Monday, April 28, 2008

The Importance of Theme in European Game Design

I have recently had some major epiphanies as a game designer - specifically with respect to the importance of theme. In fact, one might say that these epiphanies of mine represent critical conceptual breakthroughs in my personal journey towards becoming a better game designer (I'm afraid that many more will occur over the years as I continue to learn how much I don't know). To communicate my new found understandings to the fullest extent possible, let me first back up and paint a big picture by beginning with two basic premises:

1. There are many people out there designing games.

I attend a monthly meeting with a group of local people who get together and playtest each other's game prototypes as well as discuss various issues in the realm of game design. On a larger scale, on the Board Game Designers Forum website and on the game design forum on Board Game Geek, there are many many people having conversations about game design. There are also many more people out there unfamiliar with these venues who are also trying to design games on their own (either with a serious intent on making quality games or simply out of curiosity). My point here is that there are LOTS of people out there trying to design games.

2. Very few people out there are designing really "good" games.

With this second premise, I automatically introduce the question of "What really represents 'good'?" In my game evaluation criteria I mentioned six specific areas of evaluation that an evaluator can rank on a scale of 1 to 7. These six areas are:


Many game designs are simply in the early stages of their development and, thus, have not "matured" yet into good games. They are still in the "the - game - stinks - but - has - the - potential - to - be - good - after - lots - of - refining" stage (for more actual specifics - sans humor - on my scale of the various stages of game design click here). However, even with refining, many game designs still don't truly progress into the "6" or "7" ranges with respect to the categories outlined previously. They simply remain average or mediocre games. True, the first challenge is to get a game out of the lower ranges (i.e. to try and get the game to a point where it's not fundamentally broken or completely a chore to play) but many game designers don't progress their designs to a truly great level (myself included). Why is this?

A quote from Adam Smith applies here. Before writing "Wealth of Nations", Mr. Smith wrote a book entitled "The Theory of Moral Sentiments". In that book, he makes the following statement that is applicable to our current discussion:

"In all the liberal and ingenious arts, in painting, in poetry, in music, in eloquence, in philosophy, the great artist feels always the real imperfection of his own best works, and is more sensible than any man how much they fall short of that ideal perfection of which he has formed some conception, which he imitates as well he can, but which he despairs of ever equalling. It is the inferior artist only, who is ever perfectly satisfied with his own performances. He has little conception of this ideal perfection, about which he has little employed his thoughts; and it is chiefly to the works of other artists, of, perhaps, a still lower order, that he deigns to compare his own works."

It takes a lot of work to make something truly great. And, lots of work equals lots of time. Also, to get something to a truly great level, one must be willing to listen to harsh criticism - not with the intent to be defensive - but with the intent to learn. We also must be able to have a correct set of standards in our minds so as to be able to properly apply our own set of criticisms to our game designs - lest they languish in the realm of mediocrity.

My recent epiphanies concern the development of theme in European game design and how many of us are "lazy" in our theme development. We allow ourselves to be satisfied with sub-par themes. This relates to the "Integration" category in my game design criteria but it deals with issues greater than just integration within the game's inter-relating parts. First, let's explore why theme is so important and then we'll look at why many of us justify our own "theme laziness".

From the standpoint of potential publishers, manufacturers, and game players, they need a reason to play your game. They need a solid answer from within themselves to the question "Why should I take a look at this person's game?" For many game designers, their internal rationale concerning the answer to that question goes something like this:

"I designed this game - isn't that reason enough? I've nurtured this little game design since it was just a baby and I know in my heart just how awesome it is."

Unfortunately, other than in the case of automatic "yes men" such as immediate family and friends (who will usually just offer you encouragement on your game design instead of actual useful, critical feedback) others out there who are making decisions with respect to which games to look at and which ones not to (as well as which games to invest in financially and which ones not to) will not find such rationale as providing a sufficient enough reason to spend their time listening to you pitch your game - much less sitting down to play your game.

Game designers must master the critical art of empathy - the ability to look at their game design from a removed perspective and not merely from the "eye glasses" of their own experiences and biases. So, what kind of "reasons" for trying a game or are worth appealing to in other people?

In a previous article I wrote on the theory of what makes for "fun" in a gaming experience, I detailed some of the many specific reasons why someone may derive enjoyment out of a game. I listed 17 different motivations or purposes that people apply in their rationale for why they are participating in a game or what they are trying to get out of a game. Also, in another previous article, I detailed a variety of mechanics that can be used in the process of designing a game.

It must be kept in mind that game mechanics are a means to an end. They are used as vehicles to help convey a fun experience to an audience. Unfortunately, we as game designers are often misguided in our perception of mechanics because many of us have inferred the wrong things from games we have seen that have been published out there in the realm of European games. These incorrect inferences we make can cause us to begin the process of designing games with the completely wrong approach. What type of inferences am I talking about? Well, let me present a quick scenario and then I'll discuss how it relates to our topic.

Imagine working at a lower level job where there are a lot of rules and restrictions in place. In that setting, you find that occasionally you work alongside the owner's son. You notice that the owner's son doesn't always follow these small rules and restrictions that your manager strongly emphasized to you when you began the job. You also notice that the manager doesn't criticize the owner's son for breaking these smaller rules. In your mind you make the inference "if it's okay for him to do it then it's okay for me to do it and the manager must not have been too serious about those rules in the first place". Then, you start letting yourself lapse in your adherence to these rules and, almost immediately, your manager says "Hey, do you want to get fired? You had better shape up!" Shocked, you wait until your shift is over and you approach your manager. In a very honest and genuinely curious fashion you ask your manager why he reproved you. He responds "because you were breaking the rules". You then reply "but so was the boss's son". Your manager then drops his head, rubs his eyes, puts his hand on your shoulder, looks you in the eye and, almost as if explaining a concept to a very young child, explains "but he's the boss's son".

The point of this story is that we as game designers look at many of the games that have been published out there and infer the wrong kinds of things from them (much like how the main character in my story didn't understand that different rules apply based on who you are in a given scenario). Unless your name is Knizia, Kramer, or Seyfarth, mechanical game descriptions alone will not be enough in most cases to sufficiently inspire potential publishers to look at your game. Without the benefit of name recognition, you have to reach out to their imagination and give them a "reason" for looking at your game and that can most easily be achieved by developing an interesting theme.

The ironic thing is that theme is often an afterthought in the minds of those who are trying to design European games. It's looked at as a required necessity - but not a priority - and, if the game must have a theme, it's slapped on. This type of theme-being-an-afterhtought type of thinking is justified by inferences designers make based on other games that have been published by major publishers that employ themes which are, quite honestly, pretty lousy.

Here's an example of what I mean. Take the 2006 Spiel des Jahres winner: "Thurn and Taxis". It was designed by Andreas Seyfarth - the famous designer of the top rated game "Puerto Rico". What's the theme of Thurn and Taxis?


Now, I want you to imagine yourself - someone who is not on a first name basis with a publisher - trying to pitch your game to a publisher by saying, "Hi. You don't know me but I've designed a game I was hoping you would look at. It's about...... delivering the mail......"

Doesn't sound very interesting does it?

If you were to only be allowed to describe your game's theme and you weren't permitted at all to describe the mechanics, would your game sound interesting to play? Would you want to play it? Honestly? Further, would a complete stranger want to play your game based on the theme alone? If not, then good luck trying to get a publisher to look at your game.

Many game designers who are trying to design European style games are studious with respect to their mechanics but lazy with their themes. They think their mechanics are what will sell their game, that the theme isn't that important, and then they justify their rationale by citing plenty of examples from the field of published games where the themes are uninteresting or where there is no connection at all between the theme and the mechanics of the game. I'm here to tell you that, from my perspective, if you're not the boss's son, you have to play by the rules. And, if you're not Andreas Seyfarth, you're probably not going to sell your game based on it being about delivering the mail.

This my friends is the water in which we swim. The theme of one's game is really its best selling point unless one is a well recognized designer. We must invest more time in developing a theme that is interesting and that naturally invites others to want to play our game. Unfortunately, most of us don't invest enough time or creative energy in this process. I would also contend that, even if most designers consider theme to be important, they don't have the acumen to truly see what makes for an interesting theme and what doesn't. For example, does your game have a generic "business" theme? If so, can you see why that immediately saddles your game with baggage? A theme needs to reach out and capture the imagination of your potential audience. Does "business" really do that? In very few cases it does but not for many people.

A theme needs to engage the imaginations of the players - but don't take my thesis too far in the other direction either. A game's theme doesn't have to be an in-your-face epic of explosions, space aliens, massive planetary wars or galactic conflicts to be effective. It may simply be an amusing little story about ants in a colony - but it must appeal positively to a person's imagination in some way such that they will want to play your game.

I would also contend that, unless our intention is to design a purely abstract game, we must select a theme as early on in the process of designing a game as possible so that the theme can serve as a guiding light to help us determine which mechanics should be in the game and which ones should not.

Further, if someone says, "Hey, that sounds like an interesting game. I'll try it." and then sits down and is introduced to a series of mechanics that really don't reflect the theme at all, you're going to disappoint and perhaps even annoy the people who decided to give you the benefit of the doubt. If your theme is a "stretch" - meaning something like "yeah that bidding mechanic 'could' represent ants gathering food - but it's really abstract" then your game's ability to inspire people's imagination will immediately lose its momentum.

For many people to really appreciate a theme, they need to feel a sense of what their "role" is in the game and it needs to "make sense" to them. If a person is asking themselves "Why would I do this if I were in that position? If my goal is to build walls in a certain way, why is the fictional person in the 'story" of the game awarding points in the manner that they are?" There needs to be a sense of empathy that can easily be evoked from the players. If there is a "king" that awards "points", can the players easily see how, if they were the "king" in the game, that the way the king is awarding points is by using a system of judgment that, if the players were in the same situation, would seem reasonable to them as well? Just pulling an example out of thin air, does it make sense to the players that the king is awarding points because of how many different horses a player has ridden in a given week? I know that may seem silly but it's not too far removed from the logic many designers of European games settle for when determining their theme.

So, is there a lack of connection between the mechanics and the story your game is trying to tell? If your theme appeals to a potential publisher's imagination in a positive way, they may listen to you pitch your game. But then, afterwards, if they don't feel a connection between the theme and the mechanics as you pitch your game, if they can't visualize the "story" of the game, they will probably not try your game. (For a good discussion on theme summarizing a game, check out Jonathan Degann's article over at the Journal of Board Game Design.)

Even if a game is a "good" game with an interesting story, getting noticed is yet another step (if a game is designed in the forest and no publisher is around to see it, did it really get designed)? The fact of the matter is, many game designs out there are simply not original enough to break out of the baggage that naturally results from our pre-existing gaming environment. In other words, someone designing, say, a role-playing game with a fantasy theme is not designing their game within a cultural vacuum. This world we live in is a world where Dungeons & Dragons already exists. Were it not so, a fantasy based role-playing game would maybe have more traction in getting noticed. As it is, natural comparisons will be made between any fantasy based RPG and D&D. Unless the new game offers something that has here-to-for not been seen, it's unlikely that the game will "win" the natural comparison that will be made by many out there in the audience of potential game buyers as well as potential game publishers and manufacturers between the game design in question and an already existing industry standard. (The irony in this process is that it's likely the ideas for many of the games being designed by aspiring designers were conceived of and nurtured within a realm of experience with the industry standard games the resulting game designs will be ultimately compared with.)

One final thing to consider with respect to theme and European game design is how Eurogames tend towards a certain standard of "simplicity" in the rules. Usually, to evoke a theme more and more, there is an assumption that there needs to be more and more rules to help flush out that theme. Another one of my epiphanies is that this is not necessarily the case. Are the mechanics in the game "Hey, That's My Fish!" thematic? Yes they are. Are they simple? Yes they are. The point is that the mechanics in "Hey, That's My Fish!" don't ask the player to make a huge leap in logic so as to accept a real stretch in associating the mechanics with the game's story. A game doesn't have to have tons of rules to be thematic. It just needs to be "true" to its story and its story needs to be something others will consider worth taking the time to experience.


Aridni said...

I really liked this article. I have been working at a board game store for the past 9 months, and have had quiet a few game ideas running through my head as a result.

Small nagging problems with some of them have kept me from moving forward with most of them.

Matt said...

Very well thought out article. I think Theme is the big reason why games like Ticket to Ride and Zooloretto are so popular. If Zooloretto were just collecting groups of colored cubes with each color going in a separate bin it wouldn't be interesting. However, throw in some really cute animals and give me the opportunity to be a zookeeper and you have my attention.

Mike Compton said...

Matt, I like your comment about Zooloretto because it gets to the essence of one of my main points. Feeling some sort of "story" in the game creates a situation where the game appeals positively to the imagination of the players. Cubes wouldn't do that - but pandas do. :)

Mike Compton said...

To aridni, I think "small nagging problems" are the bane of many a game designer. :)

And, hopefully each small problem in a game design is something that is actually limited and fixable instead of a symptom of a more chronic, systemic problem in the game. When problems turn out to merely be the tips of the iceberg, it can be very discouraging.

Seth Jaffee said...

This article (unlike the la Citta one from like, a year ago to which I just posted a fairly harsh comment...) is really good. I agree with you 100%!

When you talk to publishers, they will all tell you stories which can be very misleading. Jay Tummelson decided to publish Caylus knowing nothing about it (he liked Ys, and he thought the board looked nice). There are lots of stories about Knizia prototypes scratched out on napkins or whatever - not only without theme, but with sub-par presentation.

In our position as a "nobody" in game design, we can't afford to have no theme (as you suggest) and we also can't afford to have a poor presentation - no matter how unimportant the publishers tell you that is. I just don't believe it.

On the up side, there may be a silver lining on this storm cloud over our heads. Looking at the big picture, maybe forcing new game designers to better integrate theme into their games will translate to more better games on the market. Maybe the overall quality of games will increase based on the need of the average game designer to do a better job simply to get looked at.

On the other hand, the big names seem to be able to publish whatever they want, irrespective of actually putting time or effort into development. I played Aquaretto a couple of times (and Zooloretto before that) and I feel they were not developed as well as a published game should have been. I suspect if I - a nobody - were submitting those games to a publisher, I'd be turned down without a second thought after the game was played, because they're simpy not as good as they could be.

August said...

Wow! Great article Mike! Your epiphanies are spawning my own epiphanies now, thanks! :)

Mike Compton said...

I've posted this article over on the newly refurbished Board Game Designers Forum in the Game Theory section. With the revamped website, the forums are starting over and I thought this article would stir up some conversation. Here's the link:

And, I must say, the new look and feel of the BGDF is really great.