How to Find Balance in Tabletop Narrative & Theme Design (and storytelling in general)

Everybody loves a good theme. It is literally what stops some games from being complete and utter trash to be honest, and a great theme can really elevate a board game to the next level.

What’s great about tabletop is that there are so many non-traditional themes out there that break out of the mould of stale fantasy or sci-fi (or Cthulhu, just stop please!) I’m talking dental practice board games, games where you are a stroppy teenager who just listens to metal music in there room and plays computer games all day (ok maybe that one was just me…), games where everybody is a spec of dust and you have to beat the other specs to become the most… speccy? You get the point. Also none of those are actual games but part of me kinda wishes they were. Not least to relive my nerdy isolated youth involving lots of angry music.

With the theme being key to game design though, and more and more hobbyists expecting detailed and intricately balanced theme and gameplay nowadays, it has never been more important to the success of a game or ensure that the theme and narrative design is 100% on point. And that is why I have created this list. It’s all about balance really, because we all know a game that is all mechanic or all theme is usually just boring as hell…

1. Be familiar, without being cliche

Oh hey guys I can totally relate to being a spec of dust right now! Since we’re totally playing the dust spec game that inventions earlier (and definitely doesn’t exist). You know, due to feeling small and insignificant and prone to growing mold if left in a cold, damp place for extended periods of time… nobody? Ok just me.

Familiarity is your foot in the door with your players, but it shouldn’t shape your entire game.

It’s like a tool you use to get people to go ‘ooooh right I get it, that’s what you mean,’ or ‘ahhh no way, now you’ve explained this horrendously complicated mechanic to me in narrative terms within the context of this relatable story I totally get it!’

See, easy.

The trick is to making sure you have just enough of a level of familiarity to frame complex game mechanics and nuances in a way that people can get really easily.

2. Be accessible, without being dumbed down

Now this is a 2 parter because accessibility really comes in 2 forms.

The first is the kind of accessibility that lets visually or hearing impaired people participate in your game with minimal difficulty. You should 100% build this into your game from the get go. It’s very important.

The second level of accessibility comes in the form of players learning and adapting to your game quickly. This means getting your players to a point where they feel in control, and understand how to not only play the game, but succeed at it, as quickly as possible. Preferably without detracting from the quality of the game.

So how do you do this? Well a few ways really, firstly through simplicity and clarity of copy. Really refining your rules down to a point where they are suuuuuuper clear and straightforward, and for Pete’s sake get a copywriter to proof read it (hi Pete!)

Secondly, context. Phrase things in a way that reflects the familiarity and context of your theme. Posing complex problems in the context of human decisions and emotions make them far easier to understand.

Thirdly, don’t be afraid to use visual devices like colour or iconography to help people with recognising things they are going to be doing multiple times. The human brain is trained to recognise patterns, so use that to your advantage!

3. Be intriguing, without being overly complex or abstract

‘Ooo he’s so mysterious’ a random girl said to her archetypical teenage friend. ‘Yes, but also he’s a spec of dust’ said the friend.

Specs of dust are abstract ok. Probably too abstract to understand in the context of a relationship right? Maybe the girls were specs of dust too? Maybe she has a thing for specs… of dust (not just eyewear).

You were intrigued though right? Ooo the mystery.

The point is, it’s good to be mysterious, intriguing and have some surprises in your narrative and theme, just don’t make it too abstract. Abstract is ok with familiarity and context but without being able to recognise what is happening in a way that relates to the actual game, the meaning of that intrigue and mystery is lost.

4. Be evocative, without being purple

Ah man I’m gunna so decorate every room in my new house full purple. My girlfriend will love it, I know her least favourite colour is purple but just wait until you actually seee it in person.

Not convinced.

Yeah neither am I.

I’m not talking about paint colours or interior decorating though I’m taking about the literary definition of purple. That overly long wordy and flowery explanation that should have just been explained in a few simple sentences kind of purple. Bad purple! I also have a dog called purple.

Ok I don’t, but now I’m just sad because I don’t have a dog. SIGH.

There is a right and a wrong time for purple prose. Right time: an overly dramatic description of the scene that starts the game. Wrong time: explaining how your innovative turn mechanic works (and how basically any functional game mechanic works).

5. Be inclusive, without being vague

Here at BGLA we loooooove to be inclusive.

No seriously, that wasn’t even meant to sound sarcastic, I know it did.

We DO care though, and you should to when you’re designing your game! Being inclusive should be paramount to the design of your game, after al, you do want to get as many people as possible playing right?

There are a couple of exceptions and things to balance here though. If your game is designed to fill a specific niche. Go after those people first, and then work on inclusivity. Sometimes certain types of games only appeal to certain types of players, and your core demographic may be more important than watering something down to appeal to everyone.

As with everything, it’s all about the balance.

Yours balancingly,

Chris

Why Empathy is the Key to Successful Tabletop Theme & Design

What do we have in the world if we don’t have each other huh? Yeah, it’s a cringey, cheesey, nausea inducing sentiment but really when it comes down to it all of these computers, iphones, spreadsheets and pretty graphics and cat memes really mean nothing if you can’t then share that on your next snapchat story with someone who probably doesn’t care that much about it. Life! So wonderful…

The importance of empathy however is something that most designers and creators struggle with on a daily basis. Empathy is about being human, understanding those human elements of a problem, and then solving them so that a human can use them effectively. Tada! Look, I’ve created a thing to make that thing you were moaning about redundant, so now you can go and moan about another different thing whilst being slightly frustrated that you ever let the first thing annoy you in the first place. Amazing design I’m sure…

So actually what does empathy mean for Tabletop design, and for Tabletop themes, and how can we use that to our advantage not just when designing games, but also just when choosing which game is best to introduce to your granny over christmas who has just finished watching the directors cut of lord of the rings on TV because it meant she didn’t have to talk to anyone about the crap presents she got (answers on a postcard).

1. Empathy is communicating risk and reward on a more human level

Using empathy effectively is about taking something that people relate to, and have an emotional response to, and  utilising that human reaction in a way that benefits what you are trying to achieve, or solves a human problem that the user or player originally had.

To this end, some tabletop games are too abstract in their risk, and some are too safe. Now the fun thing with tabletop design  is that the abstractions rarely get too farfetched that people cannot attach themselves to it, but without a clear example and demonstration of risk/reward in a familiar guise (the risk of death or possessions OR the reward of bonus items or powers for example), people will often not wholeheartedly buy into the theme or story.

2. Empathy is understanding the emotional cues that best engage players

Humans are overly emotional, I get it. In the oncoming storm of AI and the development of superintelligence we are probably  just over sentimental sacks of meat, with illogical languages and ineffective communication techniques that incorrectly prioritise emotional gain over that of the quantative physical variety.

The key to great emotive and empathetic tabletop design however is rooted, much to the dismay of future cyborgs I’m sure, in creating and utilising positive and negative emotional cues in an effective and engaging fashion. Figure out the areas in which your game emotes the most reaction in players, and enhance that.

Change gameplay based on human reaction and interaction as a priority.

3. Empathy gives players context for personal investment in a story or character

Out of context! What!  This book apparently is. Fact. Not a fun fact, just a 90s wordart over a badly shot bible fact.

Context is the final piece in the puzzle (probably not but it’s the last one on this article), sooo yeah.

Context is the means by which we compare things to other things and give meaning to the first things by virtue of the first thing having comparative but different meaning. Empathy with context is just that, emotions and human interactions with context. Putting those emotional and psychological attachments into context in a story or a theme provides that story or theme with a foundation in something already known. Something already established with which to change or manipulate the players experience in a positive way.

There is definitely some more here…

Sure, this is a brief overview, and sure there is only a mediocre surface level analysis going on here, but that all said, empathy is the cornerstone of engaging design. Empathy is the key to a positive and fulfilling experience.

Just don’t forget to think of the humans you know. Keep that on record for when the whole Skynet stuff kicks off anyway…

Yours empathetically,

Chris

How to Reflect Aesthetic and Tone through copy in Tabletop games…

Image for one second, living in a world where everything is explained in the same monotonous way. Nobody has a unique voice and everybody’s communication is solely intended to simply execute logically and effectively.

Well that would be a world of robots, where everyone is a robot, and thankfully, we don’t live in that world and (hopefully) aren’t robots. No offence if you are a robot of course. This is a very progressive LGBTR friendly blog you know…

Copy and the way things are written have a huge impact on our interpretation of things; products, brands, books, advertising, etc etc. It shapes the communicative character of a piece of work or a billboard ad or even a political campaign. It is something that you should definitely NOT overlook when it comes to creating a product, aka, your tabletop game design.

To that end, what steps can we take to ensure the copy and communication is as effective as possible, whilst still retaining identity, life, emotion, empathy and all that good stuff. Well here are a few exercises to help you get there…

Exercise 1: Imagine how your character or characters would perceive and communicate their world

One thing you can try and do to make your copy more immersive is to write through the voice or character of someone in your game. Sure this doesn’t work if you write through the voice of C’thulhu, but an impassioned speech from the mercenary soldier about the dangers of pushing your luck too far will be far more immersive than simply writing out the rules. Use this device where you can to add value to certain elements of your game that may require either emotional or psychological investment. The more effective this is the more immersed your players will be in the experience.

Exercise 2: Create an personal embodiment of your product, and communicate through it

Don’t ask about the image, first google search and all…

The second part of the first exercise is something that is very common in branding and identity development for brands and companies. Create a character, or persona around your tabletop game. If your game was a real life human person, who would they be, what would they wear and where would they shop. What relationships would they have and with what people, where would they work, etc etc. Once you have figured out the persona of your game, you will be better positioned to communicate that game in a way that better matches the visual tone, look and feel, and also enhances that experience.

Exercise 3: Clarity  is Key

Taking it back to basics a little bit before you get carried away here. So, it’s a bit counter intuitive, but despite writing through character, and adding those quirky elements of voice and tone into your copy, you’re gunna have to be regimented about keeping it clear, keeping it simple, and keeping it concise. Nobody likes flowery prose when they are trying to understand a core game mechanic, which leads me on to…

Exercise 4: Set a goal for every element of copy, and always refer to those goals as guiding principles

With every piece of copy you (or a copywriter more likely) produce for your game, be clear about it’s goal. What are you trying to achieve with this copy and what are you trying to communicate. Then, you can figure out what delivery mechanism works best for that piece of copy, and what form that takes and where it sits. If explaining an advanced strategy tip for example, because it isn’t a core piece of information, you might want to speak through the warcommander character in your game, and use the form of ‘Barry’s rules of war’, explaining each rule through that character. Whereas if you are explaining how to play your turn, you might want to just use the general tone of the game’s persona, but communicate in a clear and concise, calculated fashion, breaking the turn down into numbered bullet points.

What this all comes down to at the end of the day is effective communication though, and involving your players as much as possible in the process of learning and playing your game. Once that has been achieved, you’re onto a winner.

Yours copyly,

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