CMON Feature Friday: What's in a Theme?

As the board gaming hobby has exploded over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen games about almost every subject under the sun. From bean farming, to dog shows, to high fashion runways, name a subject and you can find a game themed after it. Of course, there will always be classic themes in board games, like fantasy, science fiction, and war, but fans and designers are really starting to expand their interests and exploring some new plotlines for games. 

Themes are the story of the game. It’s how we’re able to envision ourselves in a situation and suspend disbelief for a short time while we escape the real world. Even games like Chess or Go are themed around medieval battlefield encounters. Having a story is important to help explain to a player why they're doing the things they’re doing. 

Themes are no longer just pasted-on tales to what is essentially an abstract game. More and more, designers are finding ways to incorporate the theme into the mechanics of the game. The actions that players can take support the suspended belief that the game creates. 

For this week’s CMON Feature Friday, we talked to some game designers about the types of themes that speak to them, and the importance that story plays in a game. 

Christopher Chung is a designer based out of Toronto, Ontario. You may know him from his game Lanterns: The Harvest Festival. Currently he’s teaming up with Eric M. Lang on the expansion to Bloodborne: The Card Game, as well as working on a number of his own solo projects. 

“Theme is highly important for me as it drives most of my decision-making process when it comes to designing games,” explains Chung. “Several of my prototypes have come from thinking about theme alone, and then the mechanics start to make its way into the game.” 

He understands that designs are a balance of making the mechanics work and developing a theme that fits the story you want to tell. For Chung, sometimes the theme comes first, and other times it’s the mechanics. The key is to not force either one. Instead, he seeks to find the balance where both sides of the game support the other. 

“I'm not one to split hairs if the mechanics or the theme comes first, but first and foremost I want players to be excited about the experience with most of what I make. With Lanterns, it has a calming, Zen-like feel about how you're contributing to this beautiful lake to please the Emperor.” 

With a number of different projects on the go, Chung likes to think about what themes he’d love to try and tackle in games, and which he’d rather avoid.

“I probably won't design a zombie game or a farming game that doesn't stray away from the core concept. An example of a zombie game I want to design includes having the characters be B-level actors, so death in the game is not as punishing as most zombie games out there.” 

So what would make for an interesting and underrepresented theme? According to Chung, “I think there should be more games on food. That would be awesome. Whether it's managing a greasy spoon or feeding fantasy creatures, there has to be something there!” 

One designer who’s no stranger to highly thematic games is Jonathan Gilmour. His game, Dead of Winter, has been highly praised for its ability to recreate the feeling of the breakdown in society that a zombie outbreak would cause. Players have to deal with the social implications of their decisions, while fending off hordes of the undead. 

Gilmour likes to concentrate on the feeling his games leave with the people who play them. 

“I like to think of my design style as ‘Experience First.’ The experience of the player is the most important thing, and both theme and mechanics tie into that equally,” says Gilmour. 

His games come about organically, starting with a broad idea, and then narrowing his focus. Theme and mechanics play equally important elements.  

“I typically start a design with a balance of both. I try to write down questions that help me narrow the scope of design from the very start,” explains Gilmour. “I love a wide variety of themes, from Sci-fi to historical. My four favorite games are Cosmic Encounter, Nations, Hanabi, and Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition” 

With a wide variety to his gaming tastes, Glimour can see himself working on many different themes. However, he brings a strong moral ethic to his designs, avoiding any topics that could be considered offensive or exploitive of stereotypes. 

“I feel that we (as designers and publishers) should make games that bring joy to people and make them feel better about themselves.” 

Like books and movies, games tell stories. But with games, we actually write the stories, ourselves, every time we play. Theme plays a huge role in that, because when we pull a game off the shelf, we’re really deciding what kind of adventure, or challenge, or even social commentary, we want to delve in to. More innovative ideas for board games are being explored all the time.  

What themes would you like to see in board games? Is there an idea you’ve had that doesn’t yet exist in game form? Reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter, use the hashtag #CMONFeatureFriday, and let us know what you think.

CMON Feature Friday: What's in a Theme?

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