The Unbearable Lightness of Theming

 

Some designers are of the opinion that theme is secondary for a game: That as long as the mechanical backing is suitable, you can basically slap on whatever theme you want and you’ll get something good. I’m not so blind as to think the exact opposite – that you can make a terrible game with a fun theme and get something you should be proud of – but I think theme is more important to a cohesive game experience than it’s given credit for. There’s lots of things to think about when creating a theme for your game, but the most important axis is weight.

The Scale Scale of Theme Weight

The Scale Scale is named after the “scale,” a device that can be used to measure the weight of objects and living things. Just like games can mechanically be light (shorter play time, fewer tough choices, lower complexity) or heavy (the opposite of those things), themes can be light or heavy as well. Unlike my 1 to 10 impact scale that I described in a previous article, I want to use vague terms to describe theme weight because I don’t feel quantifying it is going to help anything.

Thematically light games generally take themselves less seriously. The graphics are often bright and cartoony, and the beings depicted in it are drawn with less realistic proportions. The art for Imperial Settlers is a good example, with a spherical, bemoustached man on the cover rolling along a bright field with his little dog. On a writing/narrative level, jokes are much more common, especially overt ones: that is, ones that essentially tell you “hey, I’m a joke!” This doesn’t necessarily mean that thematically light games are happy. for example, Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards is goofy and fun, but also filled with exaggerated bloodsoaked carnage between wizards in an apocalyptic hellscape.

Thematically heavy games attempt to be more serious. Keyword here is “attempt,” because only the grimmest tabletop game will resist the attempts of gamers to turn it into comedy. Aesthetically, realistic proportions and a more restrained use of color are common. Note that I said “restrained,” not “dull,” as plenty of more serious games (Pandemic, for example) will use bright colors as an accent or as a way to indicate information to the player. Narratively, the game doesn’t make fun of its own premise and intentional jokes are used sparingly, if at all.

A Light Filler Game About The Gallic Wars

Some themes lend themselves both to light and heaviness; fantasy and “soft” science fiction, for instance, can be as goofy or as serious as you’d like and work fine for your game. However, other themes, even common ones, work much better on one end of the spectrem than the other.

As you could tell from the title, in my opinion, real-world history is much more suitable for a serious, heavy theme than a light one. I don’t know the exact reasons why: Maybe it’s the influence of grandiose games like the Civilization series, maybe people subconsciously don’t like their feeling of power over some cardboard Romans to be poked fun at, or perhaps because history is more of the realm of people who also prefer their games to be heavier. History-themed games also trend towards thematic heaviness the later the game is set, which makes sense, because it’s easier to cartoonify Caesar and Cleopatra than the Russian leaders who loomed over the West during the publisher’s lifetime.

There are plenty of themes that are more suitable for light games, but the clear standout for me is food. This one makes more sense at first glance – food is inherently a silly subject, and delicious-looking food is bright and colorful. Food is also consumed over the course of fifteen to thirty minutes, associating that time span with the appropriate length of time to play a food-themed game. Finally, there’s just not that much about food that can be taken seriously*, making the uphill struggle to get gamers to take you seriously even steeper.

* There’s many serious things about the food industry, but that’s more the realm of Brenda Romero-style educational games, which are beyond the scope of this blog.

Get Me A Hamburger Or So Help Me God

So the more mechanically dense my game, the more I want the theme to be heavy, right? Wrong. Let’s look at an example: Splotter Spiele’s Food Chain Magnate.

Food Chain Magnate is one of the densest, heaviest games available in your local game store. Games last several hours, there are hundreds of difficult decisions to make, and screwing up early can cause you to slide into defeat as your opponents deftly snatch your points away from you. However, its theme – 50’s style cartoons depicting people serving burgers and lemonade at a fast food joint – is pretty light. There’s even a goofy paragraph on the side of the box featuring a CEO yelling at an underling to start serving beer to their dumb, terrible customers.

This actually works really well, because though Food Chain Magnate is mechanically heavy, it’s trying to generate an emotion in the players beyond “thinking”: It’s trying to make you cutthroat and competitive with each other, acting cartoonishly mean to your serving staff and customers so that you can have the most money at the end of the game. Because the theme is light, you won’t feel bad about wrecking your corporate infrastructure to turn a few bucks. You will comfortably step into the shoes of mister Cigar-Moustache-Dollar-Sign-Tie on the cover blurb for two to four hours and have a great time, one you might not have if you were expected to take the lives of your employees more seriously.

Theme weight, therefore, can be a great help in reinforcing the feelings you want your game to generate. Are you making a social deduction game where the players experience nailbiting tension? Grim, serious theming will help you stay on point. What about a dexterity game where things falling down is half the fun? Anything other than something bright and goofy would just be weird. Maybe something more cerebral that challenges players’ minds to the fullest? You may want to go to the middle of the scale and find something that won’t intrude too much on the players’ calculations. (Fantasy Flight’s editions of Tigris and Euphrates, Samurai, and Ra are good examples of this.)

Thinking about this from the start of your design process will help you create a more coherent experience for your players and a more appealing product for your publishers and/or backers.

Conclusion

Designing games in the Bay Area with a degree in theatre sometimes feels like running into a biker bar, adjusting my golf-themed tie, and bellowing loudly about the virtues of motor scooters. To compensate for my lack of programming and math experience, I think much harder about theme and player psychology, usually considering art and flavor text at the same time my designs take their first few shaking steps. I intend to write more about theme in the future as it’s an under-represented subject in tabletop writing, and I hope you’ll read those as well.