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.

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