Thursday, March 13, 2014

Integrating theme with mechanics

I think it’s fair to say that every designer approaches the issue of “theme” in a slightly different way.  A game has to have theme, or else it’s just an excel spreadsheet with a random number generator.  But it’s also clear that some designers are willing to sacrifice thematic relevance for game mechanics.  Eurogames, classically, have been guilty of this.  Many Eurogames possess clever mechanics which interlace in fascinating ways – encouraging players to explore the gamespace and become proficient in manipulating the various levers and pulleys.  The thematic overlay is simply there to provide an attractive backdrop.

Lately, I’ve been playing some Alien Frontiers.  I like the game quite a bit, and everyone I’ve played it with has been quickly impressed with its intricate design.  I like how it combines dice-rolling, worker placement, resource management, and area control.  And I like the retro sci-fi look to the whole package.  But the two - mechanics and theme – are not intertwined in any meaningful way.  There is nothing about rolling doubles, for instance, that screams out, “build a new ship” – or rolling three in a row that evokes “raiding.”  The only minor exceptions to this lack of thematic integration are some of the alien artifacts, like the Plasma Cannon.  Because of this disparity between theme and mechanics, Alien Frontiers ultimately leaves me a bit cold.  Again, I like it – but it won’t ever be one of my favorites.

One of my guiding principles in designing Clockwork Wars was thematic integration.  I love steampunk, especially for how it flaunts anachronisms and envisions alternative histories.  I also think it has enormous potential to influence game design, since it’s so evocative and “culturally diverse.”  Let me see if I can explain this.

I knew early on that my best opportunity to weave theme into the game mechanics was within the Discovery cards.  Like in any good civilization game, I wanted the player’s personal narrative to unfold both within the realm of conquest and exploration, as well as technological discovery.  When you’re playing Civilization or Nations or Through the Ages, your civilization is largely shaped by what you research.  Setting a game in a steampunk universe opens up the technology tree in fun and unexpected ways - especially, if you also allow magic and sorcery in.  Now you can have a game where one player is researching Necromancy and Philosophy, while another player is developing Gunpowder and Dirigibles.

 But beyond the simple anachronistic pleasure of this, I wanted to ensure that each of the discoveries made mechanical sense.  As such, the specific rules for each discovery are very much guided by theme.  They are not arbitrary.  For example, the Dirigible lets you move units around the map and reinforce your battles easier.  The University helps you generate Influence Points faster.  Inquisition forces your opponents to discard sorcery and science influence.  Divine Right grants VPs for every Shrine you control at the end of the game.

Developing the discoveries was an interesting design process.  I did start with some guiding concepts.  I wanted sorcery discoveries to be aggressive, powerful, and relatively expensive.  I wanted science discoveries to provide flexibility.  Religion discoveries were defensive, often focused on enhancing your villages and shrines, and cheap.

Then I started making lists of “cool things” I wanted to include in my game.  Like dirigibles, and druids, and a colossus, and pestilence.  So I started with images – narrative – first.  Then, for each image, I tried to conceive of a mechanic that would make sense for that card.  I got surprisingly far using this approach.  Indeed, it was only later in development when I began looking through the rules for mechanics which were available to manipulate through new potential discoveries (in other words, starting with a mechanic and trying to find a theme to match it).  For example, once I came up with the idea of discovery tokens being placed on the map, I wanted there to be a discovery that could help you defend them.  Thus, the Golem (right) was born.

In contrast, I get the sense that a lot of games (even heavily thematic, “Ameritrash” games) are developed through spreadsheets.  Let’s use an imaginary game example.  Let’s say I’m developing a civilization game where there are 3 civilization “attributes”:  military, economy, and culture.  There are also 2 resources:  gold and science.  In this game, there are dozens of potential discoveries for the players to research.  For example, a discovery that gives you +1 military and costs 1 science to research.  It is now a simple matter to generate a spreadsheet and create all possible permutations.  You can even have very complex techs, like something that gives +5 military/+2 economy and costs 4 gold/6 science.  But it’s all numbers.  Once you have your list of permutations, you give a name to each one.  Cheaper ones might come from ancient times (like a granary, or polytheism), and more expensive ones from modern times.  But the thematic integration is bare-bones here.  You might be calling that +8 military card an aircraft carrier, but nothing about the card itself – or its effect on the game – has anything to do with a ship that carries jets.

I suppose I could have approached the design of Clockwork Wars' discoveries in that fashion, but it wouldn’t have been as fun – and it wouldn’t have created a thematically meaningful steampunk game.

The one major obstacle to creating game elements that consistently tie theme with mechanic is balance.  It’s (relatively) easy to balance cards, for example, generated from a spreadsheet. But when every card is different – and breaks the rules in fundamentally different ways from every other card – balance becomes a nightmare.  It’s been a major design challenge for me – one that I enjoy greatly – but one that is not easy to address.    For example, the late age Sorcery discovery, Necromancy says:
For every Shrine that you control at the beginning of the Recruitment Phase, you may recruit 2 additional workers.
What’s the value of this card?  How many Influence Points should it cost?  Is it a “better” card than the similarly priced Dirigible?  This part of game design feels uncomfortably like intuition at times, since play-testing can only reveal so much.  In one game, Necromancy might be used to great effect – in another, hardly at all.  So player feedback on its value will vary wildly.  Again, I really enjoy thinking about this kind of stuff, but it’s also a constant source of anxiety for me.

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