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Importance of Theme (or Do I really need a theme)

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JoeC
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Joined: 07/14/2011

Hi folks of BGDF. I am knew her. And though I have been tinkering with games all my life, I am just getting to the point of completing a fully functioning game.

I was wondering how important you think a theme is to a game, and specifically in what ways are theme's important. As a designer, I find I am a little more focused on mechanics than themes and wonder if it is better to have no theme at all or try to tack a theme on to a game built originally around the mechanics.

Any thoughts?

truekid games
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From a design perspective,

From a design perspective, you want a theme that clicks well with the mechanics so that people can mnemonically process the rules- both the first time they're learning, and when they pick up or teach the game again in the future. Lowering the barrier to entry is almost always a good thing. Also, if it's a theme that players enjoy, they'll tend to be more emotionally invested in the game from the outset. Theme can also set player expectations for what -type- of game it is, so when done correctly, they will not feel "let down" if a game is light/heavy/luck-based/brain-burning/etc.

From a marketing perspective, people will pick up a box because of a theme. People will rarely pick up a box because of abstractness. The same can be said for actually getting people to try a game for the first time.

3ddevine
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My brain works the opposite

My brain works the opposite most times, I come up with a theme and then try and figure out how to build a game around it :)

I think having a theme really depends on what your mechanics are. If your making an abtract game like Phase-10 or checkers or something, you don't really need much a theme, but if you have some sort of battle mechanic in mind then 2 colored shapes battleing it out itsn't really going to cut it for most people.

I personally feel that you can put almost any theme over almost any mechanic, The Simpsons has been "themed" over almost everything out there, Simpsons Chess, Clue, Monopoly, Life ect. I also agree with truekid that when choosing a theme you do have to realize that it will be judged initially on that theme alone by most people, if you have an amazing western themed game with flawless mechanics, there will be some people who dont like westerns & will move on before they even try it.

Not sure if that helped any, Im pretty sure im just rambling.

Louard
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Yes

I it's a yes or no question, I say yes.. Yes find a theme.. Heck post the gist of the game here on the board and ask people to help come up with a suitable theme.

As mentioned above, the theme can really help cement the rules in people's minds and, personally helps immerse me into the game and inform my decisions by giving them context.

In some cases, the theme can be quite tacked on, but even in games for which this is true, I'm always glad there IS a theme. I love Ra The Dice Game, for instance, and it's theme very thinly hides its mechanisms, but I'm glad it's there and it does give you good terminology and iconography for learning to play.

JoeC
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Abstract Game

Well I am kicking around about four game ideas right now.

Of the two I have proto-typed one of them is themeless. It is a game where the players attempt to acquire cards from a tableau by rolling dice with symbols on them and constructing the right pattern of symbols. The players have a grid to fill in with the cards of differing colors and point values.

That's the one I really have no theme for at all.

Louard
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OH MY GOD!!

I can hardly believe it.. Literally the day I replied to your post I had an idea for a game where you gather cards that have Yahtzee style dice hands on them in order to get points and form sets.. And You know what I thought? I thought, "Hey, isn't that funny? I just wrote about the importance of theme to me and I just thought up a theme less game!"

So.. no suggestion.. but just had to point out the irony and the coincidence!

larienna
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Personally, I find the theme

Personally, I find the theme extremely important because this is what make sure the game makes sense. The goal of the game is to give the user an experience, and when you have no theme it's hard for the user to know what kind of experience he is going to get.

On my point of view, it you cannot design a theme that makes sense with the mechanics of the game, keep it abstract.

I also wrote an article some times ago about the relation between theme, Mechanics and experience. It can be found here.

http://bgd.lariennalibrary.com/index.php?n=DesignArticle.Article20090421...

rob50ert
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Joined: 06/01/2011
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I, think it depends entirely upon your game. If it is a generic game like checkers or Chinese checkers, no problem. just make it functional. If, as in my case, it is a take off of some other type of subject, (football), where the ascetics are established, then your recognition of those existing ascetics, will cause more folks to identify with the game as being part of the existing vernacular. This has its good side and it's bad. Those interested in the vernacular, will be drawn to your game, those who don't like the subject will be kept away unless they are forced to play by their friends, and then find out it is fun.

Robert

JoeC
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Joined: 07/14/2011
Haha funny

Funny. That is very much like the game I am working on. And I think I will let it go without a theme. The others are themed and I don't think anything would really fit this. I feel like I would be just shoehorning it on the game.

Aquilius
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Joined: 04/08/2011
Regional predilections

It could just be my imagination but it seems like some game themes are bound to fly in one country or region while the same theme will crash and burn in another.
Take the US for example. These days they, who still measure stuff with their feet and stones, have a very strong predilection for all things zombie, alien, magic and weird war II. To combine these topics seems a sure way to create a winner on that side of the pond. Compare that to German style games, also called Euro games. These are better suited to an international audience of all ages and genders but they generally steer well clear of the direct conflict and player elimination found in Ameritrash. On the one hand I'm convinced there is no one size fits all game theme. But on the other hand there is much to learn by looking at the themes of these Euro games. Who would be outraged when faced by a game themed on ruling a medieval kingdom?

I once made the mistake of buying a game based simply on the good reviews and ratings it received from USers, "Betrayal at House on the Hill" and learnt the theme lesson the hard way. Zombies and aliens may be a popular theme in the US, but this side people are wondering what mental patient came up with that nonsense.

Not that we aren't too crazy this side either: I'd probably make a killing if I publish a good Rugby or Cricket boardgame.

heavyrocks
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Aquilius, not all American

Aquilius, not all American gamers are cheeseburger-gobbling, zombie-fetish zombies. Although, I will agree most of our popular culture has the consistency of industrial run-off. You do bring up a good point though:

Know your audience.

What kind of gamers are you attracting? If you're after more cerebral gamers, and your game is about subtle strategy (Go, Chess...), then the theme may not be as important, as abstract concepts will totally fly if the game looks vaguely interesting in some other way. (Although Chess does have a theme: Medieval battle superimposed on tokens with specific movement algorithms.) If you're looking to attract 13-year-olds or cheeseburglars, extraterrestrial robo-zombies is definitely the way to go.

Like any art form, a game must be made, not only to indulge your own creativity, but to captivate an audience. Really specific themes like ET Robo-Zomb will satiate a specific demographic, but can lose a large portion. Whereas something vague like Chess can be more universally accepted, but may lose the ADD generation.

No matter what, the theme must fit seamlessly with the mechanics of the game. If Chess had a farming theme, no one would play it.

Rocconteur
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Theme is very important!

Theme to me is very important - its the pitch, the one sentence elevator pitch that draws in a possible buyer.

Also: you may have the best mechanic ever, but if it clashes with the theme, people won't buy it.

Case in point: I have a game I'm working on (Privatize, in PnP right now if you want to look). Originally it was a space-themed tile-based 4x game. A central mechanic was player randomly drawing tiles when the explored - the ties were either planets or "empty space". As the game had no gameboard, tiles only (like Hive), movement was done by sliding around the placed tiles.

Everybody bitterly compained about not being able to move "through" empty space. I tried to explain the mechanic, tried to explain how the space tiles were more of a gameboard and not a huge void of space... no go. Nobody bought it. Even when I said "hey, if the game wasn't space but... an abstract theme. Would you mind the mechanic - of placing say "blue tiles" that give you points and "black tiles" that give you no points and block movement?" Nope - nobody minded. but slap space onto it and folks got mad. I ended up re-theming the game to city building.

Avianfoo
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Rocconteur wrote: Everybody

Rocconteur wrote:

Everybody bitterly compained about not being able to move "through" empty space. I tried to explain the mechanic, tried to explain how the space tiles were more of a gameboard and not a huge void of space... no go. Nobody bought it. Even when I said "hey, if the game wasn't space but... an abstract theme. Would you mind the mechanic - of placing say "blue tiles" that give you points and "black tiles" that give you no points and block movement?" Nope - nobody minded. but slap space onto it and folks got mad. I ended up re-theming the game to city building.

Choice of theme is very important. City building is boring to some. Space exploration more exciting. To keep this game a space game, the blank tiles could have been asteroid fields/nebulae/black holes . Ships don't go through those right?

hotsoup
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I almost always start with a

I almost always start with a theme and work from there. Not a setting, per se, but with the question, what kind of experience am I trying to create? What emotions am I trying to evoke?

I start from there, and write a brief sketch of the kind of experience this hypothetical game will give people. As if I'm writing the back of the game box. Then I start working on interesting ways I can provide this experience to people through game mechanics. Often there will be feedback from the mechanics after this point; the mechanics will begin to coalesce around an experience, and it might not be quite the same experience as before, so a shift of theme is in order, and then the theme begins to effect the mechanics again.

For me, it has to essentially be an organic process where the tension between the requirements of theme and mechanics drive each other to an equilibrium where the two are in sync.

Rocconteur
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Avianfoo wrote:Rocconteur

Avianfoo wrote:
Rocconteur wrote:

Everybody bitterly compained about not being able to move "through" empty space. I tried to explain the mechanic, tried to explain how the space tiles were more of a gameboard and not a huge void of space... no go. Nobody bought it. Even when I said "hey, if the game wasn't space but... an abstract theme. Would you mind the mechanic - of placing say "blue tiles" that give you points and "black tiles" that give you no points and block movement?" Nope - nobody minded. but slap space onto it and folks got mad. I ended up re-theming the game to city building.

Choice of theme is very important. City building is boring to some. Space exploration more exciting. To keep this game a space game, the blank tiles could have been asteroid fields/nebulae/black holes . Ships don't go through those right?

In this case no. The mechanic basically is: you can move by sliding along already existing hexes on the play area. Adding new hexes means it takes longer to go from one end of the board to the other as you have to slide around them (not through them). Ex:

<1>{X}<><><.><><>{Y}
With 1 is a ship, X and Y are planets and the <> are 'empty space' hexes. Going from X to Y would take whatever, 4 moves. Now add a new hex on top of where the <.> is and it takes an additional 2 moves. Players were saying "its empty space, why can't I move through it?". So then I tried asteroids. "wait, I could move from X to Y in 4 moves before... you mean because I discovered some asteroids its longer to move? The hidden asteroids didn't stop me before, why are they stopping me now?"

Believe me - we argued this a lot.

But when empty space (the <>) is solid - in this case, walls or buildings - and the them idea is "i just built a new wall" then even though it was the same mechanic people accepted it more. Maybe. we're still playtesting.

Anyway, the take away is: sometimes the theme works or doesn't work with a given mechanic.

Oh, and while I sort of agreed (between space/city) there's a lot more space 4x games then city building 4x games, so I don't mind the theme change. It's growing on me.

SlyBlu7
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I think that certain games

I think that certain games don't require a theme at all: Yahtzee, Parcheesi, Chess, Checkers, Backgammon - yes, some of these may have had a "theme" of sorts when they began, but nobody considers Chess to be a wargame in the same way that they consider Risk or Warhammer to be wargames.

Other games *do* need a theme though. Any game in which the players tell a story, or evolve the nature of the game as it is played should probably have a theme. Catan has players laying tiles to create a map... of what? That's the theme - the map is of feudal Europe. The depth of theme is also a factor. You have games like Descent or Thunderstone which are ultimately just 'dungeon crawlers', and then you have games like Dungeons and Dragons, which explores it's world very deeply despite allowing players to create their own universe as well. The most thematic game is most likely Warhammer, or any of the offshoots (but especially Warhammer: 40,000). Their designers have created entire sagas of a world from the ground up, starting with their Creation Myth and working towards Armageddon, and filling in literal millennia with events. There are people who enjoy the Warhammer hobby not for the collecting or playing, but for the stories. People get into heated arguments over things like female Space Marines, the location of missing Primarchs, the separation between "fact" and "legend," which rival the kinds of arguments you would hear over Kirk and Picard or whether Han Solo shot first at Mos Eisley. *That* is a game with theme.

There are also weak themes. Look at the two big CCG contenders early on: Pokemon and M:tG. They each had spinoffs of the theme, which can be described as "choose them" or "summon them". In Pokemon, the creatures are alive and can be digitalized to store in computers and Pokeballs. When a trainer is fighting, he 'chooses' his creature that he caught in the real world, to come onto the dueling ground, where it's mettle is tested against other creatures in a wrestling-type match. In Magic, the creatures are all 'summoned' by spells and rituals, with the players representing a powerful wizard calling his powers from a vast library of spellbooks in order to actually harm the opposing wizard by attacking his life-force and dropping it from 20 to 0, or by poisoning him, or forcing him to surrender by expending his library of spells (at which point he is assumed to be defenseless and likely killed/captured).
Digimon was a spinoff of Pokemon (obviously, just look at the name). In this game, the creatures existed within a virtual world and humans were the ones being digitized. The creatures were real and visceral, there was no storage, and they were more than just pawns in a titanic battle. Evolutions were treated almost identically to Pokemon, and once a creature was in play, it remained in play until you "called it back" or your opponent defeated it. The game was limited to a contest between the creatures only, with the 'Ranchers' being there only in the capacity of support staff around a boxing ring.
Yu-Gi-Oh was a spinoff of Magic, actually. In this game, the creatures were the product of rituals from ancient Egypt, and were summoned from spells cast by ancient magi. Yu-Gi-Oh is arguably even *darker* than Magic, because in order to summon a more powerful creature from beyond the veil, players are often required to sacrifice a creature of lesser power. The players are directing their attacks against one another, by attempting to reduce their opponent's lifepoints from 2000 to 0.

The two spinoffs never achieved quite the popularity of their predecessors. However, a 5th game has hit the market and done astonishingly well by creating it's own unique playstyle: L5R. In L5R, your preassembled deck represents your Samurai Clan, who will later become present throughout different phases of the game. The players are dueling directly, but it is not a life-or-death struggle, but rather a battle for dominance over the opposing clan. The cards represent other people who are just as "alive" and visceral as the players, who's loyalties must be called upon or bought, and who may act with a measure of their own initiative. This is a unique theme at the moment, and nobody had done this before. L5R now rivals the other big two games, and a lot of this is simply because it took a new road with it's theme, rather than mimicking the competition.

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