Skip to Content

[TiGD] Theme Design

24 replies [Last post]
Zzzzz
Zzzzz's picture
Offline
Joined: 06/20/2008

Since I had previously posted about Thread Research and we seem to have hit a nerve in a recent Controversial Theme thread. I agree with Johan that a TiGD about Theme Design would be interesting, so here it goes (I am just winging this so I hope everyone jumps in with more thoughts and ideas)!

Finding a Theme

There are so many games available these days and just looking at BoardGameGeek.com will show you how vast the Themes span. We have LoTR (by Knizia) to Settlers. There is also Rummy to Puerto Rico.

The realm to which a Theme can be obtained is so vast, we have lore/myth/history, mathematics, day to day real life situations (auctions, building, fads). At the same time many designers can become stuck trying to find that "original" topic.

Where else can we seek a Theme? Can mechanics help to make a common Theme seem original?

Well some simple areas to research for Themes, the web, books (dont forgot about those libraries!). Find people that are interested in the topic you are considering for a Theme, they may have some helpful input.

Amount of Theme/Adding Theme to a Game

Some games contain Themes that are very bold, deep and vivid. Yet some games contain lighweight and minimal amounts of Theme (some games have no Theme).

How do you decide when you have put "enough" Theme into a game? How do you decide when there is not "enough" Theme in a game?

I think integrating Theme into a game, is itself an artform. Taking the various facts about your Theme and brushing them into the mechanics of your game, attempting to reach that "perfect" combination of Theme to mechanics.

How does one go about incorporating Theme ideas in to a game? I use the "piece by piece" method (or at least that is what I will call it). Slowly building the Theme up by using various parts of the info I learn about during the research portion of Finding a Theme.

The amount of Theme a game contains can truely alter the "greatness" of a game. But the catch is, not the quanitity of Theme, but quality. I say quality, since it goes hand and hand with the mechanics of a game. I think adding in aspects of Theme should not crush mechanics, but work to hide the tedious mechanics. You want the Theme to put your players in a state of mind, outside those that focus on rolling a die, flipping a card, etc. But yet the Theme needs to be solid enough to allow for these same mechanics to work.

Keep in mind that you should also bring in enough Theme that "feels right". Again this is the same as artisit expression, you want the Theme to help express something.

Miscellaneous Topics

From another direction, one could argue that Theme is what drives many games to be designed and played.

Do Themes make a game? Would LoTR, by Knizia be if it were to have no Theme associated? Would it be the same if the theme was based upon Star Wars, instead of LoTR? Not sure, maybe.

How important are Themes to a game? To the public? To you as a designer?

I read an article on thegamejournal about a LoTR game session and it was odd to think about Fatty (the hobbit) being part of the game components. As the article mentioned, Fatty was not part of the original questing group of hobbits, why is Fatty in the game box? But this does bring up another point, do you need to be true to a theme? True in the sense of being accurate and how accurate does your version of a Theme need to be?

And that is all I have.....

Anonymous
[TiGD] Theme Design

Great start to an interesting topic. I think many of us begin with the theme (don't have any specific poll number handy, though), which sets the stage for the mechanics to follow.

I think it's interesting that you mtion LotR and a possible Star Wars theme. I think that Knizia's mechanics would work well for nearly any narrative theme since he abstracts the action and the conflicts into base mechanics. It would be easy to change the fighting, hiding, fellowship and movement icons to fighting, piloting, cleverness and force icons. Each scenario would then contain events specific to the Star Wars saga. I'm fairly certain that there are already homemade versions of just such a game.

It's also interesting that you bring up the concept of Fatty in relation to keeping true to a theme. Most themes won't be so specifically confining as a movie or novel. Fatty was clearly tossed in to allow for 5 players to play the game (6 if you have the Sauron expansion). Yes, he's in the books, but he's not as central a part of the game as the other four. But for that matter, the game departs from the book in that all four hobbits stay together where in the books they were separated.

The question goes to the ability of a game to be a fluid set of interlocking mechanics that fit well with the theme that is applied (or used as a basis). Whether the theme comes first or is added later matters little so long as the end result is a cohesive whole. I for one tend to find a theme first and then set about adding mechanics to fit the theme. The result is that the set of mechanics, though reflecting the theme well, often tend to be less interlocking and streamlined as I would like. I spend about as much time reworking and fine tuning the mechanics as someone who has a streamlined set of mechanics may spend finding just the right theme.

When is there enough theme? Good question! I suppose that the theme would have to be flexible and limmited enough to allow the mechanics to be streamlined. The mechanics should not be constrained by the theme (a game in which the four hobbits function only as they did in the books would be too cumbersone and limiting). On the other hand, the mechanics cannot be so unrelated to the theme that it feels more like a costume hat tossed on for effect.

Again, great topic! I'm looking forward to other replies!

Anonymous
theme

My themes shape their mechanics. Call me 'old school' for believing that having a theme often means sorting out some sort of simulation, even if it is abstractly.

LoTR theme is movement across the boards, how would one simulate them? Well play cards to move in this instance.

Simulate corruption? Move the pawn down a darkening track and Sauron's Eye. This doesn't make you "feel" corrupted (boy wouldn't it be great to create a design so great that it did...) but does simulate it in a tangible way that can be 'understood'.

Pasted on themes are in the eye of the beholder. Carrcosonee has one laying tiles - now one doesn't normally "install ground" but it "makes sense" that a farmer can do some terraforming to create fields. Or in other games the concept of building is done through laying a tile.

So abstract games with no theme are okay too, because they aren't -taking Gipf (for example) and saying that they represent animals that you have to get in formation for the county fare, which wouldn't really "feel right" unless one made the pieces look like animals, and made the board look like a field or pen AND country fare's actually had such an event in the first place.

Just don't try to make the game something it isn't, and it'll all work out.

GeminiWeb
Offline
Joined: 07/31/2008
[TiGD] Theme Design

Great topic!

How much theme?

Depends on the type of game to some extent.

For a light (strategy-wise) game, enough theme to have a bit of fun ... such as putting on a good pirate's accent while playing Pirates Cove.

Generally, I prefer the theme also helps clarify the goal for the players, be it building settlements and cities in Settlers of Catan, gaining fame in Pirates Cove or the balance between shipping goods back to the old world and building a viable colony in Puerto Rico.

If broad strategies can be inferenced from the theme, so that a player who is new to the game can intuit a broad strategy based on the theme, I think that's good too.

However, forcing the mechanics to follow the theme too closely will often result in a game which is more of a simulation and will be suboptimal in areas such as 'fun' and 'gameplay' (e.g. agonising decisions). Thus, a real talent seems to be when to deviate from the theme and by how much.

Also, if you get caught up too much with the theme, I suspect it will generally be more difficult to find those innovative mechanics which make your game special.

- Bill

Trickydicky
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
[TiGD] Theme Design

I usually start with a theme, abstract as they may be, and then build from there. The theme is important because it helps me decide what the player's goals are, and what problems they will face while trying to reach those goals.

As a player of games I think the theme is most important in its marketing appeal. I know what themes I'm interested in and those are the kind of games I usually look at in the store and therefore buy.

A great game that has the right amount of theme in it is "History of the World". The theme helps drive the game forward during play and it also intrigues player's after playing. I personally have looked up information on many of the empires in that game after playing. This information was not needed in the game, and by leaving it out it made me want to do some research into the theme myself. That is a good goal for any theme, I think. Does anyone agree?

Quote:
Can mechanics help to make a common Theme seem original?

I think that when it boils down to it the mechanics are really what counts. For instance there are a million history based board games, especially war games. But I, or you like specific ones, not based on theme, but on mechanics and gameplay.

Quote:
How do you decide when you have put "enough" Theme into a game?

This will sound like a dumb answer, but when the game stops being fun, quit with the theme. If the amount of theme in a game isn't adding to the game's fun, I would think it is too much. A post on the Controversial thread said something similar. Does your theme (amount) improve the game?

Anonymous
[TiGD] Theme Design

Greg Schloesser once used a term I like--- "theme deficit".

A game's theme should add to its abstract mechanics, by creating another layer to the experience. So, in Mamma Mia, collecting sets of coloured cards is enhanced by the idea they are ingredients and the objectives are cooked pizzas. In Alhambra, it is easy to understand a wall surrounding a palce than an abstract perimeter surrounding your squares of different colours.

However, "theme deficit" is when a theme actually detracts from a game by being so unconnected to the game that it merely highlights a game's abstract nature. I think you can get away with a hell of a lot before this is a problem, but Greg pointed out that the Bridges of Shangr-La (a game I don't actually know) entered theme deficit by choosing that background and then having a game of cuthroat competition, rather than peaceful co-existence.

I guess some element if quite personal. People often criticise Lost Cities for a weak theme, but I find the idea of pushing on through the explored environment, passing over chances to study in favour of progress towards greater knowledge, works fine. The increasing zoom of the illustrations towards the expedition's gaol really aids this.

Johan
Johan's picture
Offline
Joined: 10/05/2008
[TiGD] Theme Design

Is the theme important or…

As I see it: All games consist of four equally important cornerstones:
- Theme
- Mechanism
- Goal
- Art and component design (including artwork, types of components, naming…)

The mechanism and the goal will make the game to work. The art with make the game playable. The theme and art will make the game alive.
A game can work without a theme or the art but the can makes a huge difference:

Example:
Exchange the words mechanism
I try to remove your Black (5) with my Red (2). I have 2 dice with +1. Then I move my Green (1) pawn to the line between your black (3) pawn and the Black square.
With
I attack you Black Dragon with my Fire Wizard. I have 2 attack with a +1 strange. Then I move my Woodsmen to block the road between your Chaos knights and the "Source of evil".

// Johan

jwarrend
Offline
Joined: 08/03/2008
[TiGD] Theme Design

I think there’s a distinction between “theme” and “simulation” that is causing a mild bit of confusion. The question “how much theme is enough?” is not, to me at least, well-defined. The real question is “how much simulation is enough” -- how many aspects of the theme are you trying to evoke? What level of detail are you trying to recreate? The answer depends entirely on the design goals, but I think that since most of us tend to go “theme-first”, we’re more likely to try to incorporate more aspects of the theme than the game system needs or can accomodate. I know for myself that it’s sometimes tough to let go of thematic mechanics that evoke an aspect of the theme that I wanted to bring out. But, you have to be brutal, as playability is the ultimate aim. A key indicator of a superfluous mechanic is when you have to add special rules just to accomodate that element. When you start reworking the game just to incorporate a non-essential mechanic, that’s a good sign that you’re too far off into simulation land.

Another thing I see in game development is a tendency to rely on the “chrome” to give the game its theme. For example, perhaps I’m making a game about playing pranks in high school, and I have a bunch of cards that say “Wet willie” and “purple nurple”, etc, and the idea is to drop the cards on the other people. Now, this game really doesn’t have an ounce of theme -- it just has some cards with text that correspond to the theme I’m trying to evoke. It’s a shallow sell. Much better, to me, is to let the theme inform the decisions that you’re presenting the players with. And this, I think, is where “theme-first” really shines, because you can look at the theme as a source of decisions. Whenever I start with a themed game, I always think, “what would someone in this situation have to choose between? What are the sources of tension?” So the “high school pranks” game, were I to design it, would have to start not from “what pranks should be in the game?” -- that doesn’t matter yet; rather, the question would be “what kinds of decisions flow from pulling pranks on other kids?” Maybe it’s “risk-reward” -- the more difficult pranks are more rewarding; or maybe giving the Principal a wedgie is worth more than the class clown, etc.

What I’m getting at here is a concept that I call “theme specificity”. When I’m designing or playing a game, to be “well-themed”, I want the mechanics to really call to mind the theme of the game and to exclude other themes. That could arise from the mechanics themselves -- for example, a game about art auctions with an auction mechanic is off to a good start -- or from the “feel” of the game -- for example, I consider LotR to be the best-themed game I’ve ever played, not because the mechanics are a “simulation” of LotR, but because the “feel” of the game is so immersive and so accurate with respect to what I see in the books. Theme specificity doesn’t mean that the game’s mechanics couldn’t work with any other theme; it simply means that they were clearly chosen with the game’s theme in mind. What you don’t want in a “well-themed” game is a feeling that it could just as easily be about anything else. I’ve heard about or seen so many games that boil down to “competing for the best [whatever] in [X] different categories”, but the bottom line for all of the games boils down to just getting cards with numbers on them, or occupying the most territory or whatever. That’s not to say that those games are necessarily bad (indeed, my favorite game is “Web of Power”, which I would say is quite weakly themed), so much as that for a well-themed game, the theme must be organically intertwined with the mechanics.

And extending that point, I think it’s always best when the game’s mechanics bring out the theme. For example, an exploration game with a tile-flipping mechanic. But that’s not always practical. With my Disciples game, players variously perform actions like “showing compassion” or “healing”. Now, I couldn’t really find a way for the mechanics to actually simulate those kinds of actions, so at some level, I had to settle for “chrome”. However, I still feel that the overall game is well-themed, and theme-specific, because of the scoring systems and sources of tension and such. But what I’m getting at is that what makes “roll and move and do what the space says” games so unsatisfying is because the text doesn’t correlate at all to what you’re doing. A good example is the Chance cards in Monopoly; you draw one, and it says “Perform a wedding, receive $15”. But I didn’t *really* do anything remotely like performing a wedding. It’s a phantom theme element. Whenever possible, it’s far better to have mechanics that relate to the actions that you’re simulating. Which isn’t to say that Monopoly needs a “marriage officiation” mechanic, as that this card, and all the cards, add precisely nothing to the theme of Monopoly. And I think we commonly settle for not much more than that; any heavily card-driven game where the cards describe “actions” that you’re taking is prone to this.

The other thing that I think is really useful about good theming is that it gives opportunities for unique scoring systems. While I think we all rely on VP systems, it’s really useful to think in terms of “now, what in this theme should someone be rewarded for?” Trying to think outside the box with this can give some unique ways of achieving VPs, and again, that’s why I think it’s so important not to settle for things like “the player with the most [whatever] in each category gets [however many] points”. Games that rely on trying to dominate four or five different categories are a dime a dozen. Let’s push harder to let our themes guide our selection of victory point-gaining mechanisms, and our games will be more original and more enjoyable as a result!

-Jeff

Trickydicky
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
[TiGD] Theme Design

I agree with just about everything jwarren said. In fact while reading his post I couldn't help but think of a few of my games that seem to have aspects not following the theme. This brought me to a question.

At what point is it ok for a mechanic to not fully support your theme? i.e. Jeff's Disciples game and the acts.

Obviously, if the game is not playable without the mechanic it either has to stay or a new mechanic must be found that fits into the theme. How long should that search for a viable option inside the theme last? One of my game ideas "Domestica" (see housewives thread in game design) has an entire game stage, the auction stage, that doesn't really fit the theme. But I don't like any of the alternatives I or other members have thought of. At some point you just have to say well this is the only mechanic that works, whether it pastes on the theme or not, i.e. Disciples. When is that point reached.

Another option for the above mentioned question, is to actually keep the mechanics and find a new theme that fits them. This seems a little more difficult to me, since most of my games start as a theme so most if not all of the mechanics stem from that theme. Should we scrap a theme for a game simply because one or two of the many mechanics does not quite fit, though the others do? Seems kind of rash, but if a new theme could be found that fits all the mechanics perhaps it is for the best. What do ya'll think?

Anonymous
not sure about the making rules for... comment

I'm not sure I agree about the comment on making special rules to make a mechanic fit (wish I quoted it).

For instance if he has to heal a character and instead of a card that says "heal 1" and have the life points as simply life points (maybe you keep track of health just as a number on some scrap paper), one can theme the rules around having "body essentials" or something that represents your life, or even if the total is 4 life points, having ones health shown in cards as the "blocks of life" or "levels of health" (picture a pyramid with 4 sections) and you have to play the specific health card to complete your pyramid to be in full health (hope that was described properly).

It may sound fiddly, but in the context of healing it could go a long way to help the theming of the game, while not doing much more than having the player keep the health card in front of them, instead of turning over a dice, or moving a counter or whatever.

Or if you have a picture of a person and you add and take off wound makers.

BANG! is an example of what I'm trying to put across. The bullets on the back of the card represent how many health points you have, which I think went a long way to show the theme and was more interesting than having a player just add or subtract a chit as they get shot or heal.

jwarrend
Offline
Joined: 08/03/2008
Re: not sure about the making rules for... comment

jjacy1 wrote:
I'm not sure I agree about the comment on making special rules to make a mechanic fit (wish I quoted it).

For instance if he has to heal a character and instead of a card that says "heal 1" and have the life points as simply life points ...

It may sound fiddly, but in the context of healing it could go a long way to help the theming of the game

I may not have explained myself clearly; I wasn't talking so much about adding a "themed" or "simulation" element to make a mechanic easier to understand -- indeed, as Richard said, the main function of theming is to make the game's mechanics easy to learn.

What I'm talking about is something more like this: you have a game where players are exploring a jungle (say). And you've come up with the cool healing mechanic you described, and want to include it in the game. But now, you need to add a mechanic whereby players can take "damage" in the first place. And then maybe you need to add "weapons" so the players can wound one another. But then you need to add "range" restrictions, and tracking how many bullets you've used, etc.

Maybe you'd truncate it somewhere earlier in the process, but the point I'm making is sometimes, trying to "force" a mechanic for its thematic desirability forces you to include other mechanics that previously weren't present in the game. That's when I think it's time to rethink that thematic mechanic; all of the mechanics in a game should interlock. PR is the crowning achievement of this -- there isn't a single superfluous system in the game. Many games do this well. But I think that designing "theme-first", it's easy to have a situation where you really want a system in there to simulate something, but it ends up making the game more clunky.

-Jeff

Anonymous
gotcha...

It's always the balance between intentions and results with theme.

english
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
Theme

Okay I know this is an old thread but I'm new and thought I'd add a little point to it.

The importance of theme may also vary depending on your target market.

If you're aiming at a younger age group of players then some form of story or character is often needed to 'hook' the players imaginations.

The older we get the easier it is for us to play on an abstract level without the need for heavy back story.

I love games like Mancala, go and chess, which I'd say work on a heavily abstract level compared to say - Payday, which my sister loved in her pre to early teens. (I have to admit I enjoy games like Payday too - they're much easier on the mind).

I don't imagine getting kids to 'buy into' games like Othello compared to Payday is that easy.

That's actually got me thinking now, how do sales of abstract games compare to more theme based games in any given year?

And what is the size of the relative markets?

Marketing spend?

hmmm - anybody know a research bod?

:-)

Carl

Velociryx
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
[TiGD] Theme Design

I was a writer before I was a game designer, and so, for me, theme is...well, maybe not everything, but pretty doggone close!

First and foremost, I like tellin' stories in one form or another, and IMO, creating a game is like creating a shell...a "choose your own adventure" story, but in board/card/something game format.

So Theme and Premise are very closely related in my designs, and from these, the mechanical aspects are arrived at. Again, IMO, this is the "truest" form of design. You could do it the other way. Establish some mechanics and then "bolt on" a story to the framework, but in the vast majority of cases, you'll get exactly that. A "Bolted on" feel to the game, which in most cases, defeats the whole purpose of putting the theme element in place to begin with.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the same spectrum, when you pay homage to theme and premise, the game itself comes together rather easily and naturally, because the overall thrust of the game is so vibrant and alive that the game winds up telling YOU what it needs to be adequately expressed to the players. So long as you listen to what the theme/premise is trying to tell you, you'll wind up with something engaging*.

-=Vel=-
* HOW engaging is a function of the interest/entertainment value of the theme/premise you selected to work with...admittedly, if you tried to design a game around the nutritional value of cow patties, you would find yourself with a...shall we say, rather limited body of material to work with....or perhaps a copious AMOUNT of material...all of it smelly and dank. ;)

-v.

Willi_B
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
[TiGD] Theme Design

I try to stay within theme as much as possible.

If I worked for a company, I would be living under deadline and would make more compromises as limited by my creativity to come up with something that worked AND stayed within the theme.

I think I can be inspired by theme or mechanic, and my designs reflect both, so I am no slave to either but try to honor both.

Shellhead
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
Re: theme

jjacy1 wrote:

Simulate corruption? Move the pawn down a darkening track and Sauron's Eye. This doesn't make you "feel" corrupted (boy wouldn't it be great to create a design so great that it did...) but does simulate it in a tangible way that can be 'understood'.

This is a very interesting topic, and I agree with the majority of the posts in this thread, in that I think that theme should come first. So I don't have much to add, except in regard to the quote above. The pawn on the darkening track is a simple and visual way to represent corruption and works well for that game. But an alternative that might make a player *feel* the corruption would have been a corruption value on player cards. In other words, you can't play this card unless your character is more/less corrupt than this numeric value. By closing down options, it would restrict the character's behavior to more or less corrupt activities, depending on the current level of corruption.

clearclaw
clearclaw's picture
Offline
Joined: 07/21/2008
Re: [TiGD] Theme Design

Zzzzz wrote:
How important are Themes to a game? To the public? To you as a designer?

I've observed that the more casual the players in a gaming group are about gaming, the more theme will matter. Conversely, the more dedicated the players in a group are to gaming, especially competitive gaming, the less theme will matter. In fact locally in two of the more gamer-based groups that I play with, there seems to be a trait to apologise for mentioning a theme more than passingly when teaching a game. There seems to be the unstated implication that theme-importance is uncouth. This is somewhat amusing as we very rarely ever play abstract or otherwise unthemed games.

clearclaw
clearclaw's picture
Offline
Joined: 07/21/2008
[TiGD] Theme Design

Johan wrote:
Exchange the words mechanism
I try to remove your Black (5) with my Red (2). I have 2 dice with +1. Then I move my Green (1) pawn to the line between your black (3) pawn and the Black square.
With
I attack you Black Dragon with my Fire Wizard. I have 2 attack with a +1 strange. Then I move my Woodsmen to block the road between your Chaos knights and the "Source of evil".

For me the two are quite equal except that the second would be easier to teach (like all good theme choices, it provides convenient nouns and adjectives). The first descriptions matches how I'd think about the game while playing.

clearclaw
clearclaw's picture
Offline
Joined: 07/21/2008
Re: not sure about the making rules for... comment

jjacy1 wrote:
BANG! is an example of what I'm trying to put across. The bullets on the back of the card represent how many health points you have, which I think went a long way to show the theme and was more interesting than having a player just add or subtract a chit as they get shot or heal.

This really doesn't seem to be an example of theme, but rather of graphic design cleverly supporting both game mechanics and theme. Many other representations could have been used, such as a simple scoring track, tokens, cards or whatever without changing the game mechanics at all.

Shellhead
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
Re: [TiGD] Theme Design

clearclaw wrote:
Zzzzz wrote:
How important are Themes to a game? To the public? To you as a designer?

I've observed that the more casual the players in a gaming group are about gaming, the more theme will matter. Conversely, the more dedicated the players in a group are to gaming, especially competitive gaming, the less theme will matter. In fact locally in two of the more gamer-based groups that I play with, there seems to be a trait to apologise for mentioning a theme more than passingly when teaching a game. There seems to be the unstated implication that theme-importance is uncouth. This is somewhat amusing as we very rarely ever play abstract or otherwise unthemed games.

Your observation is interesting, but it only matches my experience with gamers who play nothing but boardgames. I play a variety of types of games with roughly 1/3 of my gaming time spent on rpgs, ccgs, and boardgames each. And I play with a variety of gamers, including role-players, larpers, boardgamers, and cardgamers, and most of these players play multiple types of games, except for the hardcore larpers and the hardcore boardgamers. In fact, even the published boardgame designers that I know personally (I live near Atlas Games and Fantasy Flight Games) tend to play more than just boardgames.

Of all those gamers that I know, everybody really appreciates theme except for the hardcore boardgamers. I don't hang out with wargamers these days, but back in the day, even those guys were very focused on theme, often preferring one specific period of history to the exclusion of others.

As for calling certain players "casual gamers", I think that your perspective may be skewed. When somebody spends a whole day sorting cards and building a deck, or searching thrift shops for character costume accesories, or researching clues for a historical rpg adventure, that is hardly casual behavior by any social norm. Those players may not be competitive boardgamers, but their dedication goes beyond casual.

jwarrend
Offline
Joined: 08/03/2008
Re: [TiGD] Theme Design

clearclaw wrote:

I've observed that the more casual the players in a gaming group are about gaming, the more theme will matter. Conversely, the more dedicated the players in a group are to gaming, especially competitive gaming, the less theme will matter.

What do you mean when you talk about the amount by which theme "matters"? I think what you mean is something like "I don't care whether the game is about ancient Parthia or modern Guatemala or mythical Atlantis, as long as the mechanics are interesting" and perhaps also "while I am playing the game, I don't conciously 'immerse' myself in the theme or 'role-play'". Is that close to what you are trying to say?

If so, I think it's unhelpful to locate the discussion in a dichotomy between casual and dedicated players; it's probably not as universal as you suggest, and it risks coming off as snobbish.

I think that if nothing else, as a designer, theming is tremendously helpful at inspiring new mechanics and sources of tension. That's not to say it isn't possible to come up with good mechanics in the abstract, but I find themes can be helpful in that they can inherently bundle a couple of mechanics together. That's something I struggle with when I come up with a mechanic in isolation -- "now what other systems should the game have to make it interesting?"

As a game player, I would probably mostly agree with the above two statements that I hypothetically attributed to you, although theme selection does influence my interest in trying out a game. Call it a weakness, but I'd just rather play a game about a subject that interests me than about something "dry" like "programming a VCR" or "doing your taxes". No matter how good everyone assures me the mechanics are, I just can't muster an ounce of interest to try a game like "Ad Acta". I also don't particularly care that much about role playing -- eg, talking in a pirate voice when playing a pirate game -- but I do appreciate a game where the theme, mechanics, and components are all integrated to produce a nice coherent atmosphere.

-Jeff

Scurra
Scurra's picture
Offline
Joined: 09/11/2008
Re: [TiGD] Theme Design

Shellhead wrote:
I play a variety of types of games with roughly 1/3 of my gaming time spent on rpgs, ccgs, and boardgames each. And I play with a variety of gamers, including role-players, larpers, boardgamers, and cardgamers, and most of these players play multiple types of games, except for the hardcore larpers and the hardcore boardgamers.
Interestingly, my experience has been the opposite (with a similar sort of time-split.) The one group who don't seem to want to play anything else are the hardcore CCGers. Then again, the hardcore LARPers I hang out with are social LARPers rather than the "rubber sword" brigade.

As for whether theme matters? For most of the gamers I know, it's the quality of the game that matters. I agree that it is harder to get people to buy into a purely abstract game, but there aren't a lot of multi-player abstracts that don't have some thin veneer of theme on them. (Two-player abstracts are a different thing entirely.)
But as with Jeff, if the theme is deliberately off-putting then it probably doesn't matter how solid the game is. So I guess it does matter in the end...

clearclaw
clearclaw's picture
Offline
Joined: 07/21/2008
Re: [TiGD] Theme Design

jwarrend wrote:
clearclaw wrote:

I've observed that the more casual the players in a (Euro/German/Designer) gaming group are about gaming, the more theme will matter (to them). Conversely, the more dedicated the players in a (Euro/German/Designer gaming) group are to gaming, especially competitive gaming, the less theme will matter (to them).

What do you mean when you talk about the amount by which theme "matters"?

I've added some parenthetical clarifications to my quoted text above which should help. In short my observation is that for Euro/German/Designer games, theme is more important to causal gamers than it is to more hardcore gamers.

Quote:
I think what you mean is something like "I don't care whether the game is about ancient Parthia or modern Guatemala or mythical Atlantis, as long as the mechanics are interesting" and perhaps also "while I am playing the game, I don't conciously 'immerse' myself in the theme or 'role-play'". Is that close to what you are trying to say?

Only partly. It is a question of primacy during game selection, not during play. I'm really looking at the level to which the players consider theme to be important or not in deciding what games to play and their retrospectioves on those games, not how they treat theme once they are playing. For instance among casual gamers the question "Is that an XYZ theme game?", perhaps followed by "I don't really want to play any XYZ theme games." is in character for casual gamers. At this level Ticket to Ride is a train game because it has a picture of a train on the cover and theme is often the primary concern. Conversely a more dedicated gamer tends to focus on mechanics with theme being a merely supplemental or faintly supporting item. They ask first about mechanics, "Is that an auction game? Pick Up and Deliver game? Blind bidding game? Negotation game? Route building game? etc" and accept and expect answers phrased in those terms. At this level Ticket to Ride is a Rummy variant or a set collecting card game. "I don't really want to play any negotiation games tonight!"

Quote:
If so, I think it's unhelpful to locate the discussion in a dichotomy between casual and dedicated players...

How you handle theme seems central to deciding on which audience you design for and market your game to. There's a scale there (perhaps more than one), and thus choices to be made. The lighter the desired audience (in gaming terms), and especially the younger it is, the greater the apparent rewards and interest in thick themes. The more gamery the audience the less important theme seems to be. Another contrast might be that at one end games tend to be "cool" and at the other "interesting", but that seems more reflective of social contexts and group language.

Quote:
...it's probably not as universal as you suggest, and it risks coming off as snobbish.

I can't claim universality, merely what I observe, and that is obviously strongly self-selected. As for snobbish? Sure, if you want. Or not. It hardly seems to apply as a concern in any useful way.

Quote:
I think that if nothing else, as a designer, theming is tremendously helpful at inspiring new mechanics and sources of tension. That's not to say it isn't possible to come up with good mechanics in the abstract, but I find themes can be helpful in that they can inherently bundle a couple of mechanics together. That's something I struggle with when I come up with a mechanic in isolation -- "now what other systems should the game have to make it interesting?"

Conversely I find theme distracting and invasive while working on a game design. I find it much easier to work on raw mechanics along with a theme du jour and then every so often (or more often) throw out the current theme and put a new one on for size. The themes are picked to support the already chosen mechanics, and then discarded and replaced because they no longer quite fit the new mechanics or some other choice of theme is somehow more interesting or suggestive...until it too is replaced. For example one game started out without a name with a vague theme idea of conflicting tunnel building insects, and then got moved to competing the Mongol tribes shortly after the time of Tammerlane (and named Pax Mongolica), and then rethemed to tree roots IIRC (no name, just the idea of chemical warfare among competing root systems), and then rethemed to the late era Viking trade empire across the northern Altlantic, and then rethemed to the Varangian Guard of Constantinople (and named Varangian Guard: The road to Constantinople), and has just had that theme peeled off with several others now trying it on for size. Each change was driven by some addition or change of mechanics that I thought interesting. Through all of this the game has always remained a fairly simple middle-weight route-building area-control and auction game.

Obviously and quite rightly, people vary widely on this area.

Quote:
As a game player, I would probably mostly agree with the above two statements that I hypothetically attributed to you, although theme selection does influence my interest in trying out a game. Call it a weakness, but I'd just rather play a game about a subject that interests me than about something "dry" like "programming a VCR" or "doing your taxes". No matter how good everyone assures me the mechanics are, I just can't muster an ounce of interest to try a game like "Ad Acta". I also don't particularly care that much about role playing -- eg, talking in a pirate voice when playing a pirate game -- but I do appreciate a game where the theme, mechanics, and components are all integrated to produce a nice coherent atmosphere.

I'll confess, I find Ad Acta fascinating. The game just /sounds/ interesting to me. Timing. Logistics. Hand management (not usually a biggie for me). Time and sorting sequences. High prediction/control. Lots of player interaction. All sorts of manipulateable equilibria in there! I'm adding this one to my interested list now. Andrea Meyer is quite a quirky designer -- Mall World was also an interesting collision of decision types.

clearclaw
clearclaw's picture
Offline
Joined: 07/21/2008
Re: [TiGD] Theme Design

Shellhead wrote:
As for calling certain players "casual gamers", I think that your perspective may be skewed. When somebody spends a whole day sorting cards and building a deck, or searching thrift shops for character costume accesories, or researching clues for a historical rpg adventure, that is hardly casual behavior by any social norm. Those players may not be competitive boardgamers, but their dedication goes beyond casual.

That's a good point. Casual is the wrong term. Your point on boardgamer-exclusive is also good but I think too narrow. I'm wondering now if it is a tautology. Many of the players I'm considering as models are card game players with example representative games being Bridge, Skat, Poker, Whist, Hearts, Euchre, Canasta, Mu & Mehr, Tichu, Schnappen Jagd, Sticheln, etc and/or also boardgamers who primarily play Euro/German/Designer games and very frequently strongly select for Reiner Knizia designs (ie very thinly themed abstracts). ie They're already abstract game players, just abstract game players who play games with a thin frisson of theme. We shouldn't be surprised if they don't value theme highly.

disclamer
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
Re: [TiGD] Theme Design

clearclaw wrote:
Conversely I find theme distracting and invasive while working on a game design. I find it much easier to work on raw mechanics along with a theme du jour and then every so often (or more often) throw out the current theme and put a new one on for size. The themes are picked to support the already chosen mechanics, and then discarded and replaced because they no longer quite fit the new mechanics or some other choice of theme is somehow more interesting or suggestive...until it too is replaced. For example one game started out without a name with a vague theme idea of conflicting tunnel building insects, and then got moved to competing the Mongol tribes shortly after the time of Tammerlane (and named Pax Mongolica), and then rethemed to tree roots IIRC (no name, just the idea of chemical warfare among competing root systems), and then rethemed to the late era Viking trade empire across the northern Altlantic, and then rethemed to the Varangian Guard of Constantinople (and named Varangian Guard: The road to Constantinople), and has just had that theme peeled off with several others now trying it on for size. Each change was driven by some addition or change of mechanics that I thought interesting. Through all of this the game has always remained a fairly simple middle-weight route-building area-control and auction game.

It makes me wonder why you even bother with a theme at all before the mechanics are finished. ;)

Perhaps working with a theme provides a frame of reference upon which to base your choice and manipulation of the game mechanisms? It seems to me a viable theme is important to your game design process; enough so that, once the mechanisms have evolved beyond the scope of the existing thematic framework, a new framework must be constructed to ensure game remains externally coherent.

My game design process is almost always informed by the theme I've chosen--or more often, the theme which has chosen me. Only once has a game mechanism come before the game, and that, only just; in a serendipitous bit of web surfing, I stumbled across an interesting game theory experiment that immediately suggested a game based on events in the novel I was reading at the time.

Of course, game theory seeks to model human decision making behavior, so no one should really be surprised when life imitates game theory. :)

My most recent game is inspired by a historical "gaming" of the marketplace in Pisa, Italy. In Renaissance-era Pisa, trade ships were owned by the local government. The right to rent the ships was auctioned to local merchants, who then sold space on the ships to their fellow merchants. The auction was timed; at first by a one-hour candle, but later by the locally audible chiming of a clock tower in a nearby town when the city fathers found the merchants waiting until the candle was beginning to gutter before bidding, so as to keep the selling price low.

Reading about something like that, I can't help but try to devise a game to model it. Naturally, the game would center around a timed auction, but how do you make the end-point uncertain? I had no interest in using electronics or mechanical timers, so another method had to be devised. Another concern was what to do with the ship, once it was auctioned--ideally, the players will have goods to ship now that one has access to a boat, but how do they get the goods? I made a crude mock-up to test some basic mechanism ideas and my playtesters made a lot of suggestions ("give it up" "this game sucks"). A number of playtests and mock-ups later, I've got a working game with a decent prototype that, I think, nicely fits my original theme idea. Yay, me!

Maybe I'm lucky enough to be inspired by the obvious stuff (so, it's an auction game that models a real-life auction? how clever..) or maybe most of my ideas never get to the "this game sucks" stage, but I find having an interesting theme to explore really makes the design process fun and challenging, even if the games do not always turn out that way.

Syndicate content


forum | by Dr. Radut