The Most Questionable Board Game Themes Ever…

Now sure, themes are something I talk a lot about on this blog but you can never talk about them enough right?

Or maybe I’m just a little obsessed with games that have good themes.

Thing is, some of these game themes just don’t make any gosh darn sense when you translate them into actual real life. Because I’m sure that’s what the publisher and designer absolutely intended for us to do when they created the game in the first place…

This often doesn’t actually make the game worse in my eyes either, it makes them better. The weirder and more obscure the theme is the more excited I generally am to sit down and play it. You’d hope that the actual game is good as well but sometimes that just isn’t the case. How dare they trick us with amazingly drafted themes into playing something boring and terrible! Unbelievable. In this day and age…

So without further ado, here is my list of games where the theme doesn’t really make sense in real life if you think about it good and proper like.

I’ll think of a catchier title later…

1. Snakes & Ladders

Ahhhh the king daddy of children’s games. For most people, this is their first foray into the board game world, and why wouldn’t it be! You literally roll a dice and move your piece up the board until you reach the end. First person to reach the end. It’s simple and full-on random.

The actual idea of snakes and ladders though in general is very confusing. Well, mainly the snakes if I’m honest.

Sure, why not, it’s totally like real life. When you stand on a snake you slide down it all the way to its tail. Hate it when that happens.

Need some ladders to climb back up…

2. Photosynthesis

Seems to me it would be a little weird to suddenly have an idea to create an incredible game around the theme of ‘the scientific process by which plants convert sunlight into food’ but hey that’s just me I’m sure.

The more games that get created, the stranger the themes start to get just simply because, well, everyone else has probably done all the good ones already. Like Cthulhu… fantasy… fantasy Cthulhu… zombies… zombie fantasy Cthulhu.

What I’m saying is the bucket of theme choices is starting to run a little low, or at least, you have to scrape the sides a little bit in the hope of getting something good.

And whilst maybe not my first choice of themes to pick when deciding on what game to play, I’m kind of a fan of this. It’s like the hipster environmentally conscious theme choice. Well done guys, now go grab yourself a cup of organic, freshly ground, only-the-best-beans-from-a-totally-underground-source-in-east-london-because-nothing-else-will-do coffee. You’ve earned it.

3. Codenames

But spies! Such a normal, and everyday theme right?

Not really in this case, at least in my opinion, and whilst the theme itself may seem generic and middle-of-the-road, the execution is anything but.

Great game by the way, but I can’t for the life of me ever remember any spy movie where the spy agency just hinted at something close to the spy’s codename, instead of just plain saying it. It’s a codename for a reason you know, like, so that nobody knows the name of the spy. It’s not like the codename itself is a giveaway, so you have to come up with a codename for the codename to get around the fact that people might already know the codename. It makes no sense!

Well, not in real life anyway, but it’s a game! Play on…

4. Pie Face!

So this is what it’s come to. You were writing a generally average quality and also totally respected blog until you wrote the name of that game just now. We’ve devolved into a place where we just call out bad christmas present cash grabs from last year and explain why they don’t make any sense in the real world.

Of course they don’t make any sense, it’s a pie going in someone’s face for Pete’s (hi Pete) sake, what more of an explanation do you want. Think of it as a contemporary take on a medieval torture device, where instead of getting brutally killed as part of a gruesome and bloody display in front of a large group of people, you simply get ritually humiliated in front of your loving family members and lovable pet dog (if you have a pet dog obviously, if not ignore that).

5. Chess

But why would you ever DARE call this game out Chris?! I can hear you from all the way over here criticising me. Well well well, don’t get your knickers in a twist (presumably this happens before you put them on? Otherwise that’s some serious yoga moves you’ve got going on there).

This game is on here because, lets be honest, the THEME of chess is loose, confusing, doesn’t make any sense in real life, and purely exists for the purposes of having really cool looking pieces. At least in my opinion, feel free to school me on the history of the game.

Imagine a fictitious  battle where the king and queen line up alongside a knight, a bishop and also the tower of a castle, to take on an opposing army of also the exact same opposite. So real life.

Yours questionably,

Chris

 

Top 5 themes to avoid designing a tabletop game around

Let’s  face it, we all love a good theme in our tabletop games. Whether it’s racing a Pirate ship, building your business, smuggling goods into Nottingham or helping an Emperor’s gardener tend to his bamboo and look after a panda, themes are often the best thing about a game.

Now, this list is in no means meant to entirely hate on themes, but like the shoddy Pirate costume above, some themes have just been done enough already. To the point where it’s not even been thought about properly, and is used like some kind of cheap, stick on glitter and coloured beads.

There are some great themes out there as well, and plennnnnty more opportunity to make games around so many new and interesting themes. Like a board game where you play a man trying frantically to write content for his blog twice a week without it being terrible. Worker placement right… I’d play that.

With that in mind though, I would like here to go through my top themes to AVOID in board game design and why… here they are:

1. That same old fantasy cast…

This one is a no brainer, and I mean that in that it takes literally no brain to come up with this an a theme for your game.

But it’s a classic!  Where would we be without Mr. Gygax’s first set of mighty adventurers! I know, I know, I know. It’s just a bit stale though isn’t it. I mean, at least give it some sort of life by having a different aspect of these characters lives pulled out y’know. Like, make a game about a warrior, wizard and rogue racing to do their laundry and clean all the goblin blood off or something. Natural 20! Vanish Oxy-action! Done.

2. Zombies

Number 2 in the banned theme list, and for good reason; it’s probably been done even more to death (see what I did there… bad joke you say? Oh screw you) than the fantasy genre has. It’s been done to death and back…

Ok, that was a bad one…

Seriously though, we all love a post apocalyptic wasteland full of the undead and all but can we not try and take a different angle on it than ‘you are survivors and there are like, loads of undead guys, like, A LOT of them.’ Let’s do something where you have to control the zombie army instead, like Zombie Tsunami. Finally some fresh air!

3. Any combination of crawling and places resembling dungeons

It’s dark and dingy, there’s a potential mould problem, and for some reason you have to look through coffins of dead people to find the secret passageway to the next level that’s even colder and damper than this one. Nah mate, I’ll pass.

Incan Gold, Celeste or Diamante had the right idea. All the others where you go in and fight some people with hit points and swords and stuff, I’m bored already.

4. Things that are already dull in real life

Who wants to play a tabletop game about filing their end of year taxes before the deadline. Don’t really think I have to elaborate any more really.

I mean at least if you choose a boring theme make the stakes high or something. You are trimming your beard but with a MACHETE INSTEAD OF A NORMAL ELECTRONIC BEARD TRIMMING DEVICE. Don’t slip or you might DIE.

5. Cthulu

Aaaaand here is where you readers start running at me with pitch forks…

I’m not taking it back, I’ve said it now! The mysterious tentacle monster of mild insanity and quite bad dreams has reached it’s time, and it needs to be put to bed. I’m sure it’s not  easy to put something to bed that doesn’t always embody physical form outside of the realms of tentacles and suction cups, but we can give it a go, right? You grab one tentacle, I’ll get the other, and just ignore the myriad others flailing wildly around…

End

Basically the end. Hope I’ve not offended you too much, and hope I’ve not inadvertantly slagged off one of your favourite games. Sure there are great games out there with these themes. But that’s kind of the point. They’ve been done before.

Go and do something new instead.

Yours themily,

Chris

How to successfully implement improvisation in your tabletop game

For some people it’s the best thing, for some people it’s the worst. For me I sit formerly in the former camp (formerly former?), but then I like any game where I get to act stupid and put on a ridiculous voice. People I know tell me it’s not grating at all…

How do you get people who hate role playing into a role playing game though! I mean you could always just bribe them, but I’m not sure it would make for the most satisfying gaming experience, unless that bribe was some sort of elicit substance.

The other  route to take though is just to design it into your own game in such a way that people  either don’t realise they are role playing, or the system is intuitive enough to a point that those creative juices (gross) get flowing naturally.  And just because I’m feeling like a know it all and really just want to help, here’s how I think that’s possible…

Put your players in a situation where they have to act

Sometimes, as in D&D, the best way to get people to act or interact with something that is happening to them in the game world, is just to say ‘if you don’t act NOW, something bad WILL DEFINITELY HAPPEN.’

Get instinct to take over from rational thought in this way and you’re onto a winner. Because the most fun, hilarious and also stupid but strangely ingenious things are said when under the influence of the pressure to not immediately screw up.

Allow both no roleplay or full-on, balls to the wall character embodiment

You know what I’m just gunna say it. Some people suck at role playing.

HARSH. I know, but it’s true! Now that’s not a bad thing at all, it’s just natural yo. Some people are way better at some things than others. Just like I am way better about rambling over the same topic again and again and again, and you guys are probably way better at not reading it. You’re welcome.

It has to be ok though, in the flow of the game, to NOT BE great at role playing, even in a role playing game! Seems counter intuitive I know, and it is! Ok it’s not. Basically all I’m saying is don’t shame people for saying ‘I hit the enemy with my stick,’ any more than, ‘I jump through the piercing night sky as the voluminous mist wraps it’s icy tendrils around my dangling feet! The sky blackens as the weight of a THOUSAND   moons and suns courses through my sword of immense pain and death destruction, swinging fervently and fatally through the narrow brow of our unfortunately misadventuring orc adversary!’

Either one is good. Carry on!

Use simple, clear prompts

Just as seeing an alligator at the foot of your tiny destructable boat is code for ‘Get the shit off this sinking death vessel right now or you will end up luncheon meat for a reptile  with lots of scary teeth,’ so to should your improvisational role playing prompts be clear, concise and incredibly to the point. You want your players to understand what they have to do like, double quick sharp right now.

For example; ‘Make a rash decision as you sink.’ Sure, guess I’ll ‘get the shit off this boat  right now’ then.

Reward successful improvisation

To implement and encourage improvisation and role playing successfully you have to offer some kind of psychological reward  for completing an improvisation successfully.

That could be presents! Just like this amazing generic business man with flying present boxes stock imagery so perfectly depicts! Oh to have that many presents in a life!

Even if the incentive is ‘good job, you don’t die this turn,’ that’s still pretty good in my books.

Yours improvisationally (it works! Who’d have thought it, finally a sign off that works!),

Chris

The importance of prototyping in board game design

Everybody who has ever tried or successfully designed a board game before knows this, and probably most people who design anything really, know this as well. Always prototype.

‘But what if I just KNOW it will work, y’know, straight of the bat, because I’m the goddamn jesus of board game design yo.’

Well, you still need to prototype. Plus I think the board game design jesus at this point is already confirmed as Jamey Stegmaier, no? I digress…

You must ALWAYS prototype. Here’s why…

To judge physical product you need physical form

How else are you going to find out if your wooden counters look like tiny miniature dildos or not! It has to be done at some point, otherwise you’ll release a game with little wooden pieces that are shaped like dildos, and nobody wants tha… wait, there’s already a game with tiny dildo meeple in it? It’s the game in the image I posted above? Well, I guess that makes sense…

Thing is though, unless you have the physical form of the game in front of you to play, there’s no way of telling HOW people will react to it. Hell, they could even just randomly start shoving the wooden meeple up their a… wait sorry, bad taste, the dildo thing, yep I get it…

It allows you to design the environment as well as the game itself

And unfortunately if the environment ends up like it has in that image, then either you’ve done something very WRONG or very RIGHT, depending on what you’re going for I guess.

Finding out how the social and psychological environment of the game is a completely different kettle of fish to figuring out the mechanics, rules and all of the other general stuff though. Something that is almost MORE important than the detail of how the game works.

No idea why anyone put a fish in a kettle though, that seems kinda cruel really. Poor fish.

It shows you’re actually invested in making something

EXCEPT FOR THOSE SHOES. NEVER make those shoes. They are an eyesore and I really just don’t care how comfortable you SAY they are, they LOOK absolutely and completely horrific. I might actually be a little bit sick right now just from looking at them even…

Proof is something that REALLY matters though when it comes to crowdfunding, getting published or even just trying it out with some friends. The closer you can get to the REAL DEAL, the better of an idea you’re gunna get of how the game actually plays out. Plus people will think it looks amazing and then when they say; ‘Who makes this game again?’, you can confidently say, ‘Me.’

Ok maybe didn’t have as much clout as I thought it would.

So you can bin the rubbish ideas before wasting more time

Just like these unfortunate (presumably) guys on a stag do (presumably; lads, lads, lads!), if you want to save yourself from dressing up as a bad pantomime Zebra and coincidentally venturing into a wild tiger enclosure and proceeding to get ACTUAL killed by some ferocious felines, I’d recommend finding some way of weeding out the bad ideas and binning them. You know, before you go and hurt yourself or something.

People get scared of sharing because they think other people might steal their idea, and for the most part, other people just can’t be arsed putting in the effort to do something that elaborate or mean. SO just share stuff! That way, if it’s shit, you can suck it up, have a little cry when nobody is looking, bin it, and start again on something way way way way way way better.

That or another rubbish idea.

Yours prototypingly,

Chris

 

Why you should design for experience above all else

It’s that common thing that happens when you’re making something new or working on a project. Sometimes, you just get so far into it, you forget what the point even was any more. Why am I doing this again? It’s not even fun. It WAS fun, but now something is missing and I don’t know what it is and can’t be bothered to figure it out… OH WELL, onto the next project I guess!

And to think people say I get easily distracted… just like Chris Pratt here:

It’s not a bad thing though, it happens to all of us. The reason it happens for the most part though is because the original point of what you were doing has now been changed, or can no longer be achieved. That is why, when it comes to games design, or any design really, I always believe you should design for the experience first and foremost.

Mechanics, theme, components, other nice things, whatever it is, they’re all nice sure, but the thing that people are going to remember is the experience itself. No doubt all of those things make up a good experience, but no one thing makes or breaks the experience, and only everything together can make it great. Here’s why designing for the experience first is so important…

Because if you’re not having fun, or getting something out of it, what’s the point

Humans, like Will up there I’m sure, respond to incentive, and they invest time, whether subconsciously or consciously, in things that they think they will be rewarded for in some way. That’s not a negative thing in any way at all, in fact it’s very positive. Plus just human nature really.

The key is to remember firstly, what kind of experience are you offering your players? And is it as good as it could be? Then secondly, does it achieve its goal, and if not, how can that be fixed? Also the goal doesn’t just have to be fun (although I’d kinda it partly is considering it’s a game you’re designing…), it could be character development, sufficiently scaring everyone, or even in the case of survival or traitor games, to create tension and atmosphere through story. Always have these 2 key things in mind.

Because experiences are memorable, mechanics are not (usually)

Yeah I know right, that image is both a low pay off joke AND hard to understand, how infurrrrriating!

The point is though, nobody gets much from playing through a game to only have achieved nothing, had no fun and have just moved some cardboard resources around a board. That is no fun for anybody. Except Geoff. Everybody knows a Geoff…

 

Because emotional engagement is stronger than anything  else

SO what does that mean. Well, basically just that the times that people WILL remember things (in this instance your game) are based on emotional triggers. Greek philosophers had a system of remembering large transcripts (no cloud then y’see, well I mean there were CLOUDS but no CLOUD (see the difference)) that involved emotional triggers through a narrative containing key pieces of information. This along with loaaaaads and loads of  studies over years of research proves at least to a point, that powerful  human memory is intrinsically linked to emotional connection. So why not use that in your design!

To create a game that develops strong emotional connections to certain elements, and with a strong emotional component, working alongside mechanics and all those other important elements,  is the way to create long lasting and powerful positive memories and experiences with your game. That’s just science.

Because at it’s heart you are creating a GAME

Yeah I know, STOP TELLING US ITS JUST A GAME YO, ITS LIKE, TOTALLY WAY MORE THAN THAT OK. IM SPEAKING IN CAPS LOCK BECAUSE IM COOL ALRIGHT.

Sure you are caps lock man, sure you are…

It’s true though. These are board GAMES, not board essays or board resource gathering spreadsheets. Too often designers can get carried away with implementing a new mechanic, or how to integrate certain rules with certain other elements, or making games overly complex. Let’s stop making things so complicated for ourselves and just create stuff that is primarily a GAME. Something fun, y’know, to play! With friends… I guess.

Yours experiencingly,

Chris