Board games can be about all sorts of things. You can conquer nations, build cities, explore space, solve mysteries, and so much more. Games, at their core, might just be a series of mechanics and rules, but themes keep us from feeling like we’re playing out the logical conclusion of mathematical functions.
To clear things up, let’s go ahead and define “theme.” A lot of people use “theme” the way that Board Game Geek does. Games like Battlestar Galactica and War of the Ring have story arcs that are inspired by the intellectual properties from which they originated. Thematic games like this are often affectionately referred to by board gamers as “Ameritrash.” These same gamers will also say games like Patchwork and Power Grid do not have themes, which makes them “eurogames.”
I’m not going to get into the eurogame vs. Ameritrash definition debate since I think it’s silly and largely a matter of semantics. Instead, I’m going to borrow from the model I used in Five Levels of Communication through Game Development and use the term “internal narrative” from this point on. Internal narrative includes theme, story, art, components, and even box design. It covers everything about the game itself as a complete product minus the gameplay.
Even if you don’t have a theme, you have a theme.
In this sense, even games that “lack a theme” like Patchwork and Power Grid have internal narratives. In Patchwork, you’re building a quilt and in Power Grid, you’re bringing electricity to everybody in Germany. These games may not have themes per se, but they do use metaphors. Even Tetris – a completely abstract game – has an inner narrative. “Your job is to stack blocks.”
These metaphors – be they explicit or implicit – help us to understand the game that we are playing. Good metaphors are among the most valuable tools available to the game developer. The inner narrative should reinforce the game’s mechanics and rules. What you’re going for is Theme-Mechanic Unity. In Pandemic, every action you take is part of a plan to cure the disease. In Twilight Struggle, everything you do is to make life a little worse for the USA or USSR.
How to Achieve Theme-Mechanic Unity
Speaking in broad strokes, there are two methods you can achieve Theme-Mechanic Unity. You can start with the game and create a narrative around it later to justify what is going on. Alternatively, you can start with an idea for how you want the game to feel and then slowly experiment and tweak things until the gameplay organically arises out of your experiments. Many board game designers have different techniques, but they all tend to fall into one of these two broad categories.
To explain how these two methods of achieving Theme-Mechanic Unity, I’ll use the two games I’ve made as examples. I do this because I want you to see my thought process.
Method 1: Start with the Game & Add the Narrative
This is what I did with War Co. When I started making this game – the final version, not the childhood game it’s loosely based on – I started with a spreadsheet. There was a column for each of the following: card name, type, strength, and effect. That was pretty much all there was to it. I played the game a few times until I had something working, and then I wrote a 200-300 word story for each card, all of which you can find on the website. The story was written to justify the effect of the card in the abstract. Then James Masino, the artist for War Co. and my upcoming game Highways & Byways, drew art around the stories.
All the stories, all the art, and my entire marketing approach were based around the game’s mechanics themselves. War Co. started out as an exercise in mathematics more than a game with a story to tell. It was only after lots and lots of testing that I was able to sew together the zero-sum mechanics and the wartorn post-apocalyptic landscape.
The narrative was adapted to the game to achieve Theme-Mechanic Unity.
Method 2: Start with the Narrative & Let the Game Arise
This is what I did with Highways & Byways. I was inspired by some road trips I had taken around the United States and I said, literally out loud in an empty car: “this would be a good idea for a board game.” I did endless research on road trip websites to find 72 out-of-the-way roads called “byways.” Then I looked at Google Maps to figure out how these byways could be stitched together with highways to create one endlessly driveable landscape. The map existed before I had any idea what to do with it.
I added spaces and added a basic objective: complete certain byways to win. Then, I kept tweaking and tweaking until I had working mechanics on this ugly MS paint map that I had started with. I knew I wanted to have a game where players felt like they were in motion, so it naturally developed into a race. Eventually, I added new mechanics like the Event Pool and Construction, which cause various things to happen to players, just as various things would happen to road-trippers in bad cars in out-of-the-way places.
The map was slowly adjusted over time with road shapes being changed and spaces rearranged for readability. The game changed so many times during its development (which is close to complete now), but the basic commitment to making players feel like they are taking a road trip never changed. I built a game around that feeling.
The game was adapted to the narrative to achieve Theme-Mechanic Unity.
We can all agree that clear communication is critical in game development and marketing. Yet the methods by which we attain this clarity are diverse. Part of creativity is self-discovery. As you work on your first game, you’ll find out your style. Will you start with a story or will you start with a game mechanic?