Sam “King of the Hilltop”
The pursuit of theme in board games is a subject that is widely discussed but is one I think should have even more focus. Theming a board game in my opinion is as important and, in a lot of ways, more important than the actual game design. I know this may be sacrilegious to some but hear me out.
Theme is Marketing
When your game is being shared on Kickstarter, game shelves, social media, texts from a friend, or an online forum the theme is one of the first things seen or shared about a game. The title of the game is literally a series of words that define your game. You seek to learn more information or brush it off based on the name alone. It is a gatekeeper for your game as you market it to people.
Now some games can and do build brands off of words that are not as obvious to consumers. Gloomhaven comes to mind. It reads fantasy but that’s about it. It’s hard to tell what exactly it is. However, it works for the fact that the stereotypical fantasy game has adventure. So, it’s a fantasy adventure game with a unique name, makes you think, “Why is it called Gloomhaven?” Haven is defined as a safe place so maybe there is a location involved. This all happens in moments and it’s important to get your message across.
Now, in the case of Gloomhaven, influential people as well as people just enjoying the game spread the word and Gloomhaven became a big hit. So, when they did the expansion, what did they call it? Frosthaven. It may be a lore reason why it’s called that but by using haven in the name they are tying it to the original game plus adding frost for some snowy adventures. There is a lot to a name and the theming and it is one of the most crucial parts to a game, I even argue the most crucial.
Another example is Newton, a game about scientists, students, and knowledge. This theme is great and it really helps the game but it does it right in that it focuses on the market of who would play that game. It’s not for people who want to play a swashbuckling adventure, but people who enjoy science and history. It narrows the market and appeal of the game but it lets people know, “Hey! This is your kind of game! You’ll like this!” That’s a job well done.
So, themes will narrow or broaden the appeal of a game. Now, it is perfectly alright to narrow that appeal. If your game is very heavy and complicated, you may not want to go for a broad appeal. This will signal the wrong kind of players to your game and will lead to bad press and terrible experiences. This is why lighter games tend to have lighter themes, they are more accessible to a lot of people. It also signals that they are light so people wanting a heavier game won’t mistake it for what it is.
This leads to my last point about marketing, your game should not be everything to everyone. This is hard for me and I see its head pop-up everywhere online. Your game needs to focus on what your game does. I know that sounds redundant but after you design a game, take a step back and look at it. What is it trying to do? Many times I feel like we try to do too much with our designs and we need to look at it, assess the purpose of the game, and cut the fat until it fits that purpose.
I was struggling with this concept when Jessey Wright called me out on Facebook, which I do appreciate, they said, “Don’t chase copies sold, chase a design target you can actually control.”
Theme is Design
Theme informs design and play. Now there are people who design games and systems before a theme is applied and that is awesome. However, once that is done, they need to find a theme that works with the game. It needs to fit or the game will feel out of place. Whether you put it in first or last, doesn’t matter. What does matter are the players who play the game and the theme helps them to understand the game.
Also, even if you choose a theme later in the design process, that theme can still inform design decisions as you seek to tweak or modify the game in its final stages of development. For a lot of games, it’s not about how cool the game plays, but how cool the people playing the game think it is.
My brother will talk more about this below.
So, what are you going to do to make sure your theme fit your game? What themes are you excited to design a game around? What markets are you trying to appeal to?
Theme is the Riverbed of Your Game River
Ed “Duke of BAZlandia”
What theme does, is provide a riverbed for your game. It provides a smooth base to channel your game and players down. It enhances the atmosphere and enjoyment of the game. At least I think this is what any theme for a game should do (except arguable abstract games).
Theme allows your game to have a story. The reality is almost every game can be played without a theme. They would be playable, and some may even be enjoyable, but they would be lacking. Take a game like Terraforming Mars, replace all theme with a generic bland nothingness. You object would be to get the most points by moving a gauge that can only be moved a certain number of times. You play as play number 1, 2, 3, or 4. You keep and play cards to move these gauges, gather/produce different color cubes, and finally play point tiles on a hex map. Does not sound as fun.
Theme needs to match the gameplay and help tell that story and guide players in learning and understanding the game. We will continue to use the same example. Just imagine changing Terraforming Mars into a game about solving a murder. You turn the temperature and oxygen gauges into some sort of narrowing of suspects list, and the oceans are clues you find. You place investigation/interrogation tokens on the hex map. The resources you use are turned into dollars, leads, and clues. The steel bonus could be turned into calling in of favors. You get the idea. It can all be viable but how much does that change the feel of the game? It would still be potentially fun but it doesn’t quite sit right or feel right.
Having seen several different opinions on whether the game comes first and then theme or theme then the game, I do not think that part really matters. I think that comes down to personal preference in designing and how a designer thinks. It will effect on how you design but the end result should be the same, the theme should help channel the game. It helps the rules make sense. It helps the player see that yeah this makes sense, and it would make sense that you are allowed or not allowed to do certain actions. Raiders of the North Sea does this well in that as you raid further and further to more lucrative points it requires more resources and crew to accomplish the raid. This makes sense in that a harbor is going to be easier to raid than some sort of fortified castle.
Theme can give you a story. It gives you an opportunity to have a prologue to your story (which is the game). For this example, we will use Ticket to Ride. Its theme is fairly light and doesn’t contribute as much. I agree for the most part, but it does present a prologue and story. You and your friends and trying to see who can visit the most cities in the United States in 7 days. The story is you buying tickets and trying to visit the most cities. You do this by collecting cards, playing sets of cards to complete or “buy” the ticket when you have connected the cities on your ticket. At a base level there is a story there that makes sense, provides a reason for the why of player actions and goals, and even goes along with the light hearted nature of that game (unless you have mean friends who play meanly but then again that works with the theme).
In the end the actual theme matters less than that the theme contributes to a base reason for the why behind the players’ actions in the game.