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Visuals and Design in Games: Exploring Game Thematics

Updated on December 8, 2014

There are many factors that go into the conception and design of board games nowadays. Of those factors is re-playability: the ability to play the same game repeatedly and having new and enjoyable experiences each time. Game designers concern themselves with how to accomplish this through various considerations. Today, we are going to talk about one of those considerations: theme.

What do you mean by Theme?

In game design, theme is the aesthetics of the game itself; the definition is not very complicated or difficult to fathom, but its effective (and strong) execution however is open for debate and considerably much more difficult. When talking about a game’s theme, it is essential to ask how vital the theme is to the game. The easiest way to analyze that question is to look at the game’s mechanics. After all, any game can be dressed up as a Halloween/horror version of itself. No, the essence of theme is how immersed and integral the aesthetics of the game are to the game play. If the concepts of the game can be easily changed out for something else, then the game is not very thematic.

For example, the classic game of Battleship is about two fleets engaging one another in double-blind combat. Now, since it does not matter that the figures are vessels at sea, alien aircraft in low orbit, or combat hoagies floating in the æther then the overall theme is not important to the game. By contrast, a game like Betrayal at House on the Hill is a board game that is drenched in horror clichés and atmosphere to the point where is becomes difficult to envision the same game without them. As such, it becomes a much more thematically strong game in comparison.

So why is Theme important?

Theme is important for a game’s design in a similar manner as the person who gets dressed up in character for role-playing sessions: immersion. Thematic games draw their players into the game and the players in-turn become invested in the machinations of the game; they care about what will happen. This spiral of involvement from the players and the game makes for a more enjoyable experience. To be clear and avoid undue judgment, a game does not need to be very thematic in order to be considered a good or fun game; Risk and its many variants are fun games (even when the most consistent winning strategy is to locate the “Australia” and secure it) but do not have a very strong theme.

Another important factor theme plays into the design of the game is in game balance. Game balance (a very involved topic for future discussion) is important to establish with players fairly early on, otherwise the game may end up losing some of its charm let alone its fun. In other words, the sooner players know that they will be in an uphill struggle against all odds or, have all the cards in the deck stacked in their favor, the better the experience will be for the players because their expectations have been adequately set by the game. A game’s theme can help with communicating the kind of game that the players are getting into.

Well-drawn comic book? Or well-designed board game?
Well-drawn comic book? Or well-designed board game?

For example, in the deck game Sentinels of the Multiverse the players have the option of choosing a wide variety of villains to combat, each with their own strategy and approximate difficulty level. The game instructions do clarify the appropriate difficulty level of each villain. This is a good design choice for this superhero-themed game: comic book heroes typically have some understanding of the threat their rogue’s gallery pose and would therefore know (approximately) the dangers they will be facing.

Variants and Theme

It is important to clarify how variety plays into the concept of theme. As mentioned above, exchanging the particular aesthetics of some thematically strong games will be more challenging than others; however, this will not always be the case. There are plenty of games that have solid themes and mechanics that go along with them, but those same themes can be changed out with other very specific themes and not necessary disturb the actual game play. With the example above (Betrayal at House on the Hill), if one were so inclined, they could change out the classic horror theme for that of a spy-drama or film noir; all of these particular genres lend themselves toward the kind of game the Betrayal strives to be: a thrilling mystery with a fantastic twist climax. As the game is designed at present, one could not adequately play it as either of those variants because plenty of the game details would not make sense in those genres.

However, games like Monopoly have numerous variants but very few of which are particularly strong thematically. Each is essentially a palette-swap of one aesthetic for another with very little change in core mechanics or concepts to warrant being considered variations within a given theme. The overall idea is the same (capitalistic grab for money and power through dominance of the real-estate market) no matter if it is set in the Star Wars franchise/universe, in Detroit, or any other possible change of venue; the mechanics remain the same even if the names don’t.

Is that it?

Appearances aside, another very important element to theme are the underlying concepts of the game. For a game to be strongly thematic, those core ideas need to seep into nearly every level of design and game play in some manner. Again, this makes the ideas inextricable from the mechanics and therefore more inherent to the overall quality of the game. The reason this aspect is not nearly the same as the aesthetics is because with the core concepts the details are allowed to become murkier than as with the visuals.

Y'know, cause the two of them look SOO alike . . .
Y'know, cause the two of them look SOO alike . . .

In Level 7: Invasion, for example, the players play as coalitions of nations desperately trying to fend off the alien onslaught of Earth. While the exact visuals are not as key to the game (after all, you could replace the Hydra with the Borg from Star Trek without missing too much), the overall concepts of fighting against nearly impossible odds from an invading menace are the more important. In that regard, Level 7: Invasion accomplishes its goal of simulating an alien invasion; right down to the constant influx of enemy troops and the unpredictable landing sites of the invaders.

Re-playability and Theme

We began this discussion with the mention of re-playability. Theme plays the important part of a game’s re-playability by immersing the players into the world of the game. The execution of a game’s theme will not only draw its audience in, but keep them there; and entice them to come back again and again. Classic board games like Clue do not accomplish this re-playability through theme because they are thematically very weak games; you can see the thematic-fungibility in the countless variants and “themed” versions of these games. However, games like Pandemic (games drenched in their theme) become instantly re-playable because their theme and mechanics allows for endless variation within any given game; so what if the red cube disease is the zombie apocalypse or a cooties outbreak; the point is that you (the players) are in a desperate mission to save the world from a biological threat that looms over the globe.

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