Thematic Design

Last night on the Meeple Syrup Show, we had the lovely Sarah Shipp as our guest to talk about how to start a thematic design her way.

Sarah is going to cover that in detail in her own blog, ShippBoard Games – Board Game Design Theory from a Fine Arts Perspective (the post will be live on Monday 27 February, 2023), but in the meantime, I wanted to talk about how I go about it.

All designers have their own approaches, and none are right or wrong – they are as individual as we are. Sarah’s ideas got me thinking about when I approach different stages of design, and why.

My take on thematic design

For me, the most important thing about a game design is for the elements of the game to be as integrated as possible with each other – so that the experience feels feels right to the player. I don’t mean “so that it feels like a simulation” – board games don’t really do simulations very well, that’s something better handled in the realm of the video game. I mean so that it makes sense. So for example, if you are making a game about burgers, you might flip the cards on the griddle when the patty needs flipping – that makes sense thematically, and it gives a timing that makes the game interesting, especially if there’s a chance of burning the burger.

Another example of thematically integrated design, for me, would be to have the elements of the game make sense – so in The Plot Quickens, our community garden game, you discard into the Compost, the way you do with actual plants and plant matter in a real garden.

When a game is integrated with its theme, the actions you take as a player are more instinctive – and the converse is true, too. So if you are play-testing your design, and your players keep saying “it feels like I should do this” instead of what you have put in your rules, pay attention – that could be because they are accustomed to a particular game that does things that way, or it could be because your theme suggests it. Both are important to note – but thematically, we want to focus on the feelings related to where the theme carries the gameplay.

So, what’s a game with a well-integrated theme? I am going to look at a couple of examples with a similar plant-y theme to The Plot Quickens, my current focus.

Example – Planted

Let’s look at Planted. Designed by prolific Australian designer Phil Walker-Harding (Sushi Go!), this is a fairly recent release into the mass market sphere, with a very Hobby feel about it, and beautiful illustrations by award-winning artist Hannah Bailey.

The theme is very on-trend – everyone seems to love a good plant game at the moment. In Planted, you are combining the required resources to increase the growth of your plants each round, and these resources are not only thematically believable, but the tokens are also very pleasing to hold and look at – adding to the tactile experience that makes board games so appealing.

Thematically, the feeling of the game is very much like the feeling of caring for plants – you need to give them the right allocation of the resources they require every round to keep them flourishing, and if you do, they reward you with a new leaf. Anyone who has cared for a house plant and seen that new leaf or that flower bud knows what I mean there – it’s a real rush to see a living thing responding positively to your care and attention.

Planted succeeds very well with this aspect of thematic integration, and that’s probably why it’s a very popular game.

There are a few mechanical aspects that aren’t quite right, thematically, to me as someone familiar with the activities behind the topic – the values of the resources and the thumbs were a little problematic, and we had a bit of trouble with the two stacks of cards with the same colour back, but these are teething problems as you learn the game, and part of the “it’s not a simulation” thing that all board games have to overcome.

In terms of thematic integration: the plants are portrayed on three different levels – floor, shelf, hanging – which is accurate, and the plants they chose made sense in those applications. Their needs in terms of resources seemed logical and appropriate, and the tools were useful both strategically and thematically – it made sense that you got more water once you had a watering can. There were also thematically accurate set-collection bonuses, which someone who has a houseplant obsession would recognise – the same kinds of plants, the same plants all on one level, etc. These were all logical things I would have wanted to collect, and getting a bonus for doing so was satisfying and felt “right”.

All in all, it was a fun little game that I enjoyed a lot, and thematically, the illustrations and components made it pleasantly immersive and thematically integrated.

Example – Verdant

Verdant is another game with a houseplant theme, and is often cited in opposition to Planted – I am personally team both. Designed by a team of designers, Molly Johnson (Point Salad), Robert Melvin (Point Salad), Aaron Mesburne (Overboss: A Boss Monster Adventure), Kevin Russ (Calico), Shawn Stankewich (Point Salad), and illustrated by the amazing Beth Sobel, Verdant has definitely earnt its place in the ‘hot games” category.

You spend the game caring for houseplants and placing them, along with furniture, décor, and pets, into your house. As far as the actual placement goes, it’s quite abstract – you alternate rooms and plants in a 5 x 3 grid, and the game ends once all players have completed their grid.

Just like in Planted, the aim is to increase the verdancy of your plants by providing them with the resources they need – in this case, by situating them in the best light, then tending them until they are fully-grown, at which point you gift them a cover pot. The sooner your plant is verdant, the higher the value of the cover pot you can add to it. You also score for the best combinations of furniture and rooms, and adjacency of plants with rooms of the same colour, and other puzzly things that aren’t “real world” thematic, but feel very satisfying to achieve.

Thematically, Planted is closer to the experience of actually tending houseplants, but Verdant touches on the whole-house experience of a houseplant enthusiast – you do need to think about placement, as well as the rest of your décor. I would have been interested to have more interaction between pet placement and the safety of particular plants (there are a lot of plants that aren’t safe around dogs and cats) but that would probably have made it quite a different game.

My main objection to Verdant was actually that it ended too soon – I wanted to expand my house further and have more plants in there, because the plants themselves are very appealing, beautifully illustrated, and collectible. It was frustrating to have to let some of my favourite plants go because I didn’t have the space for them. That’s not thematically accurate – a real plant enthusiast makes room for all the plants they can possibly cram into a space.

So if I compare the two, while I enjoyed both games fairly equally, and had small niggles from each about different things, I have only played either game once – I think those were teething problems that pushed me out of the game, rather than massive thematic disconnects that would prevent me from playing again.

What I learnt from Planted and Verdant

Firstly, I can’t go past the importance of the art. Both artists added so much to the experience that you can’t replace with anything else. For most people, the visual aspect is critical – you simply can’t immerse yourself in an experience if you don’t have the visual cues that you need to feel something.

Second, following on from the first – the connection between the theme and the feeling of the game is really important. Both games fall within the “cosy” game mantle, I believe. Both games have a non-violent subject matter, but are still very competitive – in both cases, you are trying to out-manoeuvre your opponent by making the best plant and resource choices.

It would be reasonably easy to reformulate them to have a less cosy theme – if Verdant were about troop placement in a war, for example, or Planted were about a military field hospital where you had to triage the wounded and use limited resources to save those with the most chance of recovery, a lot of the mechanical aspects could be quite similar, but the experience would be very different. In both cases, the thematic integration of those elements – the care and resources you put into the patients you select in Planted-Hospital feels very different from whether or not you water a plant, though, and choosing which patients to leave behind creates a completely different sense of tension. The story itself changes – you could imagine the plants are still at the nursery or plant store, being cared for, whereas those wounded soldiers are potentially being left on the battlefield to die. Grim.

So the integration of the theme into the gameplay also impacts how you feel about each choice you make – with plants, the tension in your choice is because you want to complete a set or because you really like a particular plant in real life and want it in your game. You don’t feel a pressure to save the plants, or any sense that they will not thrive unless you pick them – on the contrary, once you take them into your care, they are less likely to do well than they were at the nursery, because you have to choose whether or not they get resources. So the theme and the feeling of the game should match – if you want urgency and happiness, make it about shopping for happy plants and trying to keep them happy. You could certainly make it about shopping for plants in the discount section, where you are trying to save the plants from being thrown out – that gives a different tension, with the pressure to save living things, without being a field hospital.

My French Marigold illustration for The Plot Quickens

Thirdly, I learnt about the importance of connecting my components with my theme and gameplay. Both games have components that represent growth, plus others that represent the resources – and both have green thumbs, too, which most people playing the game should recognise as a kind of additional skill.

Drayer Ink and thematic integration

How, then, do you start a thematic design, Drayer Ink style?

First, choose which of your millions of ideas feels like it’s ready. I have spreadsheets of ideas at all stages of development, plus the kind of fertile mind that is constantly filled with inspiration – but this is as much a blessing as a curse, because I never have the time to develop all my ideas. I have to choose the ones that hook me enough to keep me interested, and hopefully, those same hooks translate into the hooks that will sell my games.

Sometimes, my ideas come from my existing knowledge, in which case, they don’t need as much general research before I can start to build them. The specific research comes in when I add in the details. For example, while my whole family have always been gardeners, and my understanding of the process is good, I still need to research the details of which plants have which needs in order to select which ones will be used for The Plot Quickens.

Second, do a LOT of research – join Facebook groups about the topic, watch documentaries, read books, search online for good resources, visit the library… I mean real research, here, not just a quick Google. This includes learning the vocabulary specific to my topic, and understanding how it works, from the inside out – I wouldn’t write a book about something completely unfamiliar. For the same reason, while I might start with an idea where I don’t know much about the topic, I won’t start the true design process until I understand it properly.

Third, start thinking about how the idea and the research combine to make something playable as a game, and begin work on a prototype. This part is may favourite part – often my research takes me to a place that doesn’t immediately lead to a game idea. No knowledge is pointless, though, so this is one of the stages at which I leave a game to simmer while I pick up another one.

As a game design emerges, initially, I think about it only in my head. While I don’t exactly formally test it in my head, I certainly refine a lot of the ways it is constructed, and how I see those ways interacting. As I work through those elements, the game starts to show itself to me.

Once the game coalesces into a game I can visualise, I start by thinking about the components that are available. For example, if I decide to use cards, I think about multiples of 18 cards in a deck, because I print my prototypes through the Game Crafter, and it’s silly not to tailor my design towards what is available. I also think about publishing costs at this stage, before I get too caught up in “needing” 200 metal tokens.

Almost as soon as I start prototyping, I am also looking for opportunities to streamline and reduce extra clutter, although the pure core of the game often only emerges after a lot of play-testing.

Fourth, play-test and refine until you feel you have the bones of a game worth pursuing.

This process can take me anywhere from a few hours to several years, because I am someone who jumps from idea to idea as each one reaches a point where it needs to sit and simmer, or as another pushes to the front of my mind and refuses to let me think about anything else.

Here are a few of the games that are currently at the front of my “design mind”, and how I am integrating the theme into them.

My style of thematic integration is about gaining a deep understanding of my topic before I start trying to build a game about it.

In The Plot Quickens, we are measuring the growth of different crops based on the resources we can assign to them, and so having a physical measure of that growth in the form of tokens is certainly an important player aid – but it’s also an opportunity to add visual and tactile interest to the game. So as we test the game, I am thinking about what the tokens might look like, and whether they should all be the same across the board, or whether I should have different ones for each type of crop, introducing another opportunity for scarcity. In other words, if there are only 20 corn tokens, but there are 50 tomato tokens, tomatoes would potentially have a lower value, but you have more chance of growing them.

Another aspect of a community garden that we are building into The Plot Quickens is adjacency – your plants are next to each other, but they are also next to your neighbours’ allotments, and to the planted areas in between each allotment. So when you water or feed a plot, the ones next to it get some of the benefits, too – and when you plant good companions next to each other, they both benefit. Within the game, this means that you share the resources that you all place across the horizontal and vertical axes, and that the crops you plant in your own plots will affect both your other crops, and those of your neighbours, just like in a real garden.

My grandfather had the most amazing vege and fruit gardens. They made a profound impact on me as I grew up. My mother also grew veges, and I always composted scraps. As an adult, I wanted to grow my own food, too, and did a lot of investigation into different growing techniques and ways to share the load – I didn’t have much time for maintaining a whole garden on my own. I spent years researching companion planting, the importance of good soil preparation, small-volume crop rotation, and the importance of perpetuating heirloom crops. George also comes from a family that grows food, and together, we poured all that generational knowledge into the bones of our game, to try and make it really feel like a vege garden.

I worked for several years on research about rockpools and what lives in them, for example, before I even began really thinking about the game itself, which eventually became Intertidal Survival. I just knew I wanted something about things surviving between tides, and how they interacted within the confinements of the intertidal region.

Intertidal Survival prototype

For me, it’s really important that the game reflects the inspiration and that there are strong connections between the reality and the game, even if the game itself is actually quite abstract. For example, in Mycelia, while on the surface, this could simply be any tile-laying and symbol-matching game, the reason you are laying these tiles is to create an environment that will allow the fungi on your cards to thrive. There’s a reason for taking the action, and it matches how real fungi fruit – including the fact that multiple types of mycelia share the same spaces and resources, and can often share a network of sorts.

Mycelia prototype

Hopefully, as I get better at designing games, I will also get better at integrating thematic elements into my designs so that the game feels like it belongs this way. That would be the perfect compliment for me.

What’s important in thematic design to you? What games do you think have integrated theme really well into the experience? Let us know in the comments!

Published by Drayer Ink

Artist, designer, ideas person

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