So far we’ve talked about Noun theme (how you name the stuff in your game and how it relates to the situation you are presenting), Verb theme (how you name the actions in your game and how it relates to the situation you are presenting), and Adverb theme (the feelings evoked by the gameplay and how they relate to the situation you are presenting). Today we’re talking about Adjective theme, or how a board game looks. It’s not about how good the art is, or how impressive the minis are: it’s about whether or not the components support and enforce the other three types of theme.
Now I have to admit, for a long time, I sneered at players who would think of components as theme. “Oh, look at those minis, so thematic!” sounded like kids who get their first non-picture book and wondered how they were supposed to get the story. Then, as I got my first game signed, and started thinking of self-publishing, I started thinking of those components more, cand… oh boy should I have thought of them earlier.
Think of all the games which look somber and serious, but then are dynamic and quick-paced, or the other way around. One of the best examples is the Bruno Cathala card game Crazy Penguins, which is a quick but thinky card game of machiavelian intrigue and tense strategy. It’s about giving your opponents cards so they can fight each other and leave you alone. It’s an amazing game that evokes Game of Thrones, but instead is… ridiculous, cartoony penguins.
The art style here does two things: first, it attracts casual players who are then turned off by the gameplay, which is all nuance; second it suggests to the hobby players that this is a game to be played on a light and chaotic level. And of course, it can be, but then it’s just one more card game. That extra level of strategy, where it becomes interesting, is one for which the game’s look gets in the way.
On the other side of the spectrum, have you ever tried to get muggles to play Ethnos? It looks serious, it looks dark, it looks like those strategy games where you stare at each other while contemplating the board, yet it’s a quick-paced game of card play and combos, which every fan of Ticket to Ride should give a shot to.
If you want to look at better combinations of Art Style and theme, good examples on the silly side are Camel Cup or Potion Explosion, and on the serious side you have games like Godfather: Corleone’s Empire or Goa. Overall, most of the big hits are game where you have a good idea of the feeling of the game when looking at the box – that’s how you create an expectation you can fulfill, after all.
But art style is not the only part of Adjective theme: so is component choice. As I said in the Noun theme post, having realistic resources really supports the theme, because it enforces the vocabulary you want players to have, but it also goes beyond that: I recently had a discussion with an indie game designer by the name of Jamey Stegmaier (if you don’t know him, you should check him out: the kid has potential!) I asked him why he decided to go with resource tracks, rather than resource tokens, in his Civ game Tapestry.
Jamey: On the track, I thought it would feel more macro–a broad look at your civilization, opposed to games where you’re collecting individual resources by harvesting, cutting down trees, etc…
And it is true that having the tracks, instead of individual pieces, gives that sense of scale: while the scale of resources in games are always abstracted (how many dead trees does this one brown cube represent?), having a physical piece does make suggestions, specifically when, like Stonemaier usually does, the pieces are realistic representations of the bits in the game world. It’s pretty easy to assume that drum of oil in Scythe represents a single drum of oil.
Overall table presence
Sometimes, art and components are both on par, but the overall game still feels off. Michael Kiesling’s Vikings is a great game, but it’s one of the most unthematic games out there, failing on all four types of theme.
As you can see in that picture, like every Viking chieftain ever, you are filling up a grid with islands to place different types of vikings of them. And like in real life, islands (which all are parallel lines) can only contain vikings which share a job: you wouldn’t put a Soldier on the same island as a Chef, of course!
But looking at that picture, does it look in any way thematic? Does it suggest a Viking theme at all? Of course not. It suggests abstract. It’s not the meeples (the horned helmets are a nice add honestly), nor the art (which I really like), it’s the fact that the game looks like a grid. You can look at that picture and learn a few of the rules, which is great from a gameplay perspective, but takes away from the theme.
My first design, Cartographia, is a game about mapping the world in the Age of Discoveries. You discover parts of the world, and once a region is discovered, it can be mapped by spending resource cards, in which case you had a token to the board to say it’s mapped.
The night before the pitch that led to the game’s signing, we played a game with new players so I could practice teaching the game, and make sure we remembered everything about it -the game had been with other publishers for a while, so we hadn’t played it for several months. And throughout, those new players referred to mapping as “building”. We corrected them, but it still wouldn’t sink in. Crap.
After the publisher signed the game, he brought up that exact point, and together we brainstormed a great fix: that token you place on the board would come from a dual-layered player board: under would be the drawn world map, and the token on top of it would be a blank piece of paper. With that change, when you take the token to go place it on the shared board, you also reveal the growing map of the world from your personal player board.
Wow, imagine how cool a picture of it would be right now! Hopefully, my words have done the idea justice and you can see it. Since that change, people never use a word other than map.
This was the last of the Grammar as Theme articles. Hopefully it was helpful to some of you in breaking down the various ways in which a game’s theme can be revealed, and therefore what people mean when they use the term.
I’ll switch gear to something else for a bit, but eventually I’ll come back to this and discuss how the theme of my own designs evolved over time along those four axes.