Probably the single most important aspect of theme for game designers is how a game’s theme and mechanics interact. As we described in a previous introductory article, it’s possible for games to succeed on various different “levels” of theme, from completely abstract games to games that strive to create historically accurate simulations. Adding additional layers to the theme can make the game more appealing to players by making it more immersive or approachable. Still, more theme also comes with the responsibility of making the game’s mechanics and theme fit together.
The ultimate goal of every decision to include a theme in a game is to make the players feel like they’re having the experience you’re trying to provide. You want your players to think, “yes, I really feel like I’m doing what the game tells me I’m doing.” We’ll explore three areas in which that sense can be achieved: using an appropriate theme, integrating theme with mechanics, and balancing theme with player experience.
Using an appropriate theme
If you’re designing a game with cutthroat gameplay and extensive player elimination mechanics, it might not make sense to give that game bright, cartoony artwork and a family-friendly theme. But that’s the gist of Hey! That’s My Fish!, in which players must direct their adorable penguin figures to aggressively overtake the other players’ territory and stick the opposing penguins on isolated ice floes, unable to eat. And that’s why Steamwatchers, albeit with the same icy vein, presents a harsher theme, with humankind always on the brink of extinction, always looking for scarce, fleeting sources of heat.
The “appropriateness” of a theme is all about fulfilling player expectations. Based on how a game sells itself, players will assume something about how the game works, whether that assumption relates to the game’s mechanics, medium, scoring, art, or even title. One of the many reasons that Catan is so perennially popular is that the game is about exactly what it claims to be about. The single most important action players can take in Settlers is literally to settle on an unoccupied space. The chances are good that in any given game, the majority of points scored will result from settlements (and cities).
Catan doesn’t have a particularly distinct or exciting theme, but nobody minds because the theme is exactly correct for what the game is trying to do. There’s a method for defending your territory but no real way to invade or conquer territory. That’s okay because Settlers is not a war game. If the game were called “The Warfighters of Catan” or “The Legionnaires of Catan,” the game would be expected to play completely differently.
Let’s use spy games as an example of “appropriate” themes. A hypothetical game about spies might have brilliant mechanics, beautiful art, and deep strategy but still, be poorly received if its gameplay centers around territory control or deck-building. Players have a certain expectation that a game about spies will feature hidden information, secret identities, or a mystery element. A whole litany of games use the “spy game” concept and execute it completely differently yet appropriately.
Case study: Hidden information as part of the theme
●Scotland Yard, Mister Jack, and Garibaldi are all “network movement” board games, use the unknown movements and modes of transit of the spy to create tension. The spy’s identity is known (or less so in Mr. Jack), but the excitement comes from the pursuit of knowledge, which is tied to the literal pursuit itself!
●In Gentlemen Thieves, each player starts the game with a secret identity and takes public actions to advance their position, revealing the secret identities if the other players are particularly observant.
●Similarly, the hidden identity mechanic in The Resistance accomplishes an asymmetry that might be expected from spy games: the spies are the smaller faction but have more information (in that they all know each others’ identities).
●In Spy Alley, every player has the role of a spy, but it’s unclear exactly who each player is spying for. As in Gentlemen Thieves, misdirection and deduction are important to match the player to the identity.
Failing to live up to player expectations
There are some cases, however, in which the games can fail to live up to the expectations of the players. Here are some reasons that this might happen:
A misleading name or box art. It might not seem like an incredibly important design component, but just as books are inevitably judged by covers, games can be judged by the first thing a player sees. Kingdom Builder looks and sounds like it might be a game about building a civilization, but players can be disappointed when they find out it is basically an abstract area control game.
An unexpected central mechanic. Dominion might conjure the image of a vast empire that players get to rule over and can cause a little confusion when the players realize the empire is contained in a deck of cards and is slightly more figurative.
Lack of an expected mechanic. Some of the scenarios in Betrayal at House on the Hill do not involve betrayal at all; although most of the scenarios do, in fact, have a traitor who works against the rest of the players, the ones where all of the players have to work together (or all against each other) might not be what a new player expects.
However, some games, like Betrayal at House on the Hill, are aware of the players’ expectations and toy with them easily, which can create nice surprises, but that case should not be taken as a rule of thumb. Reichbusters should be about busting the Reich, Solomon Kane about mastering the fate of the Puritan, and so on.
Understanding and Fulfilling the Player expectations
In contrast, here are some examples of understanding and fulfilling player expectations:
1. Using related mechanics in related situations.
San Juan is a great spin-off of Puerto Rico because it uses components (like the production buildings) and mechanics (like role selection and the produce/consume cycle) from Puerto Rico, enhancing player familiarity. In the same fashion, Reichbusters players try to infiltrate a castle, so triggering the alarm early is widely understood as bad news. This familiarity with either a previous title or an affordance mechanic can ease getting into the game and helps with setting up the theme.
2. Referencing real-world settings or events.
Lewis and Clark have a right-to-left (i.e., westward) track that shows player progress, in contrast to the left-to-right movement used for English writing but fitting the historical expedition that the game is based on. You would expect a game about the Cold War to have mechanics involving NATO and the Warsaw Pact (regardless of whatever those mechanics might be), and Twilight Struggle succeeds because it includes those and dozens more. Endeavor is a historical game about colonization and decides to address slavery, making it a mechanic. However, as there is a potent counter-play to it (abolishing it from the entire game), it also states that it is not a safe nor desirable strategy to pursue.
3. Particularly descriptive titles or graphical design.
There is no doubt that a game called Fluxx is a chaotic game where the rules are always changing, and its psychedelic imagery on the cover convinces players not to take it too seriously. A comic-book-like design like Super Fantasy Brawl’s world of Fabulosa helps cement the idea the action is going to be wild and frantic while not overly dramatic.
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