There are few certainties in tabletop gaming: you should always occupy Australia, everything can use more Cthulhu and every civil discussion of theme turns into an argument between supporters of mechanics and advocates of theme. I’m not actually sure how we arrived at this point; theme and mechanics have long been blended together in wonderful games. Somewhere along the way it was decided that we need a Hatfield-McCoy feud in tabletop gaming.
A problem occurs when this debate occurs in the context of game design, more specifically a discussion of theme first design or mechanic first designs. The trouble is that these debates are probably more interesting than they are valuable. This clash of ideas gets portrayed as a binary; an either/or, a false dichotomy as a starting point for game design.
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.
One of our initiatives at Games Precipice is to learn from established game designers and learn from their design decisions and thought process as their latest work achieves publication.
This month we’re excited to bring you an interview with a game designer that has stood out to us for his work with interesting themes. Vital Lacerda has emerged in recent years as a designer of heavy Eurogames with the published success of both Vinhos in 2010 and CO2 in 2012. Vital invests a great deal of time into each of his designs and so I was thrilled when he agreed to my interview opportunity in advance of the release of his title Kanban: Automotive Revolution from Stronghold Games next month at Essen.
Vital lives in Oeiras, Portugal with his wife and two daughters and has been playing games all his life. He works as a freelance graphic designer (he does the amazing 3D artwork for Kanban and his other projects).
Games Precipice: Welcome Vital, thank you for taking the time to join us. For those who are not yet familiar with your published and upcoming work, who is Vital Lacerda?
Thank you, I’m glad to talk to you guys; and I thank you for all the support.
Most of all, I consider myself a gamer. After that I’m a wannabe designer, who had the luck of having a few publishers who believe in my games. I published Vinhos in 2010 and CO2 two years later. Both games were well accepted by a few gamers, so two years later I’m releasing Kanban. It will be my 3rd game in the complex games line and its official presentation will be in Essen.
I have a tendency to design complex thinking games, because those are the types of games I love to play. My favorite game is Brass. I love Imperial, Die Macher, Age of Steam and Terra Mystica. My top games. My designs are greatly inspired by those great games.
We’ve been talking about theme this month and I wanted to conclude this month with some questions on how we can evaluate the success of a theme. Matt talked a little bit about how much theme is actually present; let’s look at how we can evaluate the strength of the theme in execution. In this case we’re not necessarily looking to create the “dripping with theme” mindset where we cram as much theme as possible in a game. We’re looking to maximize the benefit of a given theme to the overall experience. Let’s take a look at some basic contributing elements of theme.
What can sell a theme to your audience?
Artwork & Components
More than anything else visuals and tangibles can be the most convincing elements of theme. If all a player observes on the box, cards, board and components are thematically appropriate illustrations you’re off to a great start. If you’re going to have a Star Wars game about space battles it certainly helps to have X-Wing miniatures to move around the tabletop.
My favorite reward for playing a thematic game are the “oh cool, look at that” observations present in names, locations, events, actions and objectives. In a historical context a game like Twilight Struggle succeeds naturally by using prominent Cold War events on cards in the ongoing tension of the game. A game using Lord of the Rings probably needs to represent the essential locations of Middle Earth. Including subtle references and details for dedicated fans of a subject matter can really reward your core audience. These will be the players shouting from the rooftops if you execute it well.