Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

17 November, 2008

Weekend Design Challenge: Theme
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:23 AM

Last week the goal was to think about types of gameplay. Most people suggested that we look at themes instead. This week, we’ll consider themes in more depth then perhaps go back to gameplay types later.

Read on for some more thoughts.

There were some interesting suggestions for themes from last week. Democracy, building a health care system, and trendy restaurants were some of the more direct suggestions.

Also consider the purpose of the setting in a board game. What does the theme do? One thing is to give players a mental model to fall back on. Using Monopoly as an example again, consider that terms like “rent” and “houses” are familiar concepts for gameplay elements. The game could be complete abstract, but it’s easier to remember “pay rent to the owner of the property with houses on it” compared to, “Give victory points to the owner of the space with enhancement tokens on it.”

So, give your thoughts on a theme and a consider why theme is important.


  1. To expand on the trendy restaurant thing: the setting of the game would be a block of apartments in a downtown area. At the four corners are four trendy restaurants, owned by the four players. In the center is a community garden, to which every resident of the block has access. Each round begins with a newspaper review of The Can’t Fail Cafe. The review gushes about some amazing new dish, or dishes, they’ve concocted. The dish is generated by assembling a list of random ingredients and their quantities. The players spend the round competing to see who can most quickly and accurately develop a passable copy of the hot new item. This is done by planting needed ingredients in the garden. But other players’ plantings can affect yours, and vice-versa. At the end of the round, the music stops, and everyone gets their harvest. Points are awarded for serving up the specified dishes in the largest quantities.

    Comment by Bret — 19 November, 2008 @ 8:10 AM

  2. (I’m placing a bet that people will talk about the types of gameplay this week. Just a hunch ;) )

    Comment by Modran — 20 November, 2008 @ 2:21 AM

  3. I wrote ” If we were moving along to the subject of subjects, I’d suggest a game where players try to build a health care system.

    To which our host responded ” What would the core gameplay be? Resource management to take care of sick people while not going broke? Have different players play different roles with different win conditions?”

    Actually, yes, I was thinking different players had different goals, either assigned to them randomly or they chose them; maybe their goals are secret. Perhaps each player is a doctor working there. One player might want the hospital to become very specialized in a single focus, like heart surgery. Another might want to publish papers and do research. Another might want to make buckets of money. Another might want to provide free or discounted services to people who otherwise could not afford it. Meet your goals, win the game. But no one wins if the hospital goes bankrupt.

    Comment by Rik — 20 November, 2008 @ 4:16 AM

  4. “But no one wins if the hospital goes bankrupt.”

    There’s a concept for a board game, the “Tragedy of the Commons.” The basic mechanic is that the game contains a shared resource. This resource is required for each player to win the game, but no one wins if the resource runs out.

    Not really sure how to implement the game though. Balance would be key, something has to stop the players from over-using the resource besides the threat of everyone losing.

    Comment by Black Molly — 20 November, 2008 @ 6:47 AM

  5. I like the idea of a boardgame that’s both cooperative and competitive, too.

    When someone suggested a survival boardgame weeks ago, I was thinking a way to do that is to mimic a common horror story scenario. A small group of individuals are trapped with a danger (monsters, zombies, whatever) and must cumulatively accomplish several tasks in order to secure an escape. For example, they might have to collect a number of parts or fix some machines (in no particular order) to get the ship’s escape capsule working.

    While players are collecting/fixing these things, they are being hunted and ambushed by the common enemy. Some sort of damage/heal system is in place, so players are likely to encounter enemy creatures but not die immediately. So, for the majority of the game, it’s in the best interests of players to work together… each keeping the others alive so the small tasks may be accomplished quickly, and one’s own survival is ensured. But only one player can escape. So, though most of the game is cooperative, the game ends in a mad dash!

    There can be only one. ;)

    Comment by Aaron — 20 November, 2008 @ 10:53 AM

  6. If we’re trending towards the tragedy of the commons being an important game concept, I think we may have to modify it carefully. In a casual board game, winning and losing is about an entertaining differentiation between players, not about prize money or notoriety, etc. So the notion of ‘everyone losing’ is probably one that we should try to avoid. It carries a dispiriting connotation similar to that of ‘everyone winning’.

    Comment by Bret — 20 November, 2008 @ 11:02 AM

  7. I like the Tragedy of the Commons/ Everyone loses idea. I agree that it should be something that happens rarely, like say 1 game in 20.

    Comment by Rik — 21 November, 2008 @ 2:37 AM

  8. I’d look at the nouns related to the topic of the game to get a feel for how generally understood these are. Then what verbs to associate with them to define the moves of the players.

    A problem with the restaurant is the relevance of the cooking art which will need to be embodied by some kind of comprehensivble entities (the chef?).

    A good set of nouns and verbs can probably be collected from TV shows like Kitchen Nightmares or similar which provide fun cards to play.

    *Your kitchen is home to Rats
    *The village major likes your soup for lunch

    Among other things which has influence over popular opinion in a relatively fun manner.

    The playes should be able to make moves like:
    *Invest in new curtains
    *Tighten up the menu
    *Make smaller portions

    Lots of resource management in the theme related to running a business.

    Comment by Wolfe — 21 November, 2008 @ 5:42 AM

  9. oo, had to add

    A Tragedy of the Commons would be able to occur in the Restaurant game when for example all player start designing their restaurants to win the customer loyalty of the same niche market.


    Comment by Wolfe — 21 November, 2008 @ 5:43 AM

  10. Long time lurker here.

    I have had two themes for board games brewing in the back of my head for some time, and they both feature a mix of cooperative and completive gameplay.

    Ancient Rome: Players take the roles of rival houses in Ancient Rome. Cooperation is required to expand the Empire and defeating the enemies of Rome, but when the Senate loses power, only one can take stab at the imperial throne and win the game. You could of course replace Rome for any real or fictional nation.

    Nuclear/Cold War: Pretty obvious, all nations are armed to the teeth, so warfare is going to be costly, and could result in a global apocalypse. Therefore espionage, diplomacy and secretly building more nukes than anyone else and then bombing them harder than you is key.

    Comment by Mrop — 22 November, 2008 @ 10:23 AM

  11. Weekend Design Challenge: More gameplay

    [...] about gameplay. Two weeks ago, I asked about this topic and it veered off into the realm of themes. Last week we discussed some themes, so this week I want to go back to gameplay and think about what types of [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 24 November, 2008 @ 8:09 PM

  12. Aaron wrote:
    When someone suggested a survival boardgame weeks ago, I was thinking a way to do that is to mimic a common horror story scenario. A small group of individuals are trapped with a danger (monsters, zombies, whatever) and must cumulatively accomplish several tasks in order to secure an escape.

    A game that does this well is Betrayal at House on the Hill. It has an interesting mechanic where everyone is more or less cooperating at the beginning, then one person is randomly chosen to become the “traitor” in a number pre-defined scenarios. There are specific win and lose conditions for both sides in the game.

    This creates a very interesting dynamic. You don’t want any one person to get too strong, because if they become the traitor then it’s often much harder to bring them down. On the other hand, you don’t want someone to be too weak, because if they aren’t the traitor they will be your teammate. The game is rather unfair, though, as some of the items you can acquire are much more obviously powerful than others. But, it gives a good horror feeling while providing and interesting cooperation and competition dynamic.

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 November, 2008 @ 5:09 PM

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