There are few things more awkward in normal, everyday life than an unfunny joke – especially if the only person laughing is also the person telling it. Whenever telling a joke, we ran the risk of being not understood or misunderstood, and we often try to figure out beforehand, if what we’re about to say will amuse our listeners.
The same goes for making a theme for a game “humorous”. When we decide to go with a funny title, wacky art and weird names for some game elements, we are taking a risk: players may find those elements amusing, or may find them falling flat. While the former case definitely enhances the game experience, the latter can not only simply make the players enjoy the theme a little less, but even detract them from an experience of playing an otherwise excellent game.
Another thing to consider is if we are going to make the game simply light-hearted (like the highly prasied Welcome to the Dungeon), or do we want to be more bold, and go as far as games like Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mt. Skullzfyre – and face players with such thematic delicacies as flaming testicles. And although some will inevitably find this amusing, others may have a very different reaction.
Consequently, it should surprise nobody that publishers (ourselves included), often elect to err on the side of caution and go with the classics when it comes to theme. While some thematic controversy can quickly boost the recognisability of a game, it may also ultimately be damaging to a company’s reputation, or to the game’s playability, as too many players theme is an important factor when it comes to their level of enjoyment.
Does it mean that a game with a ridiculous theme is automatically a less solid design? It certainly does not, as proven by Cosmic Encounter (in its newest, Fantasy Flight incarnation), although people tend to treat it as a game with a lighter and looser gameplay exactly due to the aliens of the game spoofing a gallery of monsters from classic, low-budget Science Fiction movies of the fourties, fifties and sixties.
A more recent example was Assault on Doomrock, a game that had it all: specific humour, a dose of controversy, and solid, rather heavy gameplay – and some people found it misleading that what seems like a light-hearted and humorous game, is in fact quite heavy and brain-burning.
Ultimately, it’s about making theme and mechanics meet on a specific level, when it comes to humorous art and theme. It seems that players who invest more time and energy in playing a game want it to look and feel more “serious”, than games that require five minutes to learning, and another thirty to play.
On the other hand, many are now bored with what seems a standard in Eurogame theming. Trading in the Mediterranean jokes aside, it seems that in this day and age a classic mix of simple graphic design and neutral, slightly bland art can be levelled against the game, and ultimately become one of the points made against recommending it – as evidenced by a recent review of Shogun on the Shut Up & Sit Down site.
So, is it already fine to publish a serious, deep, heavier game with a more original, more wacky, perhaps more humorous theme, or is it still better to choose the safer route, and simply stick to what has worked so far (but maybe is slowly outliving its usefulness)? We’d love to hear from you – before we find out for ourselves.