Hello everyone, welcome back to the blog; I have had an interesting couple of weeks with some playtesting and working through prototype ideas. I have had a lot of time to think about theme and what theme can do for a game beyond just looking nice. There will be three main points in no particular order: theme as presentation, theme as an intuitive device, and theme as a player guide. So, I hope you’re all ready to talk about one of my favorite parts of game design.
Theme by definition is “an idea that recurs in or pervades a work.” Under most circumstances this is applied to literature or the like. Even in the context of board games this holds true, this should indicate to us designers that theme is more than just art or fancy card backs or aesthetics. Theme is, in fact, not just a pretty face.
Theme as Presentation
Presenting a game can be difficult; games of all sizes, mechanical elements, varying degrees of complexity, and much more can be anywhere from intimidating to lack luster. A good way to attract someone to a game is by the theme of the game, the difference in telling someone about a game called King of Tokyo and explaining to them it’s a game about being the biggest and baddest kaiju in Tokyo is palpable. Many people (including myself) will buy or try a game purely on the basis of what the theme of the game is. I love games about factories or production lines; I almost bought the game Furnace before I saw it played simply because the idea of furnace resonated with me. I asked some of the great folks in our Cult of the Deep Facebook group about some things they looked for or got them excited about a game before even playing it. People tend to have art styles or subjects that they really enjoy and so it is important to be aware of what themes your target audience or you would like. A theme is going to be one of the first things someone will want to know about your game, so it’s important to have a solid and fleshed out theme.
Theme as an Intuitive Device
Another very important reason to have a strong and solid theme is to help your players better understand how a game will function and even provide context for the rules. If I were to have a game featuring a growth of resources overtime that can be collected at different points in time, I may look to having a theme about plants or farming. It is a well-known fact of life (spoilers) that plants in fact grow over a period of time. As a player knowing that, a game about farming will make me assume that there will be some kind of planting phase, maybe waiting a certain amount of time, and then harvest at the right time to reap the greatest reward (pun intended). Now this is not to assume that games are made in a vacuum without theme, and it is painted over top. In my experience that is usually not the case. But having a theme “married” to the mechanic can really help players make sense of mechanical aspects of your game. More than anything a mechanic needs to work and be fun to play but how easy it is to learn or how much connectiveness it has with the theme can influence people’s opinions greatly.
Theme as a Player Guide
Now this may sound like an extension of the previous section, and it is in some ways, but I wanted to share some more specific examples of something I have noticed with play groups. Our game Cult of the Deep has strong occult themes with lots of emphasis on daggers and rituals. A lot of people will go into social deduction games very timidly, be everyone’s friend the whole song and dance until you feel like you know someone is not who they are. Interestingly enough I have noticed a lot of players in Cult of the Deep are really aggressive, some of you reading this may have witnessed this firsthand. But even with all the different actions one can take during a turn, so many players immediately turn to violence, but why? Now I could write some Lord of the Flies comparison about violence and its prevalence in human nature but since this is a board game and I’m not a philosopher I’ll try something else. In my opinion I think the heavy occult theme with blood rituals, backstabbing, and betrayal really pushes players to bring out their hyper aggressive side. In this case it’s good because the game works the best when people are selfish and distrustful of others. The theme is so much more about personal action rather than community consensus, so players feel the ability to do whatever they like including stabbing their immediate neighbor. It’s not solely on the theme but I am fairly certain that it plays a role in supporting that kind of player behavior because the theme presents these actions as a good thing to do. In some games this may actually be a problem but in the case of Cult of the Deep this is exactly what we were looking for.
All in all, I think there are several more aspects of theme that would be worth talking about, but I’ll save those for a later date. Really the one thing I’d like to drive home is that theme can really permeate the game and the more intertwined theme is with its mechanical counterparts the better chance I think that players will resonate with your game. Once again, thank you to all the readers out there. It means a lot. I hope everyone plays or makes some awesome games and remember: theme is more than just a pretty face.
I’d like to know what you guys think about theme or games that you felt had a great theme. Tell me in the comments.