Designer Diary #2: The Setting

This post is Part 2 of a Designer Diary for With a Smile & a Gun, currently on Kickstarter! In this section, I talk about the thematic evolution of the game, and the thought process behind it.

Once I started work on what would become this game, the mechanisms had created some requirements for the theme:
• I needed a setting that would support and suggest the theme of intrigue and underhandedness;
• I needed the players to have a third entity to compete with, but one which worked under different rules and therefore couldn’t just be a third of whatever role the players would fill;
• I needed a thematic explanation for the bonus of the player who took the lowest sum of action dice.

The first theme I went for was the discovery of Atlantis: the players were rival researchers, trying to be known as the world’s leading expert, and would stop at nothing to discredit their opponent. There was also a capitalist mogul who had sent a ship to find those relics, and that acted as the third player.

That theme didn’t really last. It only took a few tests before I realized how clunky it made everything, and as much as I liked the more original theme, I defaulted to a gangster theme—which checked all the boxes, but was a bit bland—, covered everything in GTA screencaps, and told myself I’d figure theme out later.

I developed the game around that gangster theme: the police as the third player, the thematic explanation for needing to lay low, the brawn-vs-brain decisions. I always saw it as a placeholder though. I wanted to avoid making yet another game about generic organized crime: while I was working on this game, three Godfather-themed games came out, and I wanted my game to stand out. If I could set the game anywhere, why not go for a more unique theme?

Every time I’d try out a new theme though, it added expectations that I never intended to meet: I made the game about a mutiny on a pirate ship, and people asked “when do we go out and plunder?”; I made it about sorcerers and people asked “why can’t I just shoot fireballs at them; modern politics led to “when do we get to the debate?”; Caesar’s assassination to “what if people stay loyal to the Emperor?”

By then, what I realized is that a game’s theme is not just about fitting the game’s mechanisms, but also setting up what the players expect to do. Sure, the game is a perfect representation of a mutiny, but this is not the game people want when they hear a title about pirates. However, it all makes so much sense when you apply it to a game about gangsters—which, of course it does, that’s the theme I developed the game around!

I think that, rationally, I knew the gangster theme was the way to go, but I couldn’t convince myself it was the right call, kind of like when you know you should go to bed but instead browse Netflix until 3 am. That is, until I found the Al Capone quote. I don’t remember exactly how I fell on it, but it was love at first sight:

“You can get pretty far in life with a smile, but you can get a helluva lot farther with a smile and a gun.”

I love this line, but I also thought it was such a perfect representation of the game’s tone: it starts all nice and kind-hearted, but then gets darker. The abrupt change of direction makes it funny, not laugh-out-loud funny, but the kind of funny where you smile and exhale from your nose. There’s a threat in that sentence, but there’s also the smile. It’s the bravado of those who know they’re in control of the situation.

That was the time where I committed to the mobster theme. If the theme wasn’t the most unique, I could find an art style that would make the game stand out.

That was last December. Over the holiday period, I was at my parents’ house, scrolling through Twitter, and I fell on this tweet:

external image

That barn illustration blew me away. Black-and-white, the cross-hatching, the pop of colour, the atmosphere that was somehow both peaceful and spooky. I wanted to see more of that art. I wanted my game to take place in this universe, in this palette. I contacted Justin that day, and I was overwhelmed with joy when he accepted to join the project.

And just like his Christmas cards, the game devolved into a spooky flavour. He is who he is.

I grew up on D&D and Lord of the Rings, and I’ve started loving those fantastical aspects into non-medieval settings, be it Westerns like in the Dark Tower, modern times like in Dresden Files, or sci-fi stuff like in Shadowrun. Fantasy Noir sounded like a fascinating universe, and Justin rolled with it.

The fantastical aspect is subtle: I don’t with to overshadow the noir. I don’t want to fall into creating expectations I can’t meet again: if you’re looking, you’ll see the easter eggs. You’ll see the signs.

And when the surprise happens, you’ll think “oh, I should have seen that one coming”.

In the next entry, I’ll talk about the mechanical evolution, the real nuts and bolts stuff. Again, hopefully a few of those lessons I learned throughout the development will be helpful to others.

If this game sounds interesting, you can go look it up at

Grammar and Theme p5: Adjective theme

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.

Art Style

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.

Picture from

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.

Component Choice

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…

Image from

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.

Image from BGG user Pouringraine

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.

Anecdote time!

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.

Theme and Grammar p4: Adverb Theme

Now on to Adverb Theme. If Verb Theme is how closely your decision process as a player matches that of your avatar in the game world, Adverb Theme is about the emotions that come up during that decision process, and how they match the emotions suggested by the theme. As a game designer, they’re a level removed from your control, because they are, of course, dependent on the players. In the Noun theme post, I talked about the frequent criticism that some games are themeless because they could be about anything: while sometimes that’s a comment on the game’s setting (“Sure, you’re building a medieval castle in Italy, but you could be building a Colony on Mars or a Bee Hive”), it’s often about that feel.

Because this subject is by nature more abstract, let’s dive in what I think is a perfect example: Lost Cities. Actually, before I went with the Grammar shtick, this whole series started with what I call “Knizia theme”, and Lost Cities is one of its best, and most well-known, examples. Still, a quick overview of the game if you don’t know what it is:

Lost Cities is a card game themed around expeditions. Players are rival entrepreneurs who fund explorers to go around exotic locales and bring fame and fortune back. Or artifacts? Or maybe it’s taking pictures and posting them on Instragram. Who cares, really? The game is abstracted to the bare minimum, and many would call it abstract, with that “it could be anything!” Yet, I argue, it couldn’t: that theme is the perfectest fit.

Picture from BoardGameGeek

Mechanically, the game offers 5 suits, each containing cards numbered 2-10, and 3 Handshake cards. You can play cards in your tableau, as long as they are higher than the number of the last card you placed in that color, with Handshakes having to be played before number cards. At the end of the hand, you score each color in which you played, adding up the cards, subtracting 20, and, if you have 1, 2, or 3 handshakes, doubling, tripling, or quadrupling, respectively -which could pay a lot, or, if you run short, could cost a lot. You also gain 20 points if you play 8 cards of a color. The game is mostly about not giving your opponent cards they need, not showing your opponent what card you need, and fighting against the clock of the deck running out.

Now the noun theme is barely existent: the cards represent advancement, the handshakes represent how much funding goes into the thing. There’s no money, no explorers, and the adventures are nothing but rows of cards. The verbs aren’t even clear in what you’re doing thematically: drawing cards and playing cards isn’t what I think of when I think of planning an expedition. The game is a lot easier to understand in abstract, mechanical terms: it’s almost impossible to teach it with any hint of theme.

Yet, if I were to describe the experience, I’d say it’s a game about taking risk, about deciding when to pull the trigger, based on incomplete information, and going from planning to action: you can’t wait until you know exactly how it will end before you get started. It’s a game about hedging your bets, about knowing when to go full throttle and when to take your time. It’s a game where you don’t directly hurt your opponent, but if you fall on something they need, you bury it deep. It’s a game about sometimes digging deeper and finding a gem, but more often then not you get something of little importance. Doesn’t that sound like expeditions to unknown lands? Like funding archaeological missions?

Many games described as Abstract thrive on Adverb Theme. Individual mechanisms seem abstract, yet the experience the game delivers is described in terms which clearly resonate with the theme. Sure, Lost Cities could be about funding start ups in Silicon Valley, or any other situation where you take risks based on limited information. Likewise, whether it’s finding cures while controlling the diseases’ spreading, closing portals to Hell while fighting demons, building pumps while controlling raising water levels, or negotiating alliances with barbarian leaders while defending Rome from their attacks, Pandemic is a game about trying to progress on long term solutions when you have time in between two emergencies. Are they less thematic because the Noun theme could be changed?

What do you think are other good examples of Adverb Theme, games where the actions and mechanisms are not necessarily good matches, but where the theme perfectly fits the emotional journey you go on during a game?

Theme and Grammar p3: Verb Theme

Now on to Verb Theme. If noun theme is the labels of the stuff, verb theme is the label you use to describe what you do in the game. The whole “Grammar theme” schtick really started with the verbs, inspired by Rahdo’s use of verbs to describe categories of games based on what you do in them. This question, to me, is a three-step process:

  1. What do you do thematically?
  2. What do you do mechanically?
  3. How closely are 1 and 2 related?

Now some games are perfect matches, and others are more on the WTF side. Truly, it’s a question of abstraction: as you try to fit a real-life situation into a 30, 60, or even 240-minute experience, you have to cut stuff out, and the more you cut, the bigger that divide gets. Battleline is a game about strategic combat, about planning where to send troops to react to your opponents. However, how much of that can you fit in a 20-minute card game? How can you fit something that evolves over months, something that takes a lifetime to master, to a game that you can teach in 5, play in 20, and not feel completely overwhelmed? By cutting stuff out, by abstracting large situations, by limiting the game to a manageable lot.

Picture by BGG user Charlescab

The games usually most held up as thematic are combat-heavy games centered around verbs such as Kill, Destroy, Annihilate, Exterminate, and other synonyms. If you look at the Thematic category on BoardGameGeek, that’s mostly what you’ll find. Of course, a game about combat, where you control pieces which attack your opponents’, well that’s a pretty close fit. I’m farther away from the action, I have all the time in the world, and a much clearer, bird-eye view of the battlefield, but the decisions I’m making are still the decisions a heroic knight, a Space marine, or a lieutenant would take.

On the other hand, my beloved Euros, about Building a castle in the European Middle Ages: what do you actually do? You’re actually building stuff. You’re collecting resources, then pay those resources to gain a card or tile representing the building you’ve built. It feels like the actions you’re taking in Vinhos, Brass, or Agricola, are pretty close to the ones you’d be taking in real life if you were in those situations as a Winery owner, British industrial, or medieval farmer.

Then, why are those games not seen as thematic?

I think the biggest difference is not in what you do, but how you get to do it.

In Memoir 44, the main verb is Fight, and that’s what you do. How do you fight? Well you play a card, move units around, and fight. Sure, the cards you have in hand do limit what you can do, and you have to plan around them, but the main thing you’re interacting with is the Fight.

Picture by BGG user RicMadeira

Then, you have games like Teotihuacan -and before I crap on it a bit, I have to point out I really like it! However, as much as I like the Teotihuacan for its tough decisions and the strategic and tactical thinking in it, it is pretty unthematic. Teotihuacan is a Build game: you even have the physical Pyramid getting built throughout the game. It’s a game about getting stuff and turning it into buildings: so far, so good. However, there’s the whole rondel/dice worker stuff: do you imagine Mayan leaders planning the building of a pyramid based on how the work sites were disposed in a perfect circle around the city, and how workers could only go so far, and how you had to plan them going to the same action exactly on the same turn? And how they couldn’t walk counterclockwise? Were Mayan cities built on that hill where our grandfathers went to school, where you had to walk uphill both ways? Were they built on that Mobius strip staircase from Inception?

Not only is the mechanism unthematic, it’s also the main thing you’re thinking about during the game. Any fun you have during the game, it’s not about getting stone and building stuff: it’s about getting all your 5s on one spot, getting a huge action, and triggering a scoring phase early because two of those 5s ascend. Sure, the Build part is thematic, but it’s not a Build game: it’s a Plan game. More accurately, it’s a Solve game, where not only do you plan your moves -you plan moves in every game-, but you solve the optimization puzzle presented to you. That Solving the main thing you’re doing, the main thing you care about, it’s the main thing differentiating it from the hundreds of other games which you could describe as “get wood, get stone, build stuff”. And that Solving (which again, is so fun and I love it) is absolutely unthematic -not that Mayan leaders didn’t solve problems, but that the things we consider during the game have absolutely no relation to the things our avatars in the game would.

So that’s the thing to keep in mind: Verb Theme is about how tightly what you do in the game world represents what you do in the real world, but you can’t limit it to the effect of those actions. Given that we interact with the board game through the decision we make, its that decision-making process we have to look at: how close is that decision making to those our avatar would take?

Theme and Grammar p2: Noun Theme

Theme & Grammar is a series in which I explore different facets of theme in board games. Click here for the overview.

So Noun Theme, as I said last time, is the labels you put on stuff: this yellow cube is gold, and this grey one is a soldier, and this track there is your Political power. If you were to retheme a game, from Star Wars to Game of Thrones, or from spice trading to golem building, this is what you’d change.

Noun theme is the vocabulary used to describe the pieces in the game, which means it’s the concepts we use to make sense and learn the game, and the vocabulary we use to talk about the game.

Learning: Compare these two sentences:

  • You take a yellow cube on this action, turn it into a pink cube on this other action, and at the end of a round, pay 1 pink cube for each action you took.
  • You get wheat at the Farm, turn it into food at the Bakery, and at the end of a round, each of your worker eats one food.

Which of those do you think will be the easiest to learn? Of course, having that thematic vocabulary means it’s easier to make sense of the concepts the game throws at us. However, theme doesn’t help on its own: it’s only how well it represents what happens in the game:

  • You get a Gold at the Rocket ship, turn it into a Pollution at the Zoo, and at the end of a round, each of your Wizards makes one Pollution disappear.
  • You get a Schmamuul at Ozarakas’ Hut, turn it into a Gom Gom at the Darikan Academy, and at the end of a round, each member of your Kerra costs you one Gom Gom.

Does that help? Of course not. There’s no logical relationship to base your understanding on in the first, and the second is only gibberish. These examples are more egregious, but my point is that this vocabulary is a huge boon to learning a game, and therefore, should be used as the tool that it is: a weird, bizarre theme has certain advantages, but it definitely loses points on this one. Daniel Solis (who by the way is an amazing follow) talked on the GD of NC podcast (other amazing resource) about how Junk Orbit used to be a game about aristocrats putting catapults on Penny farthings to throw piles of cash to each other, which is an amazing theme and would get me to sit down, but most likely doesn’t help people understand the game. The same statement is true about using proper nouns, especially from a set fiction that not everyone knows, for whom it’s basically still gibberish.

Talking: After we’ve learned a game, we still use that vocabulary: we ask questions, we read card effects, we describe actions, we ask others to pass us specific bits which are out of reach. It’s what makes games which over-rely on complex icons, and never name them, so frustrating. As much as I love Arkham Horror LCG, I get angry when I draw one of the unnamed shapes.

“What did you draw?” “A… plane with… tails?”

I also think there’s a large spectrum of how thematic the vocabulary of a game is. If you play Splendor on a large table and can’t reach the stacks of chips, do you say “I’ll take two emeralds,” or “two greens”? On the other hand, in Scythe, do you ever say “This costs two browns”? In Terra Mystica, do you go up the blue track, but in Endeavor, you go up the Money track. Some games don’t bother naming the resources, but others barely go further. What pushes you one way or another?

  • Thematic use: You use wood to build stuff, and food to feed your worker. That means that the terminology you use follows the narrative: it’s why we say “wood” in Agricola, but “green” in Splendor.
  • Interchangeability: You go up on tracks to represent your advancements in both Endeavor and Terra Mystica. In Endeavor, each track has its own use: in Terra Mystica, they’re all the same. Sure, objectives evaluate one rather than the other, but that’s not an inherent difference: it’s a difference in what other stuff requires. When I teach the game, I say “these tracks all help you with objectives”, but in Endeavor, I have to point out “this one helps you get workers, this one helps you pay for your workers, this one…”. That is proof that they are inherently different.
  • Component: So obviously, calling a resource by its color is the shorthand we use to refer to them when the theme doesn’t help. That being said, in games where the color is not the bit’s main feature, you will call them by their name. It’s why we say “Oil” in Scythe, even though the resources are all mostly interchangeable: what else would we call it?

This type of theme is where a lot of Euros get criticized for “pasted on theme”, mainly with the criticism “it could have been anything”. Of course, a game about building a city could be about building Florence in the Renaissance, a Colony on Mars, a stone age village, or the lost city of Atlantis, or the Capital of Raghuerikka after the Gerrass destroyed it in the last age: as long as it’s about building a city, only the words will change. So why do we have so many Euros going with the boring Renaissance European nobility themes? Why are we always building castles and cathedrals?

That’s because Noun theme is only one type of theme! Next time, we’ll look at… Adjective Themes!

Theme and Grammar: Overview

A lot of board gamers talk about theme: thematic game, pasted-on theme, dripping with theme. I don’t think there’s a single other term -not even worker placement- which is used in as many different ways as theme: it’s the world your game is set in, it’s the artwork, the table presence, the actions you take.

Picture from BGG user Tankx07

I’ve found four ways people use it, and while they overlap some, I think they are quite separate, and should be treated as such. Because I used to be an ESL teacher, I name these different types of theme after 4 parts of speech: Noun, Adjective, Verb, and Adverb.

  • Noun Theme is the labels you put on stuff in your game: this meeple is called a Soldier, this yellow card is called Run, this number here is your Political power. It’s linking a part of the game (whether a component or a mechanism) with the virtual world.
  • Verb Theme is how what you do in the game relates to what your avatar does in the game world. Where noun theme looks at pieces, verb theme looks at actions: How aligned are the thematic descriptions and the mechanical impacts of what you do.
  • Adjective Theme is the looks of your game. It’s related, but not limited, to table presence. It’s not the “toy factor”, or how pretty it is, but how well it represents the world the game is set in and the frame of mind players need to be in.
  • Adverb Theme is more nuanced: it’s a level more detached than verb theme. It’s not about being able to imagine your actions in the game world, but it’s about evoking the same emotional states, the same stakes, the same decision processes.

Throughout the next two weeks, I’ll go more in depth in those different types: For each of those, I’ll give a brief overview of what I mean, why that type of theme is useful, and of a game that does it particularly well.