I’m a very strong believer in the importance of a fitting, unique theme for your tabletop game. While some of this is personal preference, I also think that having a good theme will make your game much more memorable and exciting. However, some “bottom-up” games, which are designed with mechanics first, are difficult to dress in a theme.
In order to better train my theming abilities, and because I can only think about so many of my own games at a time, I’ve started performing a thought exercise where I update the themes of preëxisting board games to something either more suitable, more unique, or both. It’s fun to do and is a useful way of thinking about games, so I thought I’d share it on this blog. This post will go through two examples: The games Incan Gold and Caylus.
My “retheming” exercise consists of asking the following questions, then finding a theme that matches the answers.
What is the core mechanic of this game? Most games, particularly “bottom-up” games, have a single mechanic or gameplay loop at its core. Examples include Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar‘s rotating wheels and Azul‘s tile grabbing rules.
Are there unique submechanics? Other mechanics in a game might be less prominent but distinctive enough that it’s worth building a theme around them. Libertalia giving every player the same hand of cards at the start of each round is one example.
What are some of the game’s overarching mechanical themes? In many board games, you end up taking several actions that all fit a general theme. This might be “economics”, where you buy, sell, and trade resources to the bank, “politics”, where you negotiate with other players to accomplish your goals, or “planning,” where you set up actions to pay off later in the game.
How serious or silly is the game? Some games are longer, more cerebral, and trickier than other games, and they usually want a more serious theme to match. Other games are faster and emotionally charged and often want sillier themes. I write more about the subject in this post.
Once I’ve answered these questions, I try to come up with a theme that doesn’t see a lot of space on shelves and that connects with the game’s mechanics in a satisfying way.
Example 1: Incan Gold
Why Choose Incan Gold? Incan Gold‘s theme is mostly appropriate for the mechanics, but it’s also really colonialist, considering it’s a game about robbing an indigenous temple in South America that doesn’t even dress itself up with an “archaeological dig” disguise. This can be done better.
Core Mechanic: Incan Gold is a press-your-luck game. Each turn, a card is turned over; these cards can have gems, hazards, or artifacts. Gems are split evenly among all remaining players, with the gems that can’t be split evenly being left on the card. There are five different kinds of hazards, with three cards of each in the deck; if two hazards turn up, the round abruptly ends and everyone left in the temple loses all gems they had collected up til that point. After a card is turned over, each player secretly decides to stay for another card or run away. If they run, they collect all the leftover gems from prior gem cards, but if more than one player runs away in the same turn, the leftover gems are also split evenly.
Unique Submechanics: Artifact cards provide an incentive to leave the temple early. The first person to leave the temple alone grabs the artifact, which is worth a lot of points. However, if multiple people leave at once, the artifact stays out.
Overarching Themes: Risk: Is it worth staying in the round so I can get larger shares of gems after the other players run away, or should I leave before the second identical hazard card turns up? Mind-Reading: Do I bail and grab the artifact, or will someone else be doing that first? How risk-averse are my friends?
Seriousness: On the silly side, as press-your-luck games mostly are.
Analysis: Splitting gems evenly with the remaining players, but having to run away by yourself with an artifact, implies that the players are allies of convenience who would turn on each other in a heartbeat. Because you need two identical hazard cards, the first one of each type could be considered a “warning” of some sort instead of an actual representation of danger.
Therefore, Incan Gold is now a game about a gang of thieves breaking into a bank vault and grabbing as much as they can before running out. This helps promote the game’s hectic, stressful nature. Gems can be gold bars or stay gems, since gem components are pretty and fun to play with. Hazard cards can be cameras, lasers, guards, dogs, etc, and the first one of each type can be flavored as the lookout noticing it but nobody actually setting off the security system yet. Artifacts are big paintings that, obviously, cannot be split between people. (They can also have funny pictures on them.)
Example 2: Caylus
Why choose Caylus? Caylus has a really cool core mechanic that could be the basis of an interesting theme, but the publisher went with a “medieval Europe” theme, which is the tabletop design equivalent of bunting.
Core Mechanic: The heart of Caylus‘ board is a long road with spaces on either side to put buildings. Players build along these roads and then place their workers onto the buildings to activate their abilities.
Notably, not every building will get activated every round. After players have placed their workers, each player then has the opportunity to bribe the “provost” pawn to move forwards or backwards. Only buildings the provost has moved to or pass actually activate on that turn.
Unique Submechanics: Weak buildings can later be renovated into residential buildings that earn passive money income. All players have the opportunity to contribute to a large castle by spending resource cubes, with players who contribute more and earlier getting further rewarded. “Royal favors” can be cashed in to advance on a track that gives progressively more rewards.
Overarching Themes: Selfishness vs Selflessness: Do I contribute to the group project of the castle or do I act selfishly and build buildings for myself? Do I bribe the provost to move forward to activate more of my own buildings, knowing that this will help other players as well? Resource Management: I only get so much money and resource cubes at a time. Do I pass early and hold onto them, or spend them all at once?
Seriousness: This is a medium-heavy game that’s much more cerebral than it is emotionally stimulating. The theme should be somewhat serious.
Analysis: The road and corresponding Provost token make Caylus a unique worker placement game. This simulates a boom-and-bust economy – sometimes every building on the road is going to get activated, and sometimes only a few will. So an ideal theme for this game would be something centered on a notable road that’s had up and down times.
Naturally, the perfect choice is America’s historic Route 66, once a bustling transit center and now a niche tourist journey.
The buildings along the road can be production-focused, like farms, and then can be converted into residential buildings or tourist spaces that give passive monetary income to the players. Players can also contribute the resources they gain to a major city (the castle), with the dungeon, walls, and towers replaced by the inner city, suburbs, and exurbs perhaps. This helps create a separation between the lonely highway and the bustling cities it connects.
The provost, instead of representing an authority figure, more represents the economic status of Route 66 at the time. Perhaps it could be a bus or similar vehicle carrying people along the road, or perhaps more of an abstract “fortune” figure.
The resource cubes are likely the most difficult thing to convert to this theme, as the more modern you get, the less sense it makes to have individual units of “food” or “cloth”. Food still makes kind of sense, and stone can be replaced with steel, but I’d have to do a lot more thinking to come up with alternatives I’m satisfied with.
Many of my games are designed with a theme first, so I don’t often do this exercise for my own games. However, even if you’re just doing this to pass the time and have no intention of applying it to your designs, having a deeper understanding of the connection between theme and mechanic is a valuable exercise for any designer. I hope you’re able to get as much or more out of this than I did.