In June, agent Laurie threw down a MECHANICS gauntlet, and lo and behold, the forces of THEME rose up to defend their territory from invasion. During this time, I consulted the tomes and referenced many sources for thematic energy, receiving quite a few good replies from those who had attacked game design with theme at the forefront.

There was just too much to cover in my previous article, but I vowed to not let these champions fall by the wayside, but to step up and feature them in their very own blog post!



Boomtown Bandits is a fresh new take on the wild west designed by Isaac Epp. You may have caught the Boomtown Bandits sell sheet, featured in our article last week. Isaac is in talks with a few publishers already. Why? The game has the goods, ladies and gentlemen. It’s the perfect blend of both theme and mechanics together, and when I first saw it at a protospiel earlier this year, I personally wanted to sign it immediately!

Honestly, it was a spontaneous idea of six shooters and a six sided die. And then trying to think of a game mechanic that leveraged it. The theme beyond the “six guns” came about as an evolution of concept as the game idea developed over the next day or so in incubation.
ISAAC EPP designer, Boomtown Bandits

Theme hooks you in, mechanics deliver. Immediately, the idea that we’re all bandits trying to take down the town soaks in. The piles of cards represent the loot to be had. But what happens when one or more players tries to rob the same establishment? A shoot out, of course! The wild west “draw” is brilliantly captured with live dice rolling! You have two sharp shooters and one coward (who hits less often and might run away) – keep rolling until you get a hit.

The game dives deeper than that though with action cards that are both your end game points and provide unique in game abilities. One of the best parts – the action card points are not lost – it’s still your loot, you’re just exposing your hand a bit to gain these powers. It’s highly satisfying to play, and everyone is in it until the end.

Isaac will be roaming the halls of Gen Con this week. Let’s all try and find him, loot him for every prototype he’s got and then have ourselves a shoot out in the wild west, er… open gaming area!


Theme first, always and forever!
JOEY VIGOUR designer, Chaosmos

Ok, now we’re not just taking a game, we’re talking an experience. This game is so rich in theme. Actually scratch that, I would be doing Joey a disservice if I didn’t classify it as bigger than theme.

It’s… MYTHOS! You are truly immersed this world, to the credit of the Mirror Box Games team. From their website:

You are a lone agent, the last hope of your race, vying for control of The Ovoid. Whoever holds The Ovoid when the old universe dies will become master of the new one. In CHAOSMOS, players traverse the galaxy, building up the cards in their hand, and using them to find and protect The Ovoid. Will you seek out weapons to crush your opponents and take The Ovoid by force? Or will you search for sneaky gadgets to gain it through trickery? Time is running out. Find it. Get it. Protect it. The fate of the universe is in your hands!

It’s hard for me to even classify this game, because there’s nothing like it on the market today. It starts sure enough with a popular theme you can get into, science fiction, but it’s not a 4x game. It’s a little bit like Clue Capture the flag and Battlestar Galactica all rolled in one. It’s got mechanics that haven’t been combined before. But the experience it creates is the reason I had to list it here in the theme discussions.

I also commend Joey Vigour, Matthew Austin and the team for how dedicated they were when launching the game – convention after convention, play test after playtest, bringing people around the table to experience this passion project with them until it was ready. Mirrorbox Games captured their love for this game into their Kickstarter campaign, raising over $130,000 in support of the mythos behind Chaosmos. And it’s almost here – entering in final production, the game is coming soon. The Chaosmos team has a lot going on at Gen Con. If you’re going, look for them in booth, #662. Here’s the latest news on their website.



Dragon’s Hoard raised over 50K on Kickstarter from a new indie publisher/designer (one of our leaguers, Nathanael Mortensen), and it’s clear why. The theme is engaging – be the dragon! The art is absolutely gorgeous. Let’s say that again. The art is absolutely gorgeous! (Kudos to Jonas Akerlund!)

Aldo Ghiozzi from Impressions Game Distribution Services knows what sells in this business and is often telling me, jokingly, to just add dragons. People want fantasy art to drool over. It didn’t hurt that Nathanael made a killer project page that was clean and simple, and he’d done his homework. He’s also a professional and giving member of the KS community.

But let’s address this from a theme vs mechanics perspective. Which came first?

I started with the theme. I wanted to make a game where you play as a dragon, and use sheep as resources.
NATHANAEL MORTENSEN designer, Dragon’s Hoard

Ok, so dragons. And a killer art – check! But Nathanael knows you need the right integration of mechanics and theme to make it all come together.

Sometimes after I play a game and I find a mechanic I like… I’ll save it for later. A good mechanic can be made better if it fits intuitively with the theme, in my opinion.
NATHANAEL MORTENSEN designer, Dragon’s Hoard

It’s interesting to see what mechanics emerged in Dragon’s Hoard. There’s a dual card mechanic in the game where the sheep resources are the flip side of the action and set collection cards you’re trying to play. This tightens the consonance to me, keeping you focused on what matters to you most as a treasure collecting dragon. It also keeps the actions easy, simple and focused on the beauty of the game. More info on Dragon’s Hoard.


Teale Fristoe recently blogged for us about drafting mechanics for his latest card game, Shadow Throne. Despite the whole Game of Thrones feel and Machiavellian-thing going on to great effect, Shadow Throne is clearly mechanics first! However, Teale shared with me more on his first game, Corporate America, which was designed with theme first.

Corporate America example

Corporate America was inspired by the desire to make a game about economic bubbles. Once I came up with that idea, I excitedly brainstormed everything related to the recent housing economic bubble I could think of: different industries, protests, corporate influence over lawmaking.

However, after giving the game more thought, I realized something disappointing: I don’t understand economic bubbles, so there was no way to make a system to make the players create one. The silver lining was that all of those related ideas still seemed promising for a game with lots of Daily Show style jokes!

TEALE FRISTOE designer, Corporate America

Teale had tons of great thematic ideas, but now had to turn them into fun and interesting mechanics. To do so, he says he started with the core of the game, trying to adopt the simplest mechanics to do the theme justice:

  • Corporate influence over government. Players need to spend money to have a say on laws. In order to elect a ‘president’, players blind bid to see who gets to wear the big hat.
  • Different industries. Many different industries were needed to bicker about, and Teale got this done with a tableau where players start different businesses.
  • Manipulating the masses. Players choose consumer cards to play to earn money. Extra options cost more money (abstracting advertising costs).
  • Protesters. Bad for players, but a challenging part to incorporate in terms of mechanics. Teale made these random effects for the president.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like electing to play a game of Corporate America right now! Find out more from Nothing Sacred Games.


In terms of “theme first” or “theme is most important”, the answer to that is “yes”.
DOUG LEVANDOWSKI co-designer, Gothic Doctor

Gothic Doctor is not just theme first, it’s dream first. Doug explains he went to bed after reading some Poe and this happened:

I had this dream that I was working in my dad’s office. He’s a doctor, and during a few summers, I worked there doing gopher stuff. So in the dream, I’m sitting at the nurse’s desk, and he opens the door from one of the rooms and says, ‘Buddy, get me the pliers.’ And I say, ‘Dad, you’re a doctor. Why do you need pliers?’ Very matter-of-factly, he says, ‘We’ve got to get Dracula’s teeth out.’ This is a dream, so that makes perfect sense….Then, I woke up. I remember thinking, “Man. That was WEIRD.” And then, about a second later, “Man, THAT’S the game!
DOUG LEVANDOWSKI designer, Gothic Doctor

Gothic Doctor is a game about treating the monsters and miscreants of Gothic literature over the course of a single night – or 11 turns. It’s for 2 to 4 player card game that focuses on set creation, hand and turn management, and a little light ‘screw your neighbor.’

The set creation comes in the form of treatment cards, which you have to combine in 2, 3, or 4 card combos to treat patients who’ve come seeking a cure.

The light ‘screw your neighbor’ element comes in form of some of the action cards, which can help you treat patients more easily – or make it harder for opponents to treat. The hand management comes in the form of having a good balance of treatment cards and action cards – since players can choose how many of each they want to hold. Players have to manage their time, too, since you only have 11 rounds to earn the most money and win the game.

Gothic Doctor was successfully crowdfunded last month from Meltdown Games! If you’re at Gen Con, you can find Doug in the AdMagic booth, #565 along with myself. Here’s a link to the project on Kickstarter.


Last, but certainly not least is this game from leaguer, Mark Major. You may remember him from such theme vs mechanics discussions as, “Theme vs Mechanics: The False Dichotomy“, in which he very politely told Luke and I we were both wrong.

I really respect Mark as a designer, but I have to admit, I didn’t imagine putting him in a theme first discussion. Only because his mechanics are rock solid. If there is anyone who can create beautiful mechanics systems, it’s Mark. Whether it’s a co-op like Jupiter Rescue, or an innovative worker placement game like his upcoming TMG title, Chimera Station, he’s got a handle on how to achieve proper balance among the players and their choices. I had to wonder though – zombies and elves – that’s theme first, right? Yes.

The class abilities mostly stemmed from choosing the faction first and figuring out what mechanics would fit.
MARK MAJOR designer, Zerpang!

Why have just one theme when you can have them all! And by have them all, I don’t just mean stickers on each side of the board. Because as I just said, we’re talking about someone with mechanics chops. So every single faction plays the game differently. The ninjas play stealthy and only need 3 spaces to win, the aliens go around grabbing test subjects, the gunslingers need to play in poker hands like pairs or three of a kind. It’s beautiful, true variable player powers in all their thematic glory! One hilarious variant (not sure if it’s staying like this) is the elves. They are above this simple duel and they don’t play at all. The elves win if the game lasts too long… perfect for the host of the party, not able to ‘play’ the game – yes, even they are in a game of Zerpang!

If you’re at Gen Con, you must give this a go. It’s available for purchase from The Game Crafter right now – get more info from Whirling Derby. Rumor has it there may even be a time traveler faction (I know, right??) and a Kickstarter in the future.


Games are awesome? Yes, they are. Kudos to all those gamemakers out there.

SPECIAL KUDOS to all of you who think about theme and integrating it well with mechanics. And for Joey – every game needs Mythos! Until the next indie spotlight, let’s see if there’s a game convention going on right now…