I have been pretty open this past year with my opinion on the importance of theme in game design. Mostly, that opinion has been rooted in a love of games which can envelope me in their story – preferably an interesting story. Even though I believe in and generally practice a theme first policy, I recently found myself in the awkward position of having a mechanically complete game with no theme. At all.
This has been a true lesson in the importance of theme, but not for the reasons I expected. Which of the following game descriptions are easiest for you to follow?
The game board consists of nodes sparsely distributed across a grid. Straight, forked, and intersecting line segments are randomly distributed to players, who use them to connect all of the nodes together. Once all line segments have been placed, penalties are assigned for any circuits left open. The player with the most complex contribution to the game wins.
In order to improve trade, quality of life, and his militia’s ability to quickly respond to threats, the king has commissioned anyone willing to work to complete highways between the towns and villages throughout his Kingdom. Players will use road segment covered dice to construct the king’s highway and earn prestige. Be careful, though, ending the highway before all of its paths are connected will cause you to lose prestige for shoddy work. If anyone wastes the king’s supplies and the highway fails to finish, you will all be hanged for incompetence. In the event the project is completed, whoever has the most prestige is given the credit, the glory, and the money!
Now, which of those two actually painted a picture in your mind? Which one could you imagine playing? A few designers have recommended reading through rulebooks regularly to improve your ability to write your own rulebook. Along the same lines, I challenge you to take your favorite game for new players, strip all of the theme off of it, and then teach it. Turns out that we aren’t just guilty of relying on “gamer jargon” to glaze over complex interactions. We also lean heavily on common knowledge related to elements of the game’s theme. Drafting makes sense to those of us who have done it. Recruiting an ally from a group of diplomats makes sense to mostly anyone at the table.
So far, my biggest take-away from this game design challenge has been that theme doesn’t just make your game pretty and interesting. A good theme makes a fairly simple drafting game MUCH easier for new players to understand. Let’s keep running with this new drafting game. For the first 15 or so games, I really struggled with explaining the game in a way that non-gamers could understand. At first, I was making the mistake of thinking I could say “draft” and they’d figure it out as we went. Then, I found Frank Zazanis‘s great advice in his guest post, “Pitch Slap Your Game to a Customer” over at The League of Gamemakers. Not only did he recommend removing jargon, but specifically addressed drafting games: “BLAH is a game where you pass cards around and pick your favorite ones.” Cool. Then, I went back to Teale Fristoe’s (Nothing Sacred Games) great posts on drafting and his game “Shadow Throne“. He asserts an interesting definition: “By drafting, I mean a mechanic in which players take turns choosing from a collection of options, where one player’s choice eliminates that choice from players downstream.”
While I had not fully considered those perspectives on what was happening in-game, it didn’t help in the way I was hoping. Three weeks into testing, I was finally able to have a heart-to-heart with one of my oldest (and non-gamin-est) testers. I had to figure out why he still didn’t know what was going on after 3 games. After a lot of poking and prodding, I was able to determine that part of his problem was rooted in understanding when he should be doing these things that he didn’t quite understand. It was this second piece of the puzzle that clued me in to the real problem. With no theme, most of our actions OR their timing lacked a recognizable reason. With no reasons, he couldn’t formulate a game plan and was just sitting there, waiting for others to tell him what to do. Poop.
This realization forced my hand. I had been sitting on a potential theme for the game for a couple of weeks. It worked perfectly into the mechanics and added a fun story to get people interested in the game. I didn’t want to use it because it wasn’t quite in line with the family-friendly goal of Lagniappe Games. Unfortunately, with player fun on the line and a fast approaching deadline for the competition, I HAD to go with the best option: DRAGONS. Let’s try that comparison game again:
Each turn, you will pick up your stack of cards, choose your favorite card and place it in front of you, and then pass the rest of the stack of cards to your left. That number at the top of the card is the number of “time counters” that you place on the card when you play it in front of you, and the one on the bottom is the value (Victory Points) at the end of the game. So, on each turn you will: 1) remove 1 counter from all of your cards, 2) choose a new card, 3) pause – because some abilities trigger at the end of the turn, 4) pass your hand. When the last counter is taken off of your card, you will perform any abilities written on the card and then place it face down in your score pile. Now, be careful: you only have 3 slots in which to work on those cards, the game ends when all cards are gone from all hands, and anything left unfinished in front of you counts against your score at the end of the game.
You are all kings and queens of your kingdoms. Ambassadors and Scouts estimate that a great war will arrive on your castle gates in roughly 12 days. Therefore, you seek to build the most powerful army on the continent in that short time. Fortunately, there are vendors who regularly rotate through the kingdoms carrying precious dragon eggs. With no limit of money, a mass of Beast Masters, Handlers, and Sorcerers to do the dirty work, and 3 hatcheries, you set out to make the most of your short time. Each day a new vendor will come and go, offering up your choice of eggs. Each egg requires a certain amount of time to incubate and specific hatchery preparations before the dragon can hatch. So, you must carefully budget your time and space. Complicating matters more, some of these eggs have powerful abilities which can help other eggs or suck the very life out of them.
*I did leave them both a little vague and short to speed this along*
Forget the ease of understanding, just look at how much of the process can be inferred through setting. New players figured out how to “draft” just because I called the hands vendors which rotate every day and said you’re buying an egg from them! Theme also gave me a fun way to give players the restrictions on the game without having to stop and say, “Oh, by the way. . .” 12 days (turns), 3 hatcheries, cost and actual work aren’t an issue for a king / queen, etc. Holy smokes!
Well, this is running a little longer than expected, but I think I got my point across. If you are having trouble with comprehension of your rules, turn progression, etc. consider your theme. Make sure your theme permeates the rules – don’t use game jargon and take your players out of the story. Most of all – have fun with it! Thanks for reading today, and please share YOUR thoughts 😀