Probably the single most important aspect of theme for game designers is how a game’s theme and mechanics interact. As Alex described in this month’s introductory article, it’s possible for games to succeed on various different “levels” of theme, from games that are completely abstract to games that strive to create historically accurate simulations. Adding additional layers of theme can make the game more appealing to players by making it more immersive or approachable, but 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 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.” I’ll describe 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 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.
The “appropriateness” of a theme is all about fulfilling player expectations. Based on how a game sells itself, players are going to 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 The Settlers of 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, and chances are good that in any given game, the majority of points scored will result from settlements (and cities).
Settlers 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 is going to 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.
- Scotland Yard and Mister X, both “network movement” board games, use the unknown movements and modes of transit of the spy to create tension. The identity of the spy is known, but the excitement comes from not knowing where the spy is or how he got there.
- In Gentlemen Thieves, each player starts the game with a secret identity and takes public actions to advance their position, which can reveal 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.
What are some ways in which games might fail to live up to player expectations?
- 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 that 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 the game is basically an abstract.
- 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.
In contrast, here are some examples of understanding and fulfilling player expectations particularly well:
- 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.
- Referencing real-world settings or events. Lewis and Clark has 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.
- 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.
Integrating theme with mechanics
You’ve probably played a game that told you it was about high fantasy, or the Renaissance, or space but really just felt like a generic Euro with some workers, a handful of action cards, and a scoring track. What is it about games that make them feel like they’re about what they claim to be about? The answer lies in integrating that theme with the game’s mechanics, in ensuring that what happens in the game makes sense with the setting you’re trying to build for that game.
In our analysis of Terra Mystica, both Alex and I thought that one of the game’s few shortcomings was how the theme didn’t necessarily feel well-integrated with the gameplay. Really, Terra Mystica is full of both hits and misses in how thematic its actions feel. Some factions have special abilities that work perfectly given the faction they’re describing: the Giants’ slow march to terraform everything in their path feels like the brute-force, destructive approach that it should, while the Dwarves’ ability to tunnel under mountains evokes the Moria of Tolkien. On the other hand, the Chaos Magicians don’t have any mechanics that feel particularly chaotic, and the Auren come across more as a designer’s spackling of a mechanical hole than a race of mystical fae creatures.
We had similar comments about Bora Bora. While we appreciated the degree to which the Polynesian theme was present in all of the components, the game has the feel of having been painted very artfully rather than being composed of thematically attractive materials in the first place. In other words, Bora Bora seems like a game that could be entirely re-skinned, changing the artwork and components and terms, while leaving the mechanics themselves intact. (If you took the man and woman tiles and replaced them with metal robots and plastic robots, this game could very easily be about an artificial intelligence dystopia.) The effect is a game that’s about Polynesia because it tells you it’s about Polynesia, not because it actually feels like it’s about Polynesia.
For contrast, let’s talk about the game Tongiaki. It’s objectively not as good of a game as Bora Bora (it’s simpler but much less strategically deep, and there’s basically only one mechanic). But the one area where Tongiaki really outshines Bora Bora is in its own South Pacific thematic execution. Ship captains from different tribes, although they’re nominally rivals, have to work together–by sharing knowledge, borrowing each other’s sea charts, looking out for each other in treacherous currents, or however else–and if there isn’t enough combined expertise on any given voyage, it fails. That you never know where you’re going before you get there reinforces the feeling of adventure and discovery. Tongiaki could be re-skinned just like Bora Bora, but it could really only be taken as far as a game about exploring a different unknown before the mechanics would start failing to make sense.
So what are some methods of integrating theme and mechanics? How do you design a game to convince players that they’re playing in the setting that you’re telling them they’re playing in? Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of designs that pull off that integration especially well.
Maybe the easiest way to integrate theme and mechanics is to make the game involve physically manipulating components. Firenze is a game about tower-building. Sure, there are cards called Architect and Earthquake, but by far the best and simplest thing that Firenze does is have players construct physical towers. Looking at a player mat and seeing towers of various heights, there is no way this game could be about anything but tower construction.
Similarly, a favorite of Games Precipice, La Citta, is about building cities and attracting citizens to those cities. La Citta benefits from beautiful Italian Renaissance-esque artwork, but the real reason it succeeds thematically is that players actually place tiles onto their ever-growing cities and move citizen figures around so that it’s obvious at a glance which cities are powerful in the context of the game.
Sometimes, mechanics introduced to simplify the game or decrease the number of options open to a player can result in powerful thematic connections. One of my personal “aha moments” in the concept of uniting theme and mechanics came while playing 7 Wonders with seven players. In 7 Wonders, each player can trade with the players directly adjacent to them but not anyone farther away. With seven players, I thought “there’s a lot going on on the other side of the world that I don’t know about,” and I realized that was exactly the point. In the ancient world, your civilization didn’t necessarily trade with anyone who wasn’t your neighbor. In turn, your neighbor might not need to produce any of their own stone if their more distant neighbor had vast stone quarries, but that wouldn’t help you. 7 Wonders perfectly captures the sensation of not really knowing what was happening beyond your own corner of the world, much less being able to influence it, which must have been commonplace in the pre-globalized era.
In a related mechanic, Pandemic shuffles its location deck so that the cities that have already have disease outbreaks are much more likely to be stricken with the same disease again. It’s a method of adding challenge to the game but also lends a sense of verisimilitude, as real-world epidemics intensify in existing locations far more often than they appear in random places in different continents.
A great way to convince players that they’re playing a game about resource management is to let players set their own values for the resources through the open market. One of the reasons that Power Grid is so memorable is its resource market: players are convinced that they’re competing industrialists because they actually are competing over how much their resources cost. Speculation couldn’t be a game about anything but stock trading because the core mechanic is literally trading shares of (albeit fake) stocks.
How might a game fall short of integrating theme with mechanics? Generally, that might happen if there is poor thematic justification for certain actions or if some of the design elements are generic without being particularly related to the game.
- I’ve never been a particular fan of the “first past the post” nature of worker placement games, in which the first player to take a particular action in a round is the only one who can take that action. Aside from being frustrating mechanically, the thematic justification of those mechanics are often lacking. I find Last Will to be a lot of fun, but, for example, why is only one player allowed to go to the opera per turn? Are they playing private shows? (Is the fishing hole in Agricola that exclusive? Are the native traders in Lewis and Clark that inefficient at building canoes?)
- Deck-builders are notorious for including cards to fill mechanical holes rather than to satisfy a thematic need. In Ascension, I’ll give a card called “Sea Tyrant” some credit for destroying opponent’s cards, because it implies a wave sweeping over them and leaving nothing standing. At the same time, it’s obvious that “Wind Tyrant” granting some resources for killing it and “Earth Tyrant” granting card draws only happen because a designer thought those mechanics needed to exist.
- Obviously, arbitrary numerical constraints in games need to exist for balance concerns. There are two initial bean fields in Bohnanza presumably because two fields presented the best compromise between letting players get things done and creating dramatic moments with deciding which field to harvest. The hand limit in Settlers of Catan is seven because allowing more cards would reduce the threat of the robber, and fewer resource cards would make it far too difficult to build cities and development cards. It’s understood that not every mechanic needs to be directly tied to a game’s theme, but it’s much more interesting when core concepts have thematic justification.
One question that a designer might ask himself is “how much theme is necessary?”. Theme isn’t necessarily a quantifiable variable, though as we’ve pointed out, there is some continuum between complete abstracts and simulation games, with most strategy games falling somewhere in the middle. Exactly “how much” theme to include is a matter of optimizing the thematic and the mechanical aspects of design.
Balancing theme with player experience
Everyone knows that Agricola is a game about farming. We’ve just established that one of the best ways to integrate theme with mechanics is to make players physically do the thing the game tells them they’re doing, whether trading stocks or building a tower. But clearly, the best way to design a game like Agricola is not to make players actually run a farm. For example, Agricola presses players to feed their families, but it could also have included all kinds of more tedious aspects of a farming lifestyle if it wanted to. At some point, a design has to pull back from thematic immersion and make it an enjoyable experience.
We play games with the gaming equivalent of what a writer or movie director would call the suspension of disbelief. We play games for a taste of the experience; we don’t play them to live every waking moment of a 17th century trader on the Mediterranean. (Le Havre becomes much less fun once you have to worry about your ships’ sailors getting scurvy.) And the fascination of the futuristic or dystopian would quickly become lost if players had to encounter the mundane travel from one location to another. That’s why there’s no “travel phase” between planets in Race for the Galaxy.
So it’s up to the designer to aim to use mechanics to provide the highlights of the desired thematic experience. When friend of Games Precipice Jamey Stegmaier made Viticulture, a game about winemaking, he didn’t include mechanics about grafting rootstocks or sterilizing barrels, and he didn’t make players spin hydrometers in cylinders to determine the alcohol content of their in-game wines. Instead, he included the highlights of the experience: planting vines, harvesting grapes, fermenting the juice, and selling the wine.
Based on the genre, aesthetics, marketing, or even title of a game, players are going to have certain expectations of how it’s going to play. As a designer, it pays to go along with those expectations, especially according to where the game sits on the “theme continuum.” Just as not every imaginable element of a theme necessarily needs to be included in a game, not every action or concept in a game necessarily needs to be thematically justified.
However, as a designer, the closer you can tie your core mechanics to your theme, the more your players will accept those mechanics, and the more the game will be “about” what you say it’s about. Wherever possible, identify both the most important characteristics of a theme and the most critical concepts of a game, and make them relate to each other. You’ll know you’ve succeeded if your players start talking about what happened in the game rather than the game itself: Settlers of Catan is so much more fun when it’s about building a better civilization than your rivals than when it’s about beating them to ten points.