Where themes come from

Reputedly once said by Raymond Chandler, a writer can seek inspiration by rummaging by other writers’ desks, when they are not home. But how does a game designer find inspiration to theme their game? Let’s take a closer look.

The importance of theme in tabletop gaming is I’ve talked about in the past. Theme is there, because it helps us understand the abstract mechanisms driving the game. It’s there, because more complex systems would be impossibly difficult to internalize, if we had no thematic foundation to build upon. It’s also there so that we could take part in Viking raids, building of a city or a dark fantasy adventure in a land of monsters and perils.

Drawing inspiration for game mechanisms is one of the standard questions you might hear, if you’re a designer – and if you design thematic games, you’ll probably be asked with a theme question. My favourite up to date has been asked in Essen, when a fan approached me, asked if all the monsters and villains of Mistfall originated in my mind, and when I confirmed, he simply said: “Boy, I would not like to live there!” before walking away.

How would you theme this?

Deeply thematic or much less so, almost all games need a theme, and a theme has to come from somewhere. Sometimes they appear already fused with game mechanisms, sometimes they emerge as a purely mathematical system is being developed, and sometimes they are simply added at the end of preliminary design.

For many games, the theme has been – and up to an extent still is – a way to clearly communicate their genre, and the experience players can expect. While certainly not riveting, Mediterranean trading, pseudo-medieval or ancient themes (marked by an obligatory sad face on an enthusiast of funny hats) are a clear message: you will build an engine, you will not destroy anything that belongs to other players, and you will optimize to win.

Still, even within this somewhat restrictive approach, many themes are developed early, often being born together with the general concept of the game. Our own Progress: Evolution of Technology came to be out of love for the amazing mechanisms that drove humanity to invent and improve. In the Name of Odin came to be as a game about Vikings from day one.

Board games, like video games, give us the opportunity to do what we would often be unable to do in real life – or to become a part of a story we usually are told, but this time putting us behind in charge of a farm, a hero, or w whole empire. Thus, seeking inspiration for a theme often starts wherever we see something that fascinates us happening – with a hope that some of the facets of the process might be translated into a language of a great board game.

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