Game design mistakes 1: When your game’s theme and mechanisms meet, and it all comes out pastel

by Gil Hova

I have two related mistakes to kick off this series.

First, pay attention to where your theme meets your mechanics. Second, try not to have one draw attention from the other.

There are countless articles that discuss whether theme is more important than mechanics, or vice versa. That doesn’t really concern us here.

Instead, I want to focus on where the theme meets the mechanics, and whether they mesh gracefully.

One of my game designs, Wag the Wolf, fell into this problem. Wag is a game about media companies trying to advertise the end of the world. The planet may or may not be doomed, but you get points for being close, so don’t let a few inaccuracies stop you.

This sounds like a silly, rip-roaring theme. And it is a fun game. But it’s not fun the way you expect it to be fun. There’s no silly, boo-yah cardplay, like in a take-that game.

So I noticed new players enthusiastically sitting down to play Wag, and then being confused as they realized they were playing a different game than what they expected.  There was a cognitive dissonance, and it wasn’t good.

Look at it another way. If I told you we were going to play a game about the stock market, would you expect a two-player pure-strategy perfect-information game like Go or Zertz?

Or if we were going to play a game about giant ninja mecha attacking pirate zombies with lasers, how would you feel if the game featured auctions and an innovative card drafting mechanism, but no way for you to actually attack another player?

Here’s another example.  There’s a very good game out there now that’s not getting the recognition it deserves.  It’s called Wealth of Nations.

Wealth of Nations.  Look at that name and tell me what you think the game will be about.  Obviously, it’ll hew close to Adam Smith’s masterpiece about economics.  It’ll probably be set in colonial times, and feature the new American nation trying to balance its new economic system against the still-powerful British empire and the European powers.  There’ll probably be quite a few fiddly little rules that’ll tie the game to its period.

But it’s not.  Wealth of Nations is a fairly dry negotiation Euro.  Oh sure, there are “nations,” but they’re all fictional, with flags that only resemble real ones.

Wealth of Nations is really a board game heavily influenced by the classic computer game M.U.L.E., which is an incredible accomplishment unto itself.  But it has nothing to do with 18th century economics, although you could argue that it’s a very good lesson of supply and demand.

This means that Euro fans who should want to play the game avoid it at first, because they think it’s going to be an economic-based wargame that they won’t be interested in.  And wargame fans who do want to play it turn out disappointed that the theme isn’t more historical.

Of course, people who finally sit down to play Wealth of Nations are rewarded by a rich game with a fantastic economic system.  But the game has to fight an awful lot of preconceptions to get out onto the table.

So, that’s the first point. Your theme infers your mechanics. If they don’t meet where your players expect them to meet, they’ll get confused. And that’s confusion that you’re going to have to overcome before your game even starts.

But is there room to play here? Can a truly talented designer, an arteeste if you will, take a hairy, overblown theme, and turn it into a solid game?

One of my favorite designers, Jim Doherty, has a couple of games with absolutely absurd themes. Monkeys on the Moon is about advancing tribes of monkeys on the surface of the moon, and firing the most civilized by rocket back to Earth. The Nacho Incident is about smuggling black-market Mexican food into Canada.

I’d love to tell you how well-received and popular these games are, but they’re not. I have to almost twist peoples’ arms to play them.

A few people are surprised when they actually play the games. The games both come in small boxes, and feature silly, colorful, and cartoony artwork. But Monkeys on the Moon is a tight, brainburning bidding game. The Nacho Incident isn’t as heavy, but it’s still a thoughtful blind-bidding game with elegant mechanics.

Players don’t expect that. They look at the games’ theme and presentation, and subconsiously figure the game to be a silly take-that game. Most of my friends played their last games of Fluxx and Munchkin years ago, and they’d rather not play that sort of game anymore.

I emphasized the word “subconsiously” in that last paragraph for a reason. I don’t think my friends are overt game snobs (unlike me), but we all subconscously filter and process information. It’s that subconscious filter that is throwing these mental exceptions when games don’t match expectation.

I think what’s happened with these games is that there’s a theme-mechanic overload. One distracts from the other, and the whole game experience suffers.  I’m absolutely convinced that if either Monkeys or Nacho was about Mediterranean silk trading in the 17th century, and it came with typically sumptuous Euro graphics and wooden bits, it would be in the top 200 at Boardgamegeek.

People complain about the blandness in theme of most Euros, and I have to admit, I find nothing appealing about the idea of bloodlessly colonizing an uninhabited, fertile land, or constructing the best cathedral to gain favor from some king.

But those bland themes have a purpose. Their purpose is to not draw attention. The draw of most Euros is the mechanisms, not the themes.

You don’t play Puerto Rico for the feel of colonizing a tropical island. You play it for the role selection, and the deep tactical implications that it entails. You don’t play Bohnanza for the feel of bean farming. You play it for the beautifully-balanced trading. You don’t play Caylus to feel like you’re building a castle. You play it for the agonizing choices the game forces you into.

It’s as if I was making a drawing, but all I had were loud pastel crayons. How do I indicate foreground or background? How do I direct my audience’s attention?

When I came into this hobby, I thought there was room for artistic expression in a game’s theme, no matter what the mechanics were. But I see now that your theme is just the frame for your game’s mechanisms.  You want your frame to define your game, but you don’t want it to draw attention from the game itself.

To me, a theme is good when it blends with the mechanisms, and you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.  Galaxy Trucker is one example of a game that nails its theme.  It’s a game in which you spend the first half of every round building a spaceship, and the second half trying to keep it from getting blown to pieces by various threats around the cosmos.  It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s engaging, and at no point do you ever feel like you’re not flying around in a spaceship made of sewer pipes.

Another game with a well-implemented theme is Thebes.  It’s a game where all players are archeologists.  They spend half the game researching five ancient civilizations, and half the game digging through five bags that represent archeological dig sites.  The more they’ve researched, the more pulls they get.  This is important, because the bags are made up of treasure and worthless dirt, roughly half-and-half.  Since treasure is worth points, but dirt right back to the bag, researching is important to guarantee points.

I’ll have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of this game.  I don’t hate it, but I wish there was a little more control over your destiny.  But the game has a lot of fans, because they understand that archeology has a lot of luck inherent in the business.  You can research a civilization, spend weeks at the dig site, and keep finding dirt.  The theme is strong enough that it overcomes what many players would see as a deficiency in the game.

Ultimately, your game hums if the theme and the gameplay meet in that proverbial “happy place.”  If the theme outshines the game, people will be confused and distracted as they learn the game.  If the theme is too bland, people won’t be attracted to the game in the first place.  But playing a game that nails its theme is a pleasure unto itself.