Design Diary 4/21/2017 – Theming a Game

Before we started our game design project, I kind of had the idea in the back of my mind that the theme of our game would just get pasted on with whatever was popular at the time our game was ready to go to production.  Mechanics are the things that I get most excited about in games, I really thought that I could design a set of mechanics and apply it to any theme.

So when my co-designer Danwarr told me that we need to start integrating theme into the game only 2 weeks into the design process, I was definitely worried.

I guess I just expected that the theme of our story-based tactical skirmish combat campaign game would end up being Standard Fantasy Setting – It’s comfortable, familiar, and it seems to sell kickstarter games like nothing else.  There are 8,042 games on BGG in the “Fantasy” category; and only 6,321 games on BGG in the Science Fiction category.  If you are intending to create a game for the sole purpose of selling it, it makes sense to apply some kind of fantasy flavored theme to it for maximum exposure.

First Impressions

When you look at a game, you automatically make associations with other games that you have played to decide if it’s something you would even consider being interested in.

Personally, I can’t stand board games about playing sports, they remind me of that lame vibrating football player toy my Dad used to have.

So when I see a board game with pictures of a green sports field on it, I don’t even care to learn more about it, it’s not even on my radar as a possible purchase or play.  To this day, I still have no idea what Bloodbowl is about, and I hope to keep it that way.

Effects on Mechanics

Additionally,  players can tell when a theme is just pasted on.  The most egregious examples of pasted on theme I can think of are Monopoly games like this one:

Same exact game, just some new art and branding to distract you.  Possibly interesting to a collector, Massively pointless to a player.

It became clear, very quickly that Danwarr was right about implementing a theme that we could integrate with the mechanics over every iteration as quickly as possible.  In addition to making a good first impression, well-integrated themes deepen immersion and create exciting moments.  In our story-based tactical skirmish campaign game — a pasted on theme would cheapen the best aspects of it and leave us with YATMG (yet another tactical miniatures game).

We can’t just paste on whatever theme is selling the most Monopoly sets, we have to actually try.

Choosing Our Theme

Very quickly into the brainstorming process, we decided we would develop a few art collages to use as reference points to see what kind of themes we were gravitating towards.  Here are four of them, these were made using copywritten art found on art sharing sites like Deviantart and Artstation.

Mesoamerican Fantasy Theme
A9R3EE5.tmpFar Eastern Mythology Theme


High Fantasy Dungeon Crawling Theme


High Seas Adventure Theme


We are designing a game where players will play through campaign scenarios, developing characters that they will shape and experience the story through.  The standard fantasy theme is a recipe for failure.  It is comforting, familiar and easy to design for; however all of the best games that are grounded in a fantasy setting are putting unexpected twists on that theme that keep you interested.

Gloomhaven for example, takes place in a mostly familiar medieval fantasy world; however, the typical races (elves dwarves etc) have been replaced with new inventions — discovering ways the Gloomhaven setting subverts players fantasy expectations and engages them to explore the world, while still being comforted by their familiar fantasy sword and sorcery tropes.

The Far Eastern Mythology theme is one we are starting to see more and more of with the recent announcements of FFG’s Legend of the Five Rings reboot and the successful kickstarting of Rising Sun.  The general gaming audience is more familiar with this theme because it’s stories have been told as books, movies, and video games many many times.

The mythology surrounding the civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica is extremely interesting.  Exploring the varied civilizations of the Aztecs, Mayans, and Olmec people through a fantasy roleplaying game would make for some great gaming experiences. It’s not just jungles and panthers! Unfortunately, the darker nature of the theme sets the wrong tone for the project we are working on.

So we choose Pirates

You can Discover exotic new worlds while searching for fortune and glory on the high seas, or get into barroom brawls with salty dogs, you’d better batten down the hatches when a storm comes or you may find yourself spearfishing in the cay on a deserted island.

It’s the kind of light-hearted fun that we can get excited about, and adopting it early allowed me to get over a recent design hurdle which I will discuss in the next update on designing the Navigator class.


yo ho,