BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Game Design 101: Theme vs. Narrative

This article continues my occasional series of posts discussing various aspects of game design. For the curious the two previous articles are here:

In this post I will consider the concept of ‘theme’ in modern eurogames, speculate on its definition and importance, and wonder whether the less-discussed concept of ‘narrative’ is actually more meaningful and relevant to the game designer.

What is theme?

Readers unfamiliar with so-called modern eurogames will probably not be particularly mindful of whether the games they play have a theme, but it is a lively topic of discussion amongst people who are. In this context, theme is most commonly used to describe the historical or fantastical setting within which the game is placed.

Tigris & Euphrates, for example, is a true classic of eurogames, and is a tile-based game of territorial control and conflict played on a board that represents the landscape of the titular twin rivers of ancient Mesopotamia. In the game the players represent competing dynasties each attempting to best their opponents by expanding the region’s settlements, temples, farms and markets, building monuments and surviving the occasional catastrophe. The game board and components have a visual design that ties into all these (admittedly rather hazy) historical concepts, as does the terminology used in the game rules to refer to, for example, the players’ pieces (each player has a king, a priest, a farmer and a trader). It is all these elements, taken as a whole, that create the game’s theme.

There are two important things to say about theme:

  1. There are plenty of board games that have no theme at all: these are referred to as abstract games. The architype is the ancient Chinese game of Go, a game of pure mathematical strategy played on a grid of intersecting lines with just two distinct components: white stones and black stones.

The second thing is perhaps more surprising:

  1. All board games are essentially abstract games! Any board game may be reduced to a purely abstract but mechanistically equivalent set of components and rules by ruthlessly removing all the thematic elements.

So, to take a rather simplistic view of Tigris & Euphrates we can consider the board simply as ‘a matrix of spaces of three distinct types’ (in the published game there are land, river and temple spaces), upon which the players compete using ‘markers of four distinct types’ (in the published game: settlement, temple, farm and market). Strip away all remnants of a game’s theme and you will find that the game itself — the core engine defined by its components and rules — emerges unscathed.

The importance of theme

With these observations safely made, what then is the importance of theme? Why create a theme at all? Why not simply publish all games as abstract games? There are many reasons, chief amongst them the desire on the part of game designers and publishers to create compelling, engaging products. Designers may choose specific themes based on their own interests, metaphorically scratching personal intellectual itches. Publishers may impose entirely new themes on existing game designs to match their view of what sells, or to avoid themes used in other games by other publishers.

A criticism levelled at many modern eurogames is that their themes are often rather thin or ill-conceived veneers layered unconvincingly on top of unrelated game mechanisms. The converse view is that games with a closer relationship between theme and mechanism can create more successful and rewarding experiences for the gamer. And given the highly subjective nature of these concepts there is often much good-natured debate about whether a particular game’s theme helps or hinders its success, or adds to or detracts from its replayability.

I agree with the view that a theme that seems utterly disjointed from a game’s mechanisms can create a jarring and ultimately unsatisfying gaming experience, and hence a failed game. And the designer must be both careful and wise here, since there is a risk that in designing a game and choosing a theme he creates the worst of all possible worlds:

  • To create a bad game, regardless of its theme, is a clear and present failure: a failure of the first order. The designer must simply begin his journey again.
  • To create a good game, but ruin it with a bad theme, is a terrible thing, but one with the hope of recovery: a failure of the second order. Here the designer can see his missteps and may perhaps retrace some of them; his journey so far has not been a completely wasted one.
  • But to create a good game and a good theme, and then ruin both by forcing them together, irrespective of how well they fit is a tragedy indeed: this, then, is a failure of the third order. Now the designer has completed his journey, has strained every sinew, wasted every resource, only to discover an empty, barren plot. He has allowed himself to be tricked: his destination is a mirage.

Your game’s theme will make a difference to the opinion of almost everyone who encounters it and is therefore an important part of your design, but it can also be a straw man. The theme is the surface of your game, not its foundation, and should never be treated as such. More simply: the theme is not the game.

The importance of narrative

We come then at last to my concept of narrative which I want to propose as a more meaningful, more inclusive, and more useful way for game designers to think about their own designs, and their own design processes.

The first and most important thing to say is that all games have a narrative. Consider once again the game of Go, which is as pure an example of a themeless, abstract game as you are likely to find. It is nonetheless a tense head-to-head battle of territorial control between two combatants with exactly the same goal, each at once attempting both to attack and defend, at times surging forward, at times waiting patiently in the hope of surprising or outwitting their opponent, until at game-end there is a final reckoning in which one player is crowned victorious.

This, then, is Go’s narrative (one it shares with many other — and possibly very different — games) and is surely a more involving way to describe it than merely to attempt a dry rendition of its rules.

When Reiner Knizia describes himself as an ‘entertainer’ this, I think, is what he means. He means that each of his games presents players with a universe of possible narratives which he, as storyteller-in-chief, has preordained. And yet the players cannot know what stories wait to be told! All they can know is that Knizia’s all-seeing Creator’s eye has somehow seen all these stories, in all their labyrinthine complexity, and has deemed them to be good and worth telling.

The hero path

There are many obstacles in the game designer’s path, but none are as great as simply not being able to see the path in the first place. To consider more practical measures, you may have some dim conception of your game’s theme, components, mechanisms and interactions, but without a crystal clear understanding of the narrative all these things are for nought. You cannot hope to tell your players a story if you yourself do not know its beginning, middle and end in intimate and glorious detail.

I have experienced this special type of ignorance many times when designing my own games, and in a sense it is the overcoming of this specific obstacle — the moment when I suddenly see the game as it should and needs to be — that makes the process of designing a game so rewarding.

Suddenly the story is clear. Suddenly the ‘hero path’ is revealed.

We have not even to face the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us: the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god, and where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the centre of our own existence, and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the World.’

From ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ by Joseph Campbell

Any blog post where you can talk about game theory and quote the 'Hero's Quest' by Joseph Campbell is successful in my book.

Awesome. I'm a video game designer, and its always fantastic to see a post which is so perfect is applies to gaming in general.

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