Monday, March 20, 2023

Satire in Deadly Dowagers

I've mentioned before that women respond to Deadly Dowagers in a cathartic way and that this does to a certain extent undermine the intended satire. But I respect the experiences of women so I leaned into the catharsis instead of trying to be heavier-handed with the satire. I also know that author's intent doesn't really mean a whole lot compared to what messages the audience actually receive from the work. But because it only took a week for someone to wildly miss the point on BGG, I thought I'd share what I was actually trying to do in the game. 

The first iteration of Deadly Dowagers was "Inheritance," which explored how the aristocracy built wealth. The point then was to show that the nobility hadn't always been that way but came from somewhere. Not much of a message. 

When I pivoted to A Much Better ThemeTM, I committed to the players being the villains. I wanted the murder of the men to be a difficult decision emotionally because I wanted the game to be clear that the women are the baddies. Society is also to blame in the setting, for sure; that pressure is there and drives the decisions the women make. That is also intentional. The game is a meditation on what forces are at play when otherwise "good" people go bad. And lest you mistake my meaning, greed and ambition are the main driving forces, with societal forces following along behind. 

But what of the men? Do they deserve their fate? I only gave two art direction instructions to the publisher. One was to make sure the mills were water and not wind, because we committed to setting the game specifically in England. The other came after a question about whether the men should be boorish or evil looking. I nixed that hard. The men have to be neutral or the theme does not work. (The fact that this note seems to have spawned art that is best described as husband NFTs is endlessly amusing to me.) If the men deserve their fate, the satire is lost. If the men are too sympathetic, the catharsis is lost. The experience of the game hangs on the men's portraits. 

So what is the satire? I mention regularly that the theme is a metaphor, which most women take to mean that the husbands metaphorically stand in for all the men in their lives who have harmed them. And I don't want to take that catharsis from them. But the metaphor in the satire is that the men stand in for anyone who is dehumanized and harmed for the sake of someone else's profit. (Calling the game anti-capitalist would be much more accurate than misandrist.) By giving the men names and faces and a relationship to the player, the game is doubling down on the message that their fate is wrong; the whole system is wrong. 

But the solution is not for the women to be demur and return to their traditional roles. This is why the game is set in the Victorian era. If you only know one thing about the Victorian era, it is that women were highly repressed. So I rely on that outside knowledge to add tension to the theme. Because the systemic repression of women was wrong. But harming people for power and profit is also wrong. There is no right in this theme, except to learn and grow when the game is done. 

If the theme were played for laughs, or even for catharsis only, I wouldn't have allowed it to reach publication. Like if the Hunger Games trilogy were only a page-turner about kids killing each other and not a treatise on war and pacifism. I believe the message is what renders the content acceptable or unacceptable. Players engaging with the content on a surface level only was very much a concern during playtesting. Why I'm comfortable with the game being out in the wild is that players know, even when they can't explain why, that the theme was carefully crafted to be about something other than shock and awe. 

The musical Chicago isn't a celebration of murder, but an indictment of the American justice system and the media. But it's also fun and a bit silly at the same time. Anyone mature enough to play a game about serial murder is mature enough to handle that a theme can be both irreverent and serious. 

This is my defense for Deadly Dowagers. I don't expect author's intent to carry much weight. But maybe it is helpful to know there was an intent. 

ShippBoard Games is a board game design blog that updates most Mondays.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Knitting Agency into Theme

Sometimes perfect pairings are discovered that change the way you think about the individual elements. Take for example noodles and tomatoes, which originated in China and South America respectively, but which in combination are associated with Italy. In this post, I want to talk about another synergistic pairing.

There are two common uses of the term agency, when referring to the ability to choose which action to take. One is in gaming, particularly board games: "Does the player have enough agency?" This idea is central to the book Games: Agency as Art, which posits that the curated agencies of games are a unique art form. 

The other, of course, arises from what might be described as feminist film discourse: "Do the female characters in that movie have agency?" 

I've said previously that the reason why Deadly Dowagers resonates with women is because it is a female power fantasy. I still believe this to be the case. However, a more nuanced take would also include the fact that not only is the theme knitted to the mechanics, but the both the theme and the mechanics are an exploration of agency. 

The rules of Deadly Dowagers aren't quite what gamers expect when they sit down to play. There are restrictions that you don't find in other tableau builders. For example, there is not an income phase every round. Rules explanations, in my experience, are often accompanied by the addendum "because you're a woman, that's why." (People who grew up adhering to similar gendered expectations tend to not bat an eye at the restrictions because they are familiar with how this world works.) 

Of course, even in a restrictive society it is possible to have some agency. And restrictive games usually have more meaningful choices than purely luck-based games. Games like Obsession use this synergy to convey "how society was back then" but don't actually engage with the extreme inequities baked into the society in question. Inequities like how a woman's property legally belonged to her husband when they got married. 

I had many, many playtesters ask me why Deadly Dowagers didn't have balls, shopping, or courtship, i.e. the feminine pursuits associated with "the era."* But stripping out the expected trappings allowed me to laser focus on the important thematic choices in the game. As well as allowing me to explore what it actually feels like to be a woman in a world that grants you little agency. The point is not to feel feminine but restricted and a little unsettled. Heading Forward is an example of a more serious implementation of this idea of limited agency leveraged to emphasize the theme, in this case recovering from a brain injury.

Games have limited agencies, which is what makes them both frustrating and fun to play. Those limitations and frustrations can be used to represent other times in history when a group of people faced limited agencies. We don't have to only theme Euro games around successful inventors and entrepreneurs. 

It turns out pairing the artistic medium of agency with the theme of agency works really well. I think there is design space here to develop much stronger thematic experiences by leveraging the player experience of making challenging or difficult choices. 

*Deadly Dowagers is set in the mid-to-late Victorian era. Obsession claims to be set in the Victorian era but has strong Regency sensibilities. Pride and Prejudice and Bridgerton are Regency era settings. Downton Abbey is Edwardian and post-Edwardian. Yes, the difference matters thematically. 

ShippBoard Games is a board game design blog that updates most Mondays.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Happy International Women's Day

I'm interrupting my regular Monday release schedule to announce that Deadly Dowagers is for sale as of today, International Women's Day '23. Deadly Dowagers was produced by a woman-led, all women team. 

I expect to have more posts specific to the game in the future (but keeping a focus on design theory), but, for now, you can buy the game here if the fancy strikes you. Or not. You do you. 

Monday, March 6, 2023

Exemplars of Theme

I don't have a top ten thematic games. Instead, I have a list of ten games that showcase different traits that I've written about before. I think that playing these games or the honorable mentions with attention to the traits I discuss here will drive home the different ways a game can be thematic. I'm not diving deep into how each game works here, because if you are unfamiliar with any of these games I think you should give them a look with an eye to how the theme is implemented. 

King of Tokyo

Standout trait: Clear distinction between the agential mechanisms of rerolling and locking and VP set collection and the thematic mechanisms (all the other ones). 

Additional traits: Strong thematic/mechanic hook, which I describe as combat Yahtzee with kaiju. This combination of familiar and unexpected elements makes it easy to pitch to non-gamers. 

Evokes genre. Other games evoke genre better, but few do as much with as few mechanisms. 

Honorable Mention: Betrayal at Mystery Mansion exhibits all of the above traits but may be more group dependent. 


Standout trait: Evocative actions. There are no agential mechanisms (or icons) once the game starts. 

Additional trait: Pairs an abstracted time track with the theme of a road in a way that really works. This shows that games can have some abstraction and still have the net result be thematic. 

Super-Skill Pinball 

Standout trait: Mechanically simulates theme.  Does so across multiple boards showcasing the diversity of pinball tables. 

Additional traits: Proves theme can be mathy and R&Ws can be thematic. 

One of the best examples of player as avatar, in that the avatar is the person playing pinball and you are the person playing the simulation of pinball. 

Sheriff of Nottingham

Standout trait: Mechanics that require above the table thematic interactions that are also literal actions, i.e. bluffing and negotiation. 

Additional trait: Avatar embodiment married to above the table actions encourages role play without requiring it. 

Honorable Mentions: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes does the above but isn't generally considered a board game. The Grizzled does the above without the literal actions. 


Standout trait: Evocative tableau/engine building through cards that build, populate, and (in some cases) operate a town. 

Additional traits: Thematic quests/achievements that use certain card pairings to evoke narrative concepts. 

Evocative resources that are thematic to the setting but also thematic in the materials used to produce the bits. 

A Fistful of Meeples 

Standout trait: Workers/meeples that have goals that are in conflict with other meeples. Each type wants to be around certain other types and not others. These relationships make the setting feel more alive and lived in than most meeple-centric games. 

Additional traits: Evokes genre. 

Example of a thematic game with no player avatar. 

The Coldest Night

Standout trait: A strong and deeply evocative sense of setting that flows from a short description of the theme to the simple mechanisms that capitalize on the emotion of desperation and leave the players' imaginations to do the rest. The player as avatar helps drive that feeling of desperation by minimizing the distance between character and player. 

Honorable Mention: Sushi Roll creates a clear sense of setting with very simple and clever component and mechanic design. 


Standout trait: An emergent sense of world history based on how the factions work and relate to each other. 

Additional trait: Naming conventions and art hint at and reinforce the power dynamics between the factions, such as the Woodland Alliance (mice) and the Cats which build sawmills. 

Ex Libris

Standout trait: Harnesses players' intrinsic motivation for order and gives game world logic to it. 

Additional trait: Applies that intrinsic motivation to the job of the player avatar to create character motivation. 

Honorable Mention: Deadly Dowagers pits the intrinsic desires for power and status against the desires for honor and family to create tension within the players as a part of the gameplay experience. 

Cosmic Frog

Standout trait: Excellent example of a fantastical setting (using the art world definition of fantasy) that also shows the extreme edges of how game world logic can be used to reinforce rules. 

ShippBoard Games is a board game design blog that updates most Mondays.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Starting a Thematic Design

I was recently a guest on the Meeple Syrup Show, where I talked about starting thematic designs. This post is a companion piece to that discussion, which can be found here

When I was thinking about my design process, I divided the steps into three general phases: scaffolding, outline, and details. Scaffolding addresses the initial have-an-idea process. Outline looks at building the bare bones of the design. And details is the rest of the design process. Obviously, the third section takes the most time, but I don't dwell on it as much because 1) this is about beginning a design, 2) the steps in the details section occur repeatedly and in different orders and proportions depending on the game, and 3) this part of the design process is discussed very regularly on other platforms. 

With that said, here's the process:


1. Come up with an idea prompt. You can use a generator that involves various lists and dice rolls or pulling items out of a hat, which is what a lot of game jams do. You can keep an idea list in your day-to-day life and reference the list when you want to start a new design. You can jot down random phrases that sound like clues in Dixit as a jumping off point. (Example: "The spaces in between.") You can pull random Apples to Apples cards. However you do it, the prompt you settle on should interest you. 

2. Come up with an interesting question using your prompt then try to answer it. When you do, look for answers that suggest action. What stories does my prompt suggest? What actions could occur in those stories? Could those actions translate to mechanisms? Pick an angle you find interesting that has some mechanical promise.

3. Spend five minutes researching general knowledge connected to your idea so far. This could be historical information, genre tropes, or something else. When people summarize the topic, what elements do they include? Board games tend to present thematic information in broad strokes, so knowing the highlights is important even though you ultimately won't stop there. As you research, continue to look for mechanics ideas. 

4. Settle on which aspects you want to model in your design. These should be aspects that are interesting to you which can be modeled through game mechanisms. You should have a general concept of which mechanics are a good jumping off point for your design. 


1. Determine who the player characters are in your game. What are their thematic goals? What are their mechanical goals? How might that translate to a win condition? Are there other mini-goals that feed into the major goal?

2. Determine the obstacles that prevent players from reaching their goals. What presents a challenge mechanically? How does that challenge translate thematically? What are the consequences of failure? Is there an upside? How does a success help players toward their overall goal?

3. Determine the actions players will need to overcome obstacles and achieve goals. Some verbs to consider which are both mechanical and generically thematic: acquire, deploy, relocate, appraise/evaluate, communicate, create, build. You can adjust the thematic terminology later. For now, it is important to think in terms of action. 

4. Start a rough pen and paper prototype and attempt to play your idea so far. (I don't usually write much down until this point in the process. Experiment with writing while brainstorming, talking aloud, and just thinking, because you'll engage different modes of thinking. I prefer to let my mind drift and chew on a problem, but you may not.) This point is about as far as you can get in a short game jam. 

5. Do more thematic research. Make sure the actions you settle on align with the theme. I would recommend around an hour of research at a minimum at this point if you are designing with a real world theme. You should have a basic grasp of the subject matter and a sense of the emotional experience inherent in your chosen theme. This is important to have before you settle on mechanical structure in order for your mechanics to feel appropriate to the theme. 


1. Playtest. Repeat until the game stops changing. Make changes. Make better prototypes. 

2. Research similar mechanics in published games. 

3. Do more thematic research. Incorporate setting details, character motivation, and other thematic conventions. Make sure you are doing justice to your theme.

4. Determine the hook of your game. I think it's okay if this is later in the process. You won't know what your game wants to be at first. 

I don't suggest this is the only way, or even the best way, to start a thematic design. However, there is a benefit to stretching your design muscles, and this is a highly portable method providing you have a smart phone. I do a lot of these steps instinctually and thus quickly, so I am unsure how following this format like a recipe will work. I think it's worth trying at least once, but I don't expect it to become how you design going forward. Instead, I highly encourage you to take what works for your design style and discard the rest. 

ShippBoard Games is a board game design blog that updates most Mondays.

Monday, February 20, 2023

On Prototype Quality

If you're reading this, you probably already know that prototypes should look nice but not too nice if you are pitching to publishers. Let's look in a little more detail at the importance of a certain level of prototype quality. 

Prototype quality communicates a lot of information to publishers. If prototypes are too nice, they signal that you are invested in a certain look for the game and may be hesitant to make changes. This is especially true if you have invested money in art and graphics. (If you are an artist doing your own art, you may want to say so upfront to avoid confusion.) Publishers have a vision for their line of games. So unless your finished game fits perfectly with that vision, they will want to make changes. 

Prototypes that aren't nice looking at all signal that the game is not yet complete. Even if the mechanics are complete, an ugly prototype signals that you haven't yet considered how to make your game into a product. So, what should a just-finished-enough prototype look like?

Your prototype needs to be usable. Cards need to be shuffleable. Components need to be physically close enough to the finished version that the game plays the way a finished version would. I usually only buy dice and standees when it comes to prototypes, but if I'm sending out a prototype to a publisher I will try to get real cards printed (and sleeve my cards if not). 

In addition to a usable level of component quality, your graphics need to be usable as well. Icons need to discernible. Text needs to be kept to a minimum. Layout needs to be considered. You don't need to be a graphic designer, but you do need to be familiar with how information is conveyed in board games. Again, usability is key. 

Lastly, you need to make the prototype look just good enough that the publisher can imagine it in their line. Placeholder art can convey a surprising amount of information: tone, intended audience, table presence, cost of final art, etc. Placeholder art also gives your game some color and character to help it stand out. Importantly, placeholder art says "I want you to finish the look of this game." 

A pitching prototype needs to convey what the game can be without actually spending much money yourself. It needs to inspire a publisher's imagination by leaving only a few things to the imagination. There is a certain element of 'doing all the hard work but letting the publisher think it was their idea' in a pitching prototype. And that's okay. You are doing 95% of the work in order to inspire someone else to do the remaining 5%. The trick of it is that that remaining 5% takes just as long as the 95% and costs 200x more. And really, if that last 5% is fun for you, why are you pitching? Just make your game. 

For me, the fun part of pitching is finding a collaborator who sees my design work and gets excited. Finding someone who believes in the project and commits to doing the parts I don't enjoy. But I confess, I also like the dance of showing what a game can be without actually producing the game myself. It's a form of communication, and it's an art. It's a skill I'm still developing. 

ShippBoard Games is a board game design blog that updates most Mondays.

Monday, February 13, 2023

An Approach to Complexity

I'm not going to try to be comprehensive here. This post is about my general philosophy of complexity in game mechanics. 

You have probably heard the phrase 'complexity budget.' The term refers to the amount of complexity your design can tolerate based on your intended audience. You can stretch that budget by relying on players' existing knowledge and by well-developed game logic. You have to take into account rules complexity and strategic complexity. Too much complexity makes a game incomprehensible or too difficult. 

For my money, rules complexity is a bigger issue than strategic complexity. I can tolerate being bad at a game because I am not a good strategist, but I am frustrated when I am bad at a game because I don't understand what I am supposed to be doing. Often, rules complexity is artificially increased by poorly-written manuals or bad graphic design. 

However, there is one aspect of rules complexity that designers can miss: the ratio of complex systems to complex actions. I don't think I'm the first person to point this out, but it deserves more attention. The more complex the systems in the game, the less those systems can tolerate complex actions. The simpler the systems, the more the actions can be complex. 

So, in a game with one mechanism, that mechanism can be fairly complex without exceeding the complexity budget. There is a reason 'I cut; you choose' games are generally filler games: the action mechanism is surprisingly strategically complex. It involves assessing your play state and that of other players, then attempting to predict what arrangement of resources will tempt other players without making any lot too good. Add this mechanism to a complex game and it would grind gameplay to a halt. In complex Euros, players already have a tendency to stretch out their turns by calculating their various options. Adding a mechanism that has that sort of calculation built in could create a snowball effect. 

If you look at published heavy games, you typically find they are made up of simple actions—lots and lots of simple actions that interact and affect each other. Certain mechanisms, like deck building, are actually a molecule of simple action atoms. Most of the strategic complexity of deck building comes from choosing which cards to buy—which is no different from any other card market mechanism. Mid-to-heavy games will often have one complex action supported by simpler actions. The action might be strategically complex, like an auction, or rules complex, like a unit in a war game that has a lot of stats. 

I don't think there's a hard and fast rule, but it's important to pay attention to the balance of systems complexity versus action complexity. 

While I'm on the topic, let's talk about other things that can use up your complexity budget. 

In-turn Calculation: Look. Some people just have a hard time with math, ok? I would much rather a game has me doing simple math than clever math, unless the cleverness is that the math doesn't feel like math. Having to calculate as a part of my turn limits what other information I can absorb because my brain is busy. 

Out-of-turn Calculation: I'm actually more forgiving of this because it is usually optional. I can choose to do some strategic calculation when it's not my turn if I feel like it. Doing math during downtime is also easier because I'm not trying to do multiple things at once. 

Spatial reasoning: There appear to be two types of people: those who don't like math and those who don't like spatial puzzles. Mentally manipulating images is challenging even for people who like spatial puzzles and impossible for some other people. There was an era where number-crunchy games were seen as inherently heavier than (and thus superior to) spatial puzzle games. Spatial puzzle games often opt for strategic complexity over rules complexity, but that doesn't make them inherently lighter. Games like Calico have done a lot to push back against this notion. 

Memory: No, not that kind of memory game. When a game has a lot of rules exceptions and corner cases, a lot of distinct actions and resources, and not a lot of thematic logic to help lighten the load, you can exceed your budget just through overtaxing the players' memories. I do want to be clear that while this section includes rules overhead, it is more than just that. The rules could be perfectly straightforward, but the graphic design doesn't help guide you through play. Or the rules are simple, but there are a lot of steps and no player aids. If memory isn't an intended mechanism, you may want to minimize it in your design. 

Hopefully, this post has got you thinking about complexity in a new way and/or reminded you to review the complexity budget of your designs. 

ShippBoard Games is a board game design blog that updates most Mondays.