There is a whole question of where people start from when designing games, mechanics, style, innovative ideas and theme all work as starting points for games. One of the things I find myself doing if I don’t start from a theme point of view is to simply bolt on generic fantasy/medieval theme and then get on with the business of fleshing out the design. I have two in progress games at the moment, one a board game based around manipulating the board and moving pieces across it which is in prototype stage, the other a card game that is still forming in my mind. Both have been working so far with the fantasy theme. However both are ripe for alternative themes. So lets have a think though for the board game.
The board game (labouring under that name at the moment due to the lack of strong theme) is a fairly simple affair, move your pieces from one side of the board to the other, during the game the layout of the board is manipulated by drawn cards. The original starting point was reading this http://www.squidi.net/three/entry.php?id=38 from the wonderful 300 game mechanics series. From there changes were made and rules applied. I ended up with three types of character, a wizard, a thief and a fighter, generic fantasy characters. The terrain became lava, forests and cliffs, each of which has a flip side card that is the traversal of that terrain, bridge for lava, clearing for forest, steps for cliffs (yeah… I know). Let us have a look at what other choices we could make for theme.
It might be a nice exercise for a designer to have a their own list of themes that they can consider their games against to see if there is mileage in re-theming to make something a bit more stand out. So I’ll draw up a little list here, Military, Gangs, Spooky, Animals and Abstract. Hardly an exhaustive list, and frankly not really all my taste, but it serves as a nice thought exercise. Let’s go.
So this is another very popular theme in board games, it comes inherently with conflict built in, which is useful for a vs. type game, and assets are fairly easy to come by as well. Seeing as we have two sides obviously we’ll make one Allied and one Axis powers. So the sides are clearly distinguished, which is already something better than the fantasy version I had set up.
Characters : Artillery, Grenadier, Tank. Within the rules of the game there is a circle of destruction so each unit should be able to destroy the one to their right.
Terrain elements : Trench/Bridge, Forest/Clearing, Minefield/Crops. The terrain elements also make sense.
Conflict is obvious and built in here, we can go for old Capone era gangsters, or modern era Bloods and Crips. However whilst considering this all I had in my mind for a gang trying to get from one side of the board to the other was The Warriors … Can you dig it?
Characters : Fighter, Thief, Leader. Well those look familiar, so they slide into the same positions as the ones in the original game, with the leader replacing the wizard. Sides could be made up from different styles of gangs, although everyone would argue over who got to play the Baseball Furies (obviously). This does lead on to an interesting idea where different gangs can have different abilities which may create and different dynamic within the game.
Terrain elements : Police/Distraction, Subway Closed/Subway Open, Building Fire/Short Cut. This is where it all started to fall apart a bit. In an urban setting you’d have thought there would be suitable obstacles for gangs crossing a city, whilst that side of things was true, the flip sides became tricky, it revolves around distraction or things not really related to barriers. Maybe this is enough to keep the theme, and it could be a very groovy theme, if you want to come out and play.
Haunted houses seem like a fun theme, particularly for something with a changeable play area as its core idea. One side can play the ghosts and the other people trapped in the house trying to get out.
Characters : Poltergeist, Spectre, Ghost vs. Scientist, Priest, Ghostbuster(!?). Okay these get a bit tenuous but suitably themed card art would make it work I think.
Terrain elements : False wall/Secret Corridor, Dead end/Secret Door, Locked door/Open door. There should be more than this, but it is all I can think of, which is a good excuse to watch a load of Scooby Doo. However that having been said the theme works well for the work area and has a load of potential for further ideas.
Boardgames aren’t all about adult themes, in fact from a purely commercial point of view a child friendly game is a could be a good choice. So animals seems like a good family friendly option.
Characters : Dog, Sheep, Cow. I’m not sure really how the different character types impact on each other exactly, but I’m sure it is enough explanation to say they do. From a graphical point of view you can run with some very cool designs for the animals, and stock art is easy enough to find for prototype.
Terrain elements : Fence/Hole, Ditch/Bridge, Gate/Open. These are a little simpler and could make for a nice farm yard escape theme. Again artwork is relatively available.
Even if you don’t go down the route of building an abstract game it is a good way to strip back your game to the mechanics to find if they work. It is possible that the delightful theme is pulling you through a less than perfect game, which is legitimate but it would be even better to have a great theme and some suitable mechanics. In abstract the game can sit on a grid, all of the blocking tiles can be colours, with white on the flip side, all of the character pieces end up as shape/colour combinations. If the game still functions with a circle moving past a square, rather than a wizard beating a thief, then it should only be improved by additional theme and flavour.
So where does this leave “The Boardgame”, I’m not exactly sure, I do know that I don’t want to use a fantasy theme for it now. I’d really like to use the stylised gang theme, or maybe another alternative that I’ve not thought of yet.