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.


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.


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.


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!.