Kickstarter has gone through some significant changes over the last couple of years, and as a result, the boardgaming industry has as a whole. The biggest change is the amount of games being made. Not only is the quantity growing, but the quality is stepping up at the same time.

As the quantity in games being published grows, distributors and publishers are getting to be much more selective about which games they’ll gravitate towards.

So how do we make sure that our designs will be noticed in this giant wave of new and exciting games?

We have the opportunity as designers to make whatever we want, but in the end, we have to make sure others want it too. We are world builders. Build a world that is unique and interesting enough to make others want to explore it.

Original Themes

It’s time to step up our themes. How many more zombie, Cthulhu, pirate, space empire, wizards games can we make? There are more worlds to be discovered than just these typical themes.

Building a world for your players may or may not be your biggest concern. I know a lot of designers that think only of mechanics and then slap a theme on that fits. Remember though, your theme is the first thing anyone ever says about your game. The theme is always in the description of your game.

What is Agricola?
It’s a eurogame about farming.

What is Ticket to Ride?
It’s a game where you ride along trains and try to complete certain routes.

I read a question by a fellow designer recently asking about people’s thoughts on their theme of wizards. I responded with something along the lines of, “do something more original”. That got me thinking about my own designs. Recently I’ve been working up a pirate game. I’ve always wanted to make a pirate game because I’ve never felt that any of the pirate games I’ve played before, left me feeling like I’ve been on a pirate adventure. Looking now, at my own “do something original” statement though, I started to question my theme.

A recent game that inspired me for original themes is Abyss.


The theme is an underwater fantasy world of different races and guilds. This is an original story, creatures, and setting. Luckily I’m a night owl and, at 1:30 a.m., caught Bruno Cathala, one of the designers of Abyss, getting up in the morning in France. I asked him to describe how they arrived at this theme.


It took us one complete year to find the good story for Abyss.

The game is born from a sparkling idea coming from Charles Chevallier. The idea was something like a global architecture for a game. And we were both excited to create a game including 3 stages of development. You need to complete something in stage one, which allows you to enter stage 2. Then, depending on what you complete in stage 2, you can reach stage 3.

This was the starting idea. But before to try to find the good mechanisms which match with this idea, we decide to find the good story. And it was not so easy.


The first idea coming in front of this kind of architecture, is to make players building their own civilisation. The 3 steps becoming 3 ages. But we decided immediately not to go on with this idea, because it was not original enough. At this time, 7 wonders just got the Spiel award, and Innovation just be published.. so, hard to make the difference in that field.


During one year, we discussed about a lot of potential times, but without finding something exciting enough…

Until we had THE idea… Instead of allowing players to develop their civilisation in a concrete world, based on Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, etc, what if we created a complete new world. A kind of forgotten world, based only on our imagination. Something like if Atlantis have survived in the deepness of Oceans, with a completely unknown civilisation… Yes, this was exciting, and not too much exploited in games.


What about our 3 steps ?

  • First one: you need to affiliate Allies… in the deepness of seas, this allies should be things like Crabs, Jelly fishes, etc…
  • Second one: depending on the allies you have in hand, you can recruit powerful Lords, mastering this civilization. And we decided to divide them in 5 different Guilds (Merchants will allow to master money, Soldiers will allow to agrees opponents, etc etc..)
  • Third one: depending on which Lords you get, you should take control of specific locations, giving some extra points (each location scoring on a unique way)

As soon as this idea came, all the developments of the game became evident, taking us only a few weeks to build a solid prototype.


Then, our chance, has been to find a publisher who understood us completely and didn’t ask to find a new theme. He felt in love with this idea, and decided to magnify it, choosing an incredible artist, and asking him to completely create this undersea civilization without any reference to something known. We just have to know that action takes place in an undersea world, but nothing says that we are on earth or another planet… each of us can have his own idea…

And I LOVE the final result!


As Bruno says, “what if we created a complete new world”. That’s the opportunity we have as designers. To make our own worlds.


We created a new world when we made Asking for Trobils. I have to say, that designing the world was the most fun part for me as a designer. I can’t wait to dive into the next world.

I’ve decided to re-theme my pirate game. I’m going to make it a more original story with a unique world. You’ll still have the adventures I had hoped for, but you won’t be playing a Captain John Pigeon rip-off character. Instead the theme will have a more unique universe making players want to explore it even more.

So how do you come up with a more original theme for our games?

Can the setting change? What about the characters or other creatures? Think about the essentials of the theme and why you’ve chosen it. If it’s farming, then maybe it can be gods growing planets instead? If it’s wizards, maybe it can be tree-like creatures with nature healing powers. Trolls in caves can become monsters in closets. Heroes with super powers can become demi-gods from ancient beings. Racing cars can become genetically-engineered, giant insects being raced through an asteroid belt. The possibilities are endless.

And that’s the point. With endless possibilities, and almost endless games being created today, why use themes that have been beaten to death?

Even if you’re happy with your theme, I challenge you to come up with 3 or 4 different ideas it could be instead. You may just find something you like even more and makes your game stand out.

To learn more about Abyss, visit

There’s a great sharing of unique ideas over on Luke Laurie’s post Steal This Game Idea!.

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Christian Strain

Game Designer at Kraken Games

Christian is a co-founder of Kraken Games. After releasing their first game, Evil Intent, Christian is currently working with Kraken Games on three other projects including their upcoming title, Asking for Trobils.

Latest posts by Christian Strain (see all)

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  1. Royce Banuelos on December 1, 2014

    Fantastic article! Different themes do set you apart and that can be good but sometimes can be hurtful if it’s too different. Colt Express is getting a lot of attention and the theme isn’t very original. There’s going to be examples on both sides of the coin, what is good to take notice of is how long of a process Abyss was to develop. Making sure the theme and mechanics conveyed the same experience was critical to it’s success. If someone wants to make a wizard game then the question is “What makes this game better than _______ other Wizard game?” Our goal should be to improve upon what is already out there and to keep pushing the development. I’ve talked to some designers about KS and they say things like “We’re launching on _____.” and the game hasn’t even been developed yet. As we can see from Abyss or Pandemic sometimes development takes years to get right. Do what’s right for the game you’re making.

    • Norv Brooks on December 1, 2014

      “I’ve talked to some designers about KS and they say things like “We’re launching on _____.” and the game hasn’t even been developed yet. ” Yeah, to launch a KS and not have a developed and tested game is the wrong motivation for a KS!

  2. Gamer Dave on December 1, 2014

    Great article. I think if you are trying to go mainstream ot gateway a normal theme would be better because it is accessable. Pressure is on doing an original game based on mechanics or gameplay.
    But I think the gamer audience definetly wants some new themes. I personally don’t see a whole lot difference between people’s made up worlds unless spectaculat art draws me in, like with Abyss. It will help make the difference in choosing one made up world for a different made up world.

  3. Al Leduc on December 1, 2014

    I have to agree with Gamer Dave. Theme should be used to make your game’s mechanics make sense, so slapping a unique theme on it might not work. Sure, it can be trains in space, but I think that would have hurt Ticket to Ride. Too much was gained by the familiar setting to trade it for being unique.

    That said, window dressing thematic alterations should be considered. Abyss looks like fantasy in water, which IS more unique and interesting then regular fantasy on the usual dry land.

    The biggest danger of a unique theme as that there are fewer people who are interested in it (more often then not). It’s the big fish in a small pond problem. Even if all 100 fans of your theme buy your game, you’ll still wish you had gone with Zombies instead.

    • Norv Brooks on December 1, 2014

      It’s true that a more unique theme may be a gamble; however, with a fresh (not necessarily new) theme may inspire fresh and possibly new game mechanics. Then wrap it in engaging artwork and you have the latest “breakout” hit.

      • Gamer Dave on December 1, 2014

        Fresh and new mechanics that are really new dont need an original theme to sell well. Dominion is a great example. It’s lack of theme actually helps it by putting focus on mmechanics.

        • Christian Strain on December 2, 2014

          Your example in this situation predates the new influx of games and game designers. Dominion was released in a smaller and different market. The boardgame industry is growing quickly with new gamers and new types of games. If Dominion had never been created and everything after it still had, how do you think it would do on Kickstarter produced by a first or second time designer?

          Hopefully because of the mechanics it would do well, but I can’t say that it would do as well. My point is, we can’t try and design the games that would have done well 4 years ago. We have to design games that will do well 2 years from now. That’s not just original themes, but also original mechanics and takes on old ones that create new gaming experiences.

          • Gamer Dave on December 2, 2014

            I dont think so. There were plenty of games coming out back then, and even if the market was smaller the same rules applied back then as today. Im not saying design games as if we were back then. My point was the same as yours-original mechanics are awesome. Dominion was original, it launched deck building, so how can we say evetything after it would be the same? I think it will stand test of time. My point games that create new mechanics, designing for the future, doesnt need to rely on theme as much.

  4. Derik@Lagniappe on December 7, 2014

    Just plain awesome! I read this last week and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I hate that most of my ideas fall into a couple of standard thematic tropes. Your prompt has been a great excuse to just spend time thinking about off – the – wall themes, stories, and worlds 😀

    • Christian Strain on December 7, 2014

      That’s awesome Derik! I’ve been diving in pretty deep with a new world myself and have been loving it. Hope something comes out of it for you! 🙂

  5. Colorcrayons on January 6, 2015

    “With endless possibilities, and almost endless games being created today, why use themes that have been beaten to death?”

    Because people like familiar things. Which is why some IPs are very sought afterand that IP can alone sell the game.

    One would argue that creating your own background, while laudible creatively, can bite you in the ass.
    FFG’s terrinoth background is a good example. It has its fair share of fans, because they themselves are familiar with it, and many detractors since they feel it is a trite attempt at creating a new background.

    You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And if your new background isn’t really that revolutionary, then its going to hold you back more than help you.

    How many new rpgs have come out in the last 20 years with their own unique background? How many of those are successful, despite the background being laudable?

    I posit that the dueling wizards theme you reject has more traction with consumers due to familiarity than asking for trobils. Sorry.

    You can’t compare trobils with abyss. They have significantly different development and production quality in how its realized. The difference is so significant, that its jarring.

    • Peter Vaughan on January 6, 2015

      Thanks for the comment color crayons. I’ll defend my buddy Chris here and say that I’m very excited for Trobils, and it’s one of the most anticipated games in my collection for a long time – and it’s because of the new world he put it in. Yes, it’s not being published at the scale as Abyss, but I think you might be missing the point Chris is making, and in the sense of new worlds, they are both topical games in this chat. I think dismissing Trobils for production quality is uncalled for (besides which, premature unless you’re on the production line making Trobils and have some insider info?).

      Ironically, I’m developing a wizard game of sorts, but I don’t want a dueling wizards game, I really don’t. So I disagree with you that the only way to this market is tried and true – I think the most engaging games are going to be the ones that take a theme and go beyond what we’ve seen yet.

      • Derik@Lagniappe on January 6, 2015

        I completely agree with Mr. Vaughan.
        I’m stoked to get Trobils because it’s a different kind of worker placement set in a different kind of “space” story. As for “tried and true”, I glaze over and pretty much ignore “Zombies”, “Dueling Fighters”, or “Samurai/Ninjas”, and most “Dungeons”. They are just more of the same.
        While I’ll admit that most of the games I’ve bought and/or backed this year have to do with some traditional themes, they all utilize a unique take on it. Asking for Trobils, The Captain is Dead, and Lift Off! Get Me Off This Planet are all Sci-Fi, but they all are doing something different and interesting.

  6. yashaswi ponnur on December 5, 2018

    hay thank’s for this post. this gave me clarity. which I was looking for a long time and you made it simple how to come up with new themes.

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