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Published on June 30th, 2014 | by Luke Turpeinen

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The Makings of a Better Theme

A strong theme is an essential element of a great board game. Though some gamers give little thought to the themes used in the games they play, using themes and settings well can make an average game good and a good game better. A well thought out theme helps players relate the abstract actions of the game to ideas or processes they already understand. At the same time a theme can act as a memory aid, give a sense of verisimilitude, promote an idea, or it can just be fun and engaging by itself.

Several game designers seem to have trouble coming up with themes that fit the game’s mechanics and that add fun to the experience of playing their game. In games with a poor theme the designer either leaves off the theme altogether, as with abstract games, or they do add a theme but it’s over-used or overly-simplistic.

“[T]o make a game fun, you must think not about the mechanics or the design, but about the experience. What role do I want to put the player in? How should he feel before, during, and after the game?” –Level 99 Games

An overly simplistic theme can be found in games where the theme is only found in the game art or some other cosmetic aspect of the experience. If you can take the art out of a game and it fundamentally changes how people see the theme, your theme is overly simplistic. You could take all the illustrations out of Harbour, but you would be taking out 100% of its fantasy elements, which makes it just like every other shipping game. On the other hand, you could take every bit of art out of Cosmic Encounter and still have a very thematic game about different alien species conflicting over resources.

Over used themes are pretty self-explanatory. I have spent hundreds of hours playing traditional fantasy games, and if you include RPGs and video games into that mix I’d venture I’ve spent at least a 1000+ hours in standard fantasy settings across every conceivable medium. I don’t need another standard fantasy game. It’s over, it’s done. If you have to make a standard fantasy game do something with it that destroys our expectations of what a standard fantasy game is or can be.

yomi card game sirlin fantasy strike volstalgic

What makes a board game theme interesting?

Several elements go into making a theme interesting, and the really great themes use more than one element. One game might have a message or an idea it wishes to explore, another company might take the approach of connecting their games through a shared world. You can make a theme engaging by encouraging emergent storytelling in the mechanics, or honestly just by making it really different from anything currently popular. There are many ways to combine these elements in a way that helps a game be fun and interesting.

Some designers choose to explore an idea with their games, such as operating a dystopian society in Euphoria or (in a more extreme manner) the transport of prisoners to Auschwitz in Train. This message doesn’t have to be political or heavy handed, or even serious. Euphoria isn’t exactly a deep criticism of fascist governments, but its inclusion of mechanics where you want an ignorant, sedated working populace is poignant enough for a fun night with friends. As Level 99’s blog says, “[T]o make a game fun, you must think not about the mechanics or the design, but about the experience. What role do I want to put the player in? How should he feel before, during, and after the game?”Euphoria is a great example of using a clear theme and premise to deliver an interesting idea through a eurogame.

Also, consider that not thinking of a game’s message can let it take on unintended messages of its own, like Puerto Rico’s questionable use of slavery or Vasco da Gama’s glorifying European colonialists known for massacring women and children. Regardless of its state as a game, Puerto Rico still places the player in the role of a slave-holding plantation owner and Vasco da Gama is about financing the systematic exploitation of two continents. The difference between these games and Euphoria is that Stonemaier Games themed Euphoria’s mechanics in such a way that it showed the dystopia as evil and manipulative, while Puerto Rico and Vasco da Gama are complicit in white-washing history. Unintended messages in games can be powerful, so it behooves the game designer to think about these topics thoroughly.

argent consortium board game

Another way to develop interesting themes is to make games in a shared world or interconnected setting. Level 99 Games does this with their World of Indines setting, as does Sirlin Games with their Fantasy Strike world. The great part of this method is that you can connect mechanically disparate games under one thematic banner and create an experience larger than any one game could on its own. Players who like one game get to see familiar characters or places in the newer games, which helps them relate to the design of the game more easily.

I’d really love to see a game company take this idea and really run with it: using a multitude of different game mechanics within a connected setting to explore different aspects of the world. You can almost see Fantasy Flight do this with the Warhammer franchises they own, but Fantasy Flight never totally takes that next crucial step of creating non-fighting games with their licenses. Where is there a franchise that has interconnected a market-based eurogame, a 4X style game, a casual card game and an RPG under one thematic banner? That’s not to say that all games by one company should be part of one setting, but this kind of franchise building is a tool that we could use more often in the board game world.

At the very least we could encourage emergent storytelling in the games we design and play. Emergent storytelling is when players spontaneously make up stories about what is happening in the game, in the context of the mechanics. This isn’t necessarily anything complicated, and can be as simple as one player declaring herself the Spice Queen because of the nature of the resources she’s collected thus far. It’s a bit of immersion that can be promoted by the names you give resources, pawns and card effects and it can drastically change the way players perceive the game. Emergent storytelling is one of the reasons that it is important to include under-represented groups in our media: it’s much easier for for the player to connect to the setting and have fun with their game’s narrative if they can identify with someone in the game.

chaos in the old world minis

A designer can also promote emergent storytelling by using symbols for game variables that are interesting themselves. It’s hard to get excited about being the merchant with the most stone because every game seems to have that resource- it’s not special. Being the player who has corrupted the most nobles with demonic whisperings, as in Chaos in the Old World, is almost universally more gratifying than being Stone Guy #212 because it’s more note-worthy in its uniqueness.

Having a theme that is substantially different from other themes currently on the market is itself a way to be more interesting. Humans are fascinated by novelty and a game that goes for an original or unusual theme will have a higher chance of being engaging than going with the same old same old. Even if a designer is making a game with a fantasy theme, there are ways to break the mold: choosing a non-european inspired setting, not including typical fantasy species or their equivalents, having the conflict not be over a light-side coalition versus a dark lord, etc. Making something new doesn’t have to be hard and it doesn’t have to be 100% original, just different from what’s already out there in a significant way.

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About the Author

Luke Turpeinen

was raised by lava wolves deep in the Vesuvian sulfur jungles. He played board games with his family often. The discovery of games like Risk led him to the 1993 TSR classic Dragon Strike which fueled a life long love of games. Luke tends to like games that have high production values, quick-to-learn rules and hard-to-master strategies. Current Favorite Game: Argent: the Consortium.



9 Responses to The Makings of a Better Theme

  1. This is a great, great read. I think this is a very healthy challenge for us game designers and publishers to stretch ourselves when creating themes and building worlds. I particularly like this: “Where is there a franchise that has interconnected a market-based eurogame, a 4X style game, a casual card game and an RPG under one thematic banner?” That’s something we’ve talked about doing with the world of Euphoria quite a bit.

    One element of themes that has been on my mind a lot lately is that the entire subsection of “thematic” games seems to be dominated by (a) games with direct conflict (going to war against other players) and (b) cooperative games. I have a place in my collection for both of those types of thematic games (Kemet and Pandemic come to mind), but why aren’t there more thematic games that break the mold? That’s something I’m trying to explore in my own designs.

    Do you have any thoughts on that? How can a game be “thematic” but not be about war/fighting and not be cooperative? I think Rahdo said it pretty well that thematic games make you use your heart, not just your mind. To me, that boils down to a game that includes lots of interesting decisions that involve some level of uncertainty and doubt, two elements that really add to the “story” of a game.

    • Thanks for responding Jamey! I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I have two things that I think can really sell a theme: asymmetric player options and well cultivated art. Both of these things make players use their heart, not their mind.

      Asymmetric player options typically help with the feeling of connectedness players get with a game- if you get to choose between the lithe ninja character or the burly friar and those differences mean something in the game then people who like lithe ninjas or burly friars will be drawn to those archetypes and will enjoy the game more based solely on those elements.

      A similar thing happens with good art. When players see an art style that speaks to them in a game, or shows something that is unusual or interesting then they are more likely to enjoy their experience. It’s not just the quality of art, but how the art style sells the mood and the setting of the game, how much it makes you feel a “part of” whatever it is the game is about.

      I honestly feel that every game type, any mechanic can be made into something with an effective theme. Even highly abstract game mechanics can be given names that in the greater context of the game mean something fairly profound (I like using your Euphoria as an example). If we break the mold even more and quit naming resource after bricks and wood and start doing things like making games about the memetic nature of all knowledge (Veritas by Cheap Ass Games) then we can add a lot more value to the activities that we already enjoy.

      I guess my call is to ask that designers stop thinking so literally about these things. Sure, your game could be about constructing buildings in a european fantasy setting- or just by changing what “currency” means and what “victory points” are you can reframe the same game to be about competing cliques at a popular nightclub. It doesn’t even take a bunch of new mechanics to make something like this work, just a change in perception about how to approach the metaphor you use to describe the abstract choices you get to make during the process of the game.

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  5. I really appreciate the post. I’m a fan of theme, when it’s integrated into gameplay. Never liked ‘fantasy’ games that were called Fantasy simply because they had graphics of wizards and monsters. There’s an awful lot here for a layman to chew on, so I’m saving this for re-reading later. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

    • Thanks for taking the time to reply. The crux of the matter, to me, is that people tend to think of a game as a single thing when really it’s a bunch of different moving parts. One of the parts that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the theme, but what is a theme, really? It’s a bunch of words and art that explain why we all perform the actions the game says that we can perform. In that sense, the theme is a metaphor- it’s a story problem from algebra class.

      “If two trains traveling on the same rail, going opposite directions etc etc” is the same as “in this game you are farmers trying to grow crops before winter”. They both exist only to help our minds relate to the abstract math portion of it all. But as anyone who has taken a math class knows, the better written the story problem is the more fun it is to work out the actual math bits. It’s the same with games.

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