We gamemakers often debate, pontificate, and prognosticate on the role of themes in boardgames. Our tortured souls are caught in the eternal internal struggle over whether to go with a traditional theme; like fantasy, sci-fi, or zombies; or to come up with a brand new, novel, unique theme that no one has ever done before: like pirates.
Historically accurate representation of a pirate.
A good theme will compliment the game mechanics, help create an immersive experience, and ultimately increase the commercial demand for the finished product.
That is why game connoisseurs and publishers alike are persistently choosing fresh, innovative themes, like farming or ninjas. (But what about farming ninjas?)
If you go peddling a new game to publishers, you might surprised how many will close the door in your face based on your theme alone. “Sorry, we don’t do sci-fi.”, “No way! Zombies are totally 2012.” “We’re looking for the next big thing… like maybe a new take on pirates.” Perhaps they’re a company that goes for a certain feel, and they don’t want to deviate too far from their known flavor. Other companies hold the belief that the market can be saturated with certain themes, and they don’t want to risk competing in that saturated market. “You know, I think there already is a train game coming out this year.”
But are they shooting themselves in the feet unnecessarily? Won’t there always be a place in the market for new games that reuse good themes?
Some people take theme very seriously. “Why so serious? Why so serious?”
You cannot over-use a good theme.
WTF you say? From a guy crazy enough to design a Tarot-themed game? Why didn’t you go with elves and dwarves? Admiral Ackbar? Is this a trap? If so, why not just design a game that uses Zombies, Elves, Robots, Pirates, Aliens, Ninjas & Gunslingers???
(Meanwhile, somewhere in Europe, a retired mathematician sits down at a desk to design next year’s Spiel des Jahres. The designer decides to name it after a European region with a long history, and decides the theme will be farming. The designer then focuses intensely on the mechanics, forgetting that there’s even a theme at all.)
The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of very cool themes that have been used, and a lot of other themes that have not been used, because they’re terrible. Think about it. Name anything that’s cool: superheroes, cowboys, aliens, barbarians, ancient Egypt. These are themes that are in lots of cool games. Now think of things that are not cool: tooth decay, tax preparation, changing diapers. Need I say more?
There were nearly 300,000 copies of Settlers of Catan sold last year, but farming games keep getting made. Ticket to Ride has astronomical sales as well, yet other train games persist. Are these publishers stupid? No. They know that the market capacity is far beyond the sales of most games, and there is plenty of room for themes to be duplicated, and plenty of incentive.
These players are clearly distraught about the minimal theme of Dominion. Who would buy this game?!?
Gamers are drawn in by themes that feel familiar.
Consumers, in general, are drawn to the familiar. Only within familiar bounds will they look for the differences, hoping for improvements on something they already like. They might go to ten new ice cream places and try 30 different ice cream flavors before they’ll go and try a boba smoothy. (But once they do, they might really be surprised how much they like the feel of those boba balls in their mouth.)
Is there room in the market for innovative, unique themes?
Will unique themes have the same draw as more generically themed games?
Probably not – unless the integration is so amazingly unbelievably awesome, that it elevates the new theme like Jamey Stegmaier’s Viticulture.
How will you know if yours will work?
You won’t. Nobody will. The game needs to stand on its own and create an immersive experience. Just be ready to re-theme it so that it works with orcs and dragons.
What new themes do you see taking the world by storm in the near future? Is there really a theme that you will never play again? Cthulhu Dragon Zombies anyone?
Game designer by night, and middle school science and pre-engineering teacher by day. He lives in Santa Maria California with his amazing wife and two unrealistically well-behaved children.
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11 Readers CommentedJoin discussion
And as we all know, once the mechanics are solid, changing the theme is gravy.
Tom nailed it. Good post, Luke!
So wait, are you saying you should or shouldn’t make a theme about a cafeteria food fight?
I’ll add this on behalf of my distributor, Aldo Ghiozzi from Impressions Game Distributions, since I’m not sure if he’s ready this blog… but he had a very honest chat with me before signing me on, and well before KS launched, where he looked at What the Food?! and told me straight out – you know, it’s a nice looking game, but it’s not going to put up as great numbers as a mainstream category/theme. Dragons, Zombies, Sci-fi etc. True indeed, although I enjoy that I’m not entirely in the same theme bucket as every game. Next time though, farming ninjas!
Peter: I had the same issue with Eternal Dynasty. Ancient China doesn’t have the same draw as Japan or medieval Europe. I had several people ask for a re-skin, and I may eventually do an expansion, but that’s not the theme I wanted to use for my passion project.
On the other hand, I have a zombie game that I was talked to into finishing by Jeff King of All Us Geeks arguing this exact same point. Good post, Luke, thanks for sharing.
Precisely Peter. You should or you should not. There is no try.
I agree that familiar helps. I suppose even though I didn’t have a mainstream boardgame theme, I did stick to food, something that we can all identify.
However, that being said, the “zombie edition” of What the Food?! was the top selling tier on Kickstarter. I think Luke may be onto something with his mashup ideas. 🙂
I would have to say that if Stones of Fate was medieval/fantasy battle themed, then we would be way higher right now.
However, I love the tarot theme and I feel like less of a sellout because we kept it.
I’d say Ciro’s art for Stones of Fate definitely includes Fantasy/Medieval themes, but also has a touch of steampunk too. There’s of course nothing wrong with fantasy, but I sure like novel themes in spite of everything I said in the piece!
When I think about theme, I try to cast the player into a “want to do” experience. Many of these experiences are direct pulls from childhood ideas (“I want to be a fireman / astronaut / knight / pirate / ninja”) and develop into the classic themes mentioned. The more recent popular themes still fit into this concept (“I want to see if I can survive the zombie / cthulhu apocalypse”).