybe Oracle, you are saying that the LotR game does not *feel* like the story

Oracle: That's a good way to put it; and since it's so dependant on the LotR story, that makes the game fail for me

Oracle: Acquire or Monopoly could be considered richly themed depending on how we define it

Darkehorse: To me, a themed game is a game in which the players actions affect a simulated game world.

DarkDream: A well themed game for me is one where the theme gives a game a background or setting to it

DarkDream: For example in a fantasy game you expect wizards, warriors and dragons filled with magic

DarkDream: An ancient Rome theme would have legions and arenas, gladiators and so on

DarkDream: A theme provides a suggestion to a "simulated world"

Darkehorse: We all agree that there are varying levels of theme of course.

SVan: a good background does provide a theme but i feel like it's something more than that

Deviant: But those sorts of games could go any way. Replace the wizards with psychics, the warriors with stormtroopers, and you have sci-fi.

Darkehorse: Ok got it! We need to define a term for 'integrated theme'

SVan: dd: I like the thing you said about it being a "simulated world"

Deviant: How about "the game mechanics simulate the theme"?

DarkDream: An integrated theme is where the mechanics of the game come from the theme

Darkehorse: dev and dark, good good!

SVan: or it could a "simulated experience"

Deviant: An auction game feels nothing like a war game, for instance.

SVan: exactly

Darkehorse: so the actions in the game emulate actions made by 'characters' in the game

Darkehorse: Oracle: does that definition help to explain your dislike of LotR's a little bit easier?

DarkDream: That's good. A trading game for instance will involve the players trading

SVan: that is the definition i think i was looking for

Deviant: I've never played. What do you do in LotR?

Oracle: Yes, so in that case, we'd define LotR not to be an integrated theme game?

Darkehorse: I would say so.. I haven't played in a while... but you don't really feel like your doing anything do you? You simply play cards and move forward

Deviant: Fight, explore, move around?

DarkDream: Or does not integrate the mechanics well with the theme

tjgames: It does have some integration

DarkDream: I definitely think so as well. The unique gaming experience of cooperating is good

DarkDream: example

SVan: it sounds like it is similar to monopoly

tjgames: The corruption of the hobbits

DarkDream: Very good point

SVan: theme wise

Oracle: Yes..and there's a lot of places where it just ignores the theme to make the mechanics work better

Oracle: tj: I was just about to mention the corruption track

Oracle: ..okay, the hobbits get corrupted and eventually sauron gets them....but why does sauron become less corrupted?

Darkehorse: Ah hah! So how do we as game designers, come up with ways so that our games don't ignore the theme to make the mechanics work better?

Oracle: it's more of a sauron's chasing you mechanic than a corruption track. He could come farther to the good side than you were to evil side earlier the same game

tjgames: He doesn't he just makes it easier for them to be corrupted

Oracle: that's too much of a stretch

Darkehorse: Is everyone familiar with Survive?

DarkDream: In my opinion, the theme should inspire the mechanics that should try to follow faithfully to the theme

tjgames: No

Oracle: so if he's less evil than you were when you were still good, then isn't he now good? In that case you should win for overcoming him with goodness

DarkDream: DH, never played survive

Oracle: I'm not familiar with Survive

Darkehorse: darn

Darkehorse: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/2653

Setarcos: DH: Sort of.

Darkehorse: It's a classic, way ahead of it's time.

tjgames: I like that idea Oracle. maybe I could win more often

Darkehorse: I was going to give it as an example of a game in which I feel is perfectly themed.

DarkDream: How about the old Avalon Hill games, where there is detailed mechanics for a theme?

Darkehorse: Dark.. good segue to part two of the topic

DarkDream: I've heard players feel more that they were immersed in the theme of the game

Darkehorse: Yes games like Titan and Magic Realm were very highly themed, unfortunately they were weighed down by a MASSIVE ruleset...

Darkehorse: and they were overly complex..

Oracle: Survive sounds like one of the contest entries

Darkehorse: Yes it was the *original* doomed civilization game.

FastLearner: Has the concept of theme vs. simulation been discussed?

Darkehorse: That's what I was segueing too.

FastLearner: Ah, well then good timing on my part.

Darkehorse: and as Fastlearner put, these old AH games were more simulation than necessary

FastLearner: IMO that's the most common situation where theme gets in the way of game play: trying to simulate the theme rather than represent the theme.

Darkehorse: Good point... Magic Realm and Titan had rules for just about everything...

DarkDream: In those cases you are saying that they were purely representing the theme?

DarkDream: Massive rule books and so on?

SVan: i like the wording of that

Darkehorse: So as usual, the key is balance... How do we accurately integrate the theme (I.E. actions simulate the theme) without simulating the theme instead of representing it

DarkDream: Have I got it the wrong way round?

FastLearner: Aye. Wargames are often (understandably) an attempt to simulate actual battle conditions and situations. If what you're really trying to do is simulate a situation and it's the act of simulation that you like, then it's a perfect game.

FastLearner: If it's game playing that you like, though, slavish holding to simulation is almost always going to get in your way.

Darkehorse: Magic Realm was an experiment in creating a role playing game that had no DM..

Deviant: Anyone played Battletech? That game gives me a headache!

Deviant: Plus, things get complicated way too quickly.

DonovanLoucks: "Star Fleet Battles" is another example of this.

SVan: original battletech? 8 hrs usually didn't suffice for playing that

SVan: making unnecessary rules to help the theme usually doesn't help much

Darkehorse: Good point.. so we need to steer clear of adding unnecessary rules to 'stimulate' the theme

DarkDream: Good point, you could write a program with massive rules that could simulate the physics and everything of a world. You could interact and so on, but it would be dead boring

FastLearner: Aye. Puerto Rico is a great game in lots of folks' estimation, but it's very clear that it is in no way a simulation of running the island of Puerto Rico a few hundred years ago. Yet nonetheless it feels tightly themed.

tjgames: Good Point

Deviant: True to the spirit, if not the letter.

DarkDream: However, there needs to be some simulation. For example a racing game must have rules for cornering

tjgames: Would Puerto Rico work if it was themed different?

Setarcos: PR would work as a Space Trading (or any trading) game IMO.

Darkehorse: So oftentimes we feel like we want to research the theme of our game extensively, but in retrospect, it may actually hinder our creative process (using FL's point, how dull would PR be if it was an actual simulation of the real Puerto Rico)?

DonovanLoucks: This reminds me of the term "semantic simulation" that a friend of mine came up with. The goal shouldn't be to simulate the events in the game, but to simulate a narration of those events.

FastLearner: I think it has to do with having mechanics that "feel" like the theme rather than mechanics that accurately reflect the theme.

SVan: it has been said a few times on here that the game should not be sacrafice for theme

Darkehorse: donovan: good point... if I decide to move my character from the ice plain to the gold coast, it may not be necessary to divulge the information of how I got from place to place

DonovanLoucks: Exactly. And, simpler mechanisms might yield the same results as a more complex game. Anyone played "Tobruk"?

DarkDream: So the goal is to find mechanics that are inspired by theme that represent it that the players will buy into it?

tjgames: But the theme would have to be some kind of trading game

Setarcos: With production also.

Deviant: And limit the mechanics to one thing that's interesting.

Oracle: "trading game" is a genre, not a theme

Deviant: Rather than go everywhere and do everything.

DarkDream: Or mechanics that are fun or add to strategy

FastLearner: I enjoy doing the research, though, because I think it lets me simulate the "feel" a lot better. For example in my Everest game I did a lot of research because I wanted the players to at least kind-of feel like they were racing up the actual dangerous mountain.

Setarcos: Not the genre vs. theme debate again!

DarkDream: That's the key, you want the players to buy into the mechanics.

DonovanLoucks: On the few occasions I've played "Star Fleet Battles" (many years ago), I didn't feel I was captaining a starship. I felt I was running the engine room of an aircraft carrier.

FastLearner: Good point on SFB, imo.

DarkDream: For example, in TurfMaster many people comment it "feels" like horse racing.

FastLearner: Aye, Turfmaster does have a good racing feel to me.

Setarcos: I agree with whoever said (at BGDF) that theme should make sense of the rules.

FastLearner: Excellent point. The theme holds the rules together in many ways. You can "expect" a rule to be a certain way based on the theme so everything is more comprehensible.

Darkehorse: True true... But you don't want to lock yourself into theme... I.E. in Everest you could have decreased energy points at higher levels to simulate lower energy at higher altitudes.. I.E. you have to know when to say when on your level of detail

DonovanLoucks: Some of this topic gets into realism/playability issues, although I'm of the opinion that there are some simple mechanisms that can easily achieve realism.

tjgames: So if the theme doesn't match the mech y

FastLearner: And I'm doing a lot of research into the life of the Anasazi for a series of games that reflect what their lives were like... but in a fun way.

Darkehorse: Ahh cohesiveness!

Setarcos: And it makes it easier to/remember the rules, too.

FastLearner: Agreed.

FastLearner: Good term, Darke. Aye, that's how I think theme helps.

DarkDream: Really it is a very delicate balance of getting it right where there is not too much mechanics and simulation but enough to get the feel

tjgames: So what do you do if you have a game where the rules can't bring the theme together?

tjgames: Drop the theme

SVan: Not drop it but don't let it hurt the rules

Setarcos: Then maybe you have an Abstract game?

Deviant: Drop it if the rules are good. Otherwise drop the rules.

Darkehorse: Or adapt the rules to a different theme and create a completely new game with the old theme

DonovanLoucks: I think a lot of players confuse "detail" with "realism". Everyone familiar with "Chivalry & Sorcery"? The most complex RPG of all time, but no more realistic than D&D.

DonovanLoucks: I think a lot of players want detail, but not complexity.

FastLearner: Good separation in thoughts. That makes sense.

Darkehorse: Even components can achieve realism... The swap of fake money in Monopoly speaks volumes about it's theme.

DonovanLoucks: I think components can help to achieve detail. That is, they heighten the atmosphere of the game, even though it may not be more realistic. (We may just be using realism/detail interchangeably here.)

Darkehorse: I think the word atmosphere is the key... Part of the thrill of financial games is seeing all the piles of money you have on the table

FastLearner: So true. Sometimes, though, detail can make it more realistic. While Advanced Squad Leader isn't a completely accurate representation of real life, it's certainly a lot more "realistic" than anything else in the genre.

DonovanLoucks: Actually, I thought SPI's "Raid" was much more realistic than "Squad Leader" (though possibly not ASL), although it's much simpler.

DonovanLoucks: The Observation Points in "Raid!" were simple yet brilliant.

FastLearner: ASL simulates nearly everything. You want to jump over a ditch? Well, is there grass? Is the grass wet because of morning dew? ...it's nutty that way.

SVan: people mostly buy games for the theme, but they play them because of the rules

Setarcos: Good marketing point.

FastLearner: In a lot of games "detail" is provided through the use of graphics on the board/cards/tiles/pieces. I quite like a game that feels detailed due to the graphics yet feels simple to play.

Darkehorse: Have you played Ra? Or also lost cities... Great graphics for both, but does it support the theme?

DonovanLoucks: Yeah, I love the look of Games Workshop games--I just don't care for the play value. "Curse of the Mummy's Tomb" is a great example. Gorgeous game with lousy play.

tjgames: So presentation helps a theme in some ways?

SVan: and then they tell people about the game because of the rules

Darkehorse: I would say presentation is just icing on the cake.

FastLearner: Those two games, imo, are perfect examples of "pasted on" themes. I don't think either simulates anything, really, so the graphics simply provide and "atmosphere" so that the theme has something to stand on.

DonovanLoucks: "Lost Cities"... Grrrr... The game that's simply based on a 5-suited deck. When I pointed this out on R.G.B. I got flamed.

Setarcos: I consider both to be rather abstract.

Darkehorse: I agree with all three of you...

FastLearner: Yet the art in Lost Cities is quite attractive and makes the game -- the 5-suited deck game -- more fun.

Oracle: I've played Lost Cities with a normal deck a few times; it's pretty boring any way you look at it

DonovanLoucks: I agree. I've played it with a "Rage" deck and wasn't impressed. It's okay, but it's not the blockbuster so many people make it out to be.

DonovanLoucks: I think I would've enjoyed "Ra" more if it DIDN'T have the theme grafted on. I expected more.

Deviant: Presentation helps Monopoly beautifully. Risk, too.

SVan: i think presentation is essential

Darkehorse: Fast: I have a game from the 80s called Dragonmaster that could just as easily fit into that group...

Deviant: I have a '70s version of Risk with abstract plastic pieces - it's just not quite the same.

DonovanLoucks: I'm perfectly happy with that version. I actually prefer the version with the hard plastic pieces over the later one with soft plastic pieces.

Darkehorse: Lost Cities is a neat little game two player game... If you don't expect too much you won't be too disappointed.

Deviant: The one with the cartoon whale? I don't know... it's too "happy" for a world conquest game.

Deviant: (I mean Risk)

DonovanLoucks: I'm not playing "Risk" for its "theme", so I don't mind that.

Deviant: Ah, but it helps! That is the point.

Darkehorse: Ok before chat dissolves... What have we learned tonight? Anyone want to sum up some points?

Deviant: Theme is making the mechanics fit the environment.

Setarcos: Theme can embellish mechanics, but mechanics shouldn't be used to create theme?

Deviant: True simulations (well-themed) are often too complicated to be any fun.

Deviant: Presentation is important.

Darkehorse: Atmosphere adds to the effectiveness of the theme

Deviant: Mechanics SHOULD be used to create theme, but don't abandon good design.

Setarcos: No, using mechanics to create theme makes things too complicated.

Darkehorse: And a game with integrated mechanics is a game in which the mechanics simulate actions in the game world

Darkehorse: or not necessarily actions, but things that happen.

Setarcos: But adding theme can make sense of good mechanics.

Deviant: Ah. So better to have an abstract game than a themed game with pasted-on rules.

Deviant: Which don't add play value.

Deviant: Yes, I get you.

Setarcos: Yes, generally. (But I still like Knizia's games usually.)

Darkehorse: I agree. if you add theme based upon mechanics then you have a generically themed game

Setarcos: Bingo!

Deviant: I've only ever played Samurai (on the PC)

Darkehorse: I wouldn't say that abstract was better than loosely integrated themes.. It's all a matter of preface and marketability.. Lost Cities is a perfect example

Deviant: Easy to change later if the theme is stale.

Deviant: It's the same thing to me.

Deviant: Unless you're making Othello or something.

Darkehorse: BUT...if you set out to design more of an abstract game, then a loosely integrated theme is almost assured..

Setarcos: But the thing is, I often start with theme and find mechanics. Maybe I need to change my approach.

Darkehorse: I think it depends on what is motivating you to create the game... If you have a killer mechanic but no game, then it's fine to ponder what theme it might work well under

Setarcos: OK, unless it ends up feeling too contrived.

Darkehorse: Yes, you shouldn't force it of course.. If you keep the theme loose (I.E. Lost Cities keeps coming up), then it works..

Deviant: Still, when designing, sometimes a new theme leads me to new ideas.

Darkehorse: For instance, the current game I am working on is based upon a mechanic, which is a complete turn around for me bc I almost always work from a theme.

Deviant: Poker face?

Setarcos: Maybe we forgive forced theme from some designers (like Knizia) because of the awesome mechanics to enjoy.

Darkehorse: Or maybe because we as game players can get into a game more when it has some sort of theme we can grab hold of. Compare the early non themed versions of acquire with the later ones with the cool buildings.. I'd choose the later one's hands down

Setarcos: For me that's just a terminal case of parrakeetitis. (Which I DO have in a big way.)

Darkehorse: presentation is everything... In games as it is in food.

Setarcos: I love the eye-candy!

Torrent
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Chat Transcript: Immersive Themes

My take is that Theme and mechanics should be developed together to make a richly themed game. If one is developed seperately from the other, they will feel pasted together.

I also claim there is a difference between genre-themed games and pasted-theme games. Things like Carc and Settlers I claim are Genre Themed games. Carc would not work as a game about stock speculation. However it works in several types of colonization themes. Settlers too, yeah you can change the settling, but it is still basically about colonization. I claim that things can still be richly themed without being specifically themed.

I claim that any game that has a rule that is questioned with a 'why' is in serious jeopardy of not being a richly themed game. I had a player ask about clans, 'why do you not count single huts when there are all five colors?', I guess the themed answer is 'because they fight.'. Richly themed games will TEND to have more rational explanations for rules, although I don't claim this to be the sole providence of such games.

Over all, I guess it is almost always possible to tell if the theme and the mechanics came together early or late in the project. Whether this actually helps to dictate into your definition of a richly-themed game or not, I don't know. I think it has a lot to do with it.

Andy

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Chat Transcript: Immersive Themes

The long and short of it is, a game can be good either way- and it depends on the game wheather it should be "richly themed" or "generically themed."

I think how you go about designing the game (theme first vs mechanics first) in a way depends on, and in a way is affects, what type of theme the game has. Probably, starting with a theme and looking for mechanics to fit it will result in a game that is richly themed. That's how 8/7c was done, and I think it's safe to say that 8/7c is pretty richly themed (though it may be the type of game that could be in any theme, so long as the theme involves comparisons- i.e. movie awards instead of ratings, or any kind of advertising). Starting with a mechanic or system and then looking for a theme to fit it would likely result in the theme feeling tacked on... unless you're lucky enough to find something just right.

When I read posts on here, I have been known to do both of the following:
Sometimes I read some theme and say to myself "hey, that theme could be done using [this] mechanic," and sometimes I read about a mechanic and think "wow, that could be used with [this] theme."

So there's a process of matching mechanics to theme, and there's some amount of desire to do so. For some games, that desire is low or non-existant- like Abstract Strategy games. For most of the games we talk about here, that desire is higher. It hardly matters with some games, but it's integral to others.

By way of example, the Speedracer game from the GDW was a somewhat generic racing game. It had some interesting mechanics to set it apart from other games, but 'cars racing around a track' wasn't too exciting. Someone suggested changing the cars to some kind of beast, like Chocobos, or Velociraptors. My favorite was Dragons. Imagine Dragons hurtling full speed, high above a track (around a tall pole at each of three ends, in a distorted figure 8- all paths crossing in the center), riders strapped to saddles on their backs. When they get near each other they snap or breath fire. If pushed too hard they go into a frenzy, plunging foreward half out of control, attacking anything they come accross... Doesn't that sound fun?

In that case some of the mechanics would likely be tweaked to better fit the theme, but the theme was, in a general way at least, the initial concern. The original mechanics were made or chosen to fit the theme of racing.

- Seth

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Chat Transcript: Immersive Themes

This was interesting stuff, but I don't know that the discussion really went anywhere. Games are either themed or aren't, some need to be, some shouldn't be, an there's lots of stuff in between. If there's meat to the discussion (and I thin kthe chat touched on this some) it's either HOW to get the mechanics to integrate with theme, or maybe how to go about finding/making either mechanics to match your theme or else a theme to match your mechanics.

- Seth

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Chat Transcript: Immersive Themes

My observations on my limited reading of the chat:

LotR not themed ?!? Those are fighting words!

Lord of the Rings is probably one of the most richly themed games I've ever played, but in theme I'm speaking more of the general atmosphere the game creates. In that game, you really feel the tension that those on the quest must have felt -- that Sauron could catch us at any time, that the quest hangs by the breadth of a hair for its entirety and things could go against us at any minute, yet still we must press on. I've played the game quite a few times now, yet every time, the tension associated with drawing tiles (will it be another event?), of rolling the die (anything but Sauron moving!), still get me completely immersed in the gameplay, and there are almost no other games that do it, and do it so well. So I think you have to accept the limited "storyline" feel (ie, as someone said, "aren't we just advancing on a track with numbers"), because the payoff of the themes of the story coming through into the gameplay is much more meaningful than the game would have been if it involved moving on a map of Middle earth towards Mordor or some such. The game is a masterwork!

For what it's worth, though, one criticism I could have of the game is that the corruption track doesn't really "inform" your actions as perhaps it ought to. ie, as you become more "corrupted", you have a harder time doing actions of type X. I have a game that is built around this kind of a system, but I'm not yet happy with the system, though perhaps I'll improve it to the point that I'm willing to talk about it. It will probably be pretty richly themed, though, so it will be a good topic for a discussion like this.

Also, Darkehorse, I played Survive! as a kid and loved it. When I started playing games "for real" a few years ago, I started thinking back to the games I played as a kid and realized that Survive! was a game that was way ahead of its time and was a lot of fun! Alas, my mom sold our copy at a garage sale a few years back (along with my Star Wars X-Wing fighter and my brother's Hoth Snowspeeder! Arghhh!) But I hope to pick up the game from ebay sometime. It is an excellent game!

-Jeff

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Agreed.

Yes I agree that we really didn't make any ground breaking discoveries with the chat. Perhaps I can summarize what we did find and we could revisit the topic again in a later chat.

Quote:

Also, Darkehorse, I played Survive! as a kid and loved it. When I started playing games "for real" a few years ago, I started thinking back to the games I played as a kid and realized that Survive! was a game that was way ahead of its time and was a lot of fun!

Yes when I first got into games, I started buying a bunch of older american games thinking they might be fun to play. Of the ones I purchased, only Survive!, Elixir and Dragonmaster were worth keeping. Survive is a great classic game. The next time you play it, try and notice all the great design techniques that went into the game. There is a lot of balance and clever design, especially since most people consider it a kid's game.

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Chat Transcript: Immersive Themes

Even though, there was no "ground breaking" discoveries made, I do think there were some important points made and thought provoking questions raised.

From my interpretation, here were some of the main points made:

A theme can be considered an atmoshphere for the game, where the look of the board, graphics, chips and tiles pieces can add to it.

A theme can help suggest a "simulated" world, which can help shape people's expectations of a game.

A rich thematically game usually has the mechanics integrated or tailored more so to the theme.

Genericly themed games are games that can easily be converted from one theme to another or games where the mechanics are developed first, and then the theme second.

Some games have the problems of trying to simulate too much of a game rather than representing it.

Good mechanics for a game lead players to feel more like they are participating in the simulated world suggested by the theme.

A good theme can hold the rules together or make them more understandable.

DarkDream

Scurra
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Chat Transcript: Immersive Themes

I'm glad Jeff got in and articulated a lot of my thoughts about the Lord of the Rings game and why it is more themed than the chat seems to imply. However, see my last paragraph below...

Now, onto the real subject ;)
My main feeling is that a lot of the robustness of a game's theme has to do with the design process itself. If you start from a particular premise ("I want to do a Three Musketeers game"), then you disregard ideas that simply aren't appropriate, whilst concentrating on those that are ("So it's got to have duelling".) The result is that quite a few good ideas are probably ignored simply because they are too far outside the theme ("Auctioning the Mission cards would not work") even if they would be better for the "game".

I suspect that most designers find it much easier to have some sort of a theme in mind when they begin to sketch an idea out (even if it is as loose as "how about a Civ-lite game?") What happens then does seem to depend upon how tightly the resulting mechanics evoke the theme - whether the game has become a simulation or whether it is still loose enough that a different genre could be pinned on top without the mechanics feeling wrong.

Thus the prime example in this sort of debate, RA, although it evolved from Knizia wanting to do an epic Egyptian themed game, is quite evidently a theme-light game; there are still some specifically Egyptian related bits, but very litle that couldn't be patched elsewhere.

And, to return to the Lord of the Rings game for a moment, it is clear that although that game has a very tight evocation of the theme, simply because of the cards/event structure, it is also evident that it wouldn't take a huge amount of work to refit it for a different story entirely (I've done this myself somewhere on these forums!)

IngredientX
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Chat Transcript: Immersive Themes

There are a lot of gamers who enjoy richly-themed games. So I understand many peoples' desires for immersive gaming.

To be perfectly honest: I don't pay a great deal of attention to theme. To me, good mechanics alone can make a game extraordinary. FWIW, Ra and Lost Cities are two of my favorite games, and I wanted to point out that their lack of themes in no way detract from the game experiences for me.

It's a subjective opinion, and I'm not asking everyone else to match my aesthetics. But I do think we can all agree on the following theory, which I posted in the Reference Library a few months ago...

A game with a great theme but bad mechanics is never fun. A game with no theme but great mechanics is always fun.

Roger Ebert says, "No good movie is ever too long. No bad movie is ever too short." I guess I agree with that axiom enough to let it influence my thinking. :)

Still, I can take the analogy one step further. A game with a rich, immersive theme is much like a long movie. A game with all its emphasis on mechanics and none on theme is like a short movie.

There are plenty of long movies that are perfectly awful. And there are plenty of well-themed games that just aren't very good. Likewise, there are lots of short movies that are very good. And there are lots of themeless games that are outstanding.

So judging a game on its theme-mechanic integration is like judging a movie on its length alone; it's not enough to create a fully informed opinion.

However, there's nothing like a long, great movie. You walk out of the theater after watching a three-hour epic, and you feel completely different. Transported, maybe. It has that epic feel that a shorter movie may not have the scope to cover.

Likewise, a good, richly themed long game has a similar epic, cinematic experience. It may not transform you in the way that an epic film will, but it's an experience like no other.

I guess my point is that while the desire to design immersive games is quite worthwhile, it doesn't make themeless games "bad." Just as there is nothing wrong with a good movie just because it's 80 minutes long, there will always be room for a game with no theme but great mechanics.

Two ancillary points:
- I heard somewhere that part of the reason that German games seem to have their themes so detached from their mechanics is because German publishers like them that way. They feel they can reach a wider "family" market by stripping out as much chrome as possible, and making the theme as simple and generic as they can. Perhaps I'm wrong; someone like Snoop, who has direct experience with the publishing end of the German game market, can set me straight. I'm sure there are others, too.

- My designs really struggle with the rules:fun ratio. My early designs were "over-chromed," if you will. I've learned to cut down on needless rules that make gameplay needlessly complicated, even if they help theme. I guess that's the German influence making itself felt. Now I design games that are needlessly complicated without the help of chrome. :)

Scurra
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Chat Transcript: Immersive Themes

IngredientX wrote:
Now I design games that are needlessly complicated without the help of chrome. :)

;) The designer's dilemma in a nutshell. What really hurts is when you remove a bit of "extraneous" material and you discover that it is actually a supporting strut and a large proportion of the rest of the game comes tumbling down along with it...

jwarrend
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Chat Transcript: Immersive Themes

Scurra wrote:
I'm glad Jeff got in and articulated a lot of my thoughts about the Lord of the Rings game and why it is more themed than the chat seems to imply. However, see my last paragraph below...

Now, onto the real subject ;)
My main feeling is that a lot of the robustness of a game's theme has to do with the design process itself. If you start from a particular premise ("I want to do a Three Musketeers game"), then you disregard ideas that simply aren't appropriate, whilst concentrating on those that are ("So it's got to have duelling".) The result is that quite a few good ideas are probably ignored simply because they are too far outside the theme ("Auctioning the Mission cards would not work") even if they would be better for the "game".

I suspect that most designers find it much easier to have some sort of a theme in mind when they begin to sketch an idea out (even if it is as loose as "how about a Civ-lite game?") What happens then does seem to depend upon how tightly the resulting mechanics evoke the theme - whether the game has become a simulation or whether it is still loose enough that a different genre could be pinned on top without the mechanics feeling wrong.

Thus the prime example in this sort of debate, RA, although it evolved from Knizia wanting to do an epic Egyptian themed game, is quite evidently a theme-light game; there are still some specifically Egyptian related bits, but very litle that couldn't be patched elsewhere.

And, to return to the Lord of the Rings game for a moment, it is clear that although that game has a very tight evocation of the theme, simply because of the cards/event structure, it is also evident that it wouldn't take a huge amount of work to refit it for a different story entirely (I've done this myself somewhere on these forums!)

I think that the key issue here is that there's a difference between the transparency of a theme and the transportability of a game system. Lord of the Rings was clearly built around the LotR theme, and the game works, to my mind, very well as a game that was conceived with that theme in mind. BUT, the game's mechanic could work in other possible stories, though in most cases it would need major rethinking (the corruption track wouldn't work for most books, with only a few exceptions, one of which I'm working on (but in an unrelated way!)).

I think it's what someone else said -- Settlers has a "transportable" theme in the sense that you could be settling just about anything and have the game still work, but I wouldn't say it rises to the level of "transparent" theme, ie, it could just as easily be about hot-air-ballooning or deep-sea-fishing as settling an island.

Perhaps what this calls into question is our ability to effectively "compartmentalize" a game. There are severals levels of specification, and to be honest, I'm not sure it's clear in my mind how to truly distinguish them. A game's "style", "genre", and "theme" may all be different, and this will probably affect whether one considers the game "themed" or not. For example, "Vinci" is loosely a Civ-building game, and it's also a territorial-conquest game. I would say the "theme" there is transparent rather than just transportable, because the game could probably be called "hostile takeover" and be about Wall Street shenanigans as Civ building. But that's because the mechanics are so non-evocative. When I move my pieces, I don't feel that I'm fighting battles or settling the land; the game is very abstract. In contrast, La Citta seems, to me, much more specified and richly themed. Both are "Civ building games", yet La Citta feels to me like there are actually some civ building gameplay decisions -- needing to put my cities near the appropriate resources, needing to provide enough food. So, I'd say at the "genre" level, both "work" -- they're both good games, and good Civ-building games. Yet, La Citta's theme is transportable (because it could be about building a city in ancient China or modern England as equally as ancient Italy (?)) whereas Vinci is more transparent.

Not sure if this is actually a meaningful distinction or just a nuance within an already nuanced subject...

Anonymous
Just a minor point...

Not much in the way of revelation, but I wondered why no one commented on the direct link between highly thematic game design and in game roleplaying.

For instance nobody is going to roleplay in abstract designs like GO or mancala, but you could see some cowboy and indian refernces in BANG! or mafia accents in "Family Business" or wizard hand movement gestures in Magic. If players feel inspired by the theme it adds a certain element to the game that abstract games lack.

I like groups that "get into the game." Themes make that atmoshpere possible and if that's important to you, I'd consider that first before adding a ton of mechanics. Abstract themeless games appeal to more mathmatical people, and thematic games a more emotional audience.

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