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Now that we've talked about what you can expect, we're going to get into the basics of game design: theme and mechanics. Before we do though, I'd like to point out that League of Gamemakers published a blog discussing "The False Dichotomy" of Theme vs. Mechanics. It is a much more thorough analysis of the elements of a game and is definitely worth the read if you are inclined to do so. Despite this, we're going to stick with explaining the basics of game design using theme and mechanics because it simplifies the explanation without losing the essential content.
Today we'll talk about the importance of theme and our next post will discuss the importance of mechanics. After that, we’ll look at them together and tell you which one you need to focus on when you first begin to design your game. Let's get down to business and discuss the importance of theme in game design.
The easiest way to explain theme in board games is: it's the 'why'. The theme is the background story, the motivation and provides the context to what the players need to accomplish. It's how players understand the relationship between the components, mechanics and how they should act in game. For these reasons, you usually have to describe the theme of a game to new players before you even say one word on how it’s played (there are some people who will say otherwise). Therefore, it’s very important to think about this early on when designing in order to have an easy way of presenting your game to new and unfamiliar players (which is basically everyone).
Theme is also important in the respect that you should always keep your theme in mind when designing a game. You should be constantly going back to what players are trying to accomplish and why as you design your game. When we say what players are trying to accomplish, we don't just mean the final goal. We also mean all those small actions that come from the theme and lead to victory. In Jason C. Hill/Flying Frog's 'Last Night on Earth', it's the scrambling to acquire weapons and equipment, running from zombies, and killing zombies. All those small accomplishments in game flow naturally from the zombie theme of the game. If instead you had to acquire different hats in order to ensure the circus show can go on, which will then chase away the zombies, no one is going to have a clue what's going on. Players won't understand what they are supposed to do, when, or understand what a component actually represents.
Even in an abstract game, you’re going to want to come up with a light theme to provide direction to what you’re doing. For instance, Go (which quite frankly I’m surprised has a theme) is about life and death (yeah, Go figure). Every placing of a stone goes back to that life and death theme (in a very abstract way). The point is, if players don’t know why they’re playing your game or what they’re trying to accomplish, you probably don’t know either. You may think you do, but you probably just created a mess.
The last thing I want to mention about theme is that your theme needs to come across mostly from gameplay, not by how much backstory you can squeeze into a rulebook or components. Look at the rulebooks for some of your favourite board games; chances are the theme/backstory takes up a couple paragraphs or less. This is because that’s all you really need in order to understand and "get into" a game if it’s designed with theme in mind. In Matt Leacock's 'Pandemic', you’re a disease fighting team trying to find cures to 4 diseases spreading wildly across the globe. With that, players are set. Sure, they’ll ask questions about what they can do, but what they can do all flows pretty naturally from the theme.
The other reason most games have a small backstory is because gaming is about creating a unique playing experience that allows players to manipulate their environment within a set of rules. Gaming is not about limiting players to a set script. Players want choice, so don't write a two page backstory for your 10 minute filler game's rulebook because you'll limit your players and yourself in what you can include in your game.
That's it for this time. Next post we’ll take a look at the importance of mechanics.
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Board game designer and developer discussing the ins and outs of game design.