In this post, we explore the importance of theme in board games and what constitutes a good theme or a bad theme.
To Be Exciting, or Not to Be Exciting
“Based on theme alone, I think this would be a tough sell. Hot air ballooning doesn’t feel that exciting.”-Anonymous Judge
These words were written recently about my design, Balloon Jockeys, from a judge who was evaluating game design pitches. It was for a contest of sorts known as the Pitch Project. In this event, designers had the opportunity to submit a sell sheet (a 1 page elevator pitch) to be evaluated by judges based on 3 criteria:
- How well does the sell sheet convey how the game works?
- How original is the game?
- How much do you think the target audience would want to play the game?
With roughly 750 sell sheets submitted, and only 50 being allowed through to the live online pitching event (where designers have 5 minutes to pitch their game to a few dozen publishers), I’m sure that there were more than plenty of sell sheets that were cleaner and better designed than mine. But I have a hunch that this particular judge at least deducted points on my pitch based on the third criteria: how interested would the target audience be in playing Balloon Jockeys?
The “target audience” in this case is strategy board gamers, and clearly they wouldn’t find Hot Air Ballooning as “exciting” as something like trading in the Mediterranean….
Of course I’m being facetious here. While it’s a bummer that Balloon Jockeys didn’t qualify for the pitching event, I’m honestly more put off by this judge’s thought process. They must have been thinking 1 of 2 things (or both):
A: “Only games with exciting themes can attract publishers and succeed in the marketplace.”
B: “Hot air ballooning is not a marketable board game theme.”
Getting with the Times
When I first read this judge’s comment, I had to laugh because I immediately thought of the hottest game of 2019, Wingspan. A game about birds, eggs, and bird food is not only ranked in the top 20 games of all time on Board Game Geek, but it’s also won countless awards including the prestigious Kennerspiel des Jahres. Yet, I’m willing to bet that (before last year) if my sell sheet would have been for the game Wingspan, this judge would have made the exact same remark.
Let’s set aside the fact that this judge’s perspective is probably out of touch with the modern board game market and peer into the deeper truths behind this encounter. Not long ago, hobbyist board gaming was divided into two buckets: “Ameritrash” games that put theme far above deep strategy and clever mechanisms, and “Euro” games that typically slapped a theme on a thinky, mechanical design, almost as an afterthought.
Fortunately, we’ve seen the line between these two categories blur in recent years as the barriers to creating board games have broken down and creativity has flourished. What once was a hobby exclusively for “geeks,” has now evolved into an activity for everyone. Where there was once only Sci-fi, Fantasy, and European mercantilism, we now have everything from migrating butterflies to kids building forts. A great combination of theme and mechanisms is becoming the new standard.
Despite this evolution, I’m still surprised to encounter people in the industry, be they judges, publishers, designers, or gamers, who believe that games can’t thrive unless they fit into their idea of worthy themes and settings.
What Makes a Theme Exciting?
Do we really need another pirate game? Another cthulhu game? Another viking or zombie or space game? Granted, we’re still seeing plenty of exciting ideas coming from these exhausted sources. But are these really the only wells that we can draw inspiration from? The narrow-minded among us seem to think so.
The fallacy of these individuals is that a theme must be immediately and obviously exciting, otherwise it is not worth exploring. I wish to push back against this notion and point all of us toward a higher truth:
“Any theme can make a fantastic and exciting game, especially if the designer/publisher can capture the aspect of that theme which is most interesting and make it the focal point of the design/production.”Me… just now
Now, please don’t take that out of context. I’m not implying that even endorsed immorality in themes can make for a great game… Space Biff provides a fascinating comparison of portraying vs. endorsing immoral themes in games, and there is no need for me to venture into that territory as well. Rather than the immoral, I’m thinking more about the mundane. Yes, even the most mundane of themes can make for an amazing gaming experience. What does this look like? Let’s explore some examples…
When I think of buses, I think of slow trips, poor temperature control, motion sickness, and strange smells. Years upon years of riding the bus to and from school have ingrained these negative feelings into my very DNA. The day that I got a drivers’ license and a hand-me-down family vehicle to drive around was one of the greatest days of my youth. There is simply no way around my bias against buses. So how on EARTH did Capstone & Splotter Games get me so excited about buses that I jumped at the chance to pay them SIXTY BUCKS for a game about buses called, you guessed it, BUS?!?
How does Viticulture get me hyped to make and sell wine when I don’t even drink alcohol? How does Modern Art get me pumped to buy and sell pieces of art that I have minimal appreciation for? Why did I lunge at a chance to play Q.E. when I couldn’t care less about global economics? How come I’m so eager to recreate the events surrounding the Watergate scandal, something that happened long before my birth and merely received a quick nod in my US history class?
All of these games with “unexciting” themes are wildly successfully and widely loved because they dig deep into their core source material, grasp the fascinating essence within, rip it out into the spotlight, and slap it down on a player’s table for them to explore and dissect like a still-beating heart from a strange creature’s chest.
Watergate pits players in a tense tug-of-war of information, incentives, and priorities between the Nixon administration and Washington Post.
Q.E. makes each participant a powerhouse country handing out limitless checks left and right to struggling industries until one country finds that it spent far too much.
Modern Art captures the peculiar trends and finicky tastes that drive the relative value of art up and down as players control greedy museums that are hungry for the next big thing.
Viticulture, with its round, glassy, aging grape/wine tokens satisfies the connoisseur within as they build up a beautiful vineyard in the rolling hills of Tuscany.
And Bus spins the wheels of its scheming players’ brains as they seek to develop a route that can satisfy the most passengers during their daily routines.
Why was Wingspan such a smash hit that continues to soar above its competitors? Because Elizabeth Hargrave and Jamey Stegmaier understood that birds are inherently fascinating in their function and diversity… their colors, their personalities, their behaviors, and their habitats. So they created a game that puts this most fascinating part of birds at the forefront. They invested time and money in making each and every card functionally unique and genuinely beautiful. They tied each unique species to mechanical aspects of the game in thematically subtle but meaningful ways. While the blind bats of the industry cried out from their drab comfort zones, everyone else took notice and at least appreciated the love and care that went into this project.
Irony in Ignorance
The irony of this Pitch Project judge’s remarks is that I set out to create Balloon Jockeys precisely because of its theme. During a brainstorming session, I realized that hot air balloons are naturally awe-inspiring, effortlessly beautiful, and criminally underrepresented in the realm of board gaming. Show me the person who doesn’t feel an ounce of joy or wonder when they suddenly notice a hot air balloon soaring overhead. We’ve all been outside with others when one of us noticed the balloon first and immediately pointed it out for everyone else to appreciate.
Every design decision I’ve made since Balloon Jockey’s inception has been anchored in the most compelling aspects of the subject. I started this design journey knowing practically nothing about the topic of hot air ballooning, but I’ve since found plenty of golden nuggets to treasure. If I can manage to transfer these golden nuggets into how the game plays, looks, and feels, then I have zero doubts that it will find plenty of fans, regardless of whether the theme initially excites them or not.
As time goes on, I hope to see more and more unconventional themes that are magnified into exciting experiences. I hope to see publishers, designers, judges, and gamers step outside their comfort zones, think outside the box, and uncover the extraordinary within the ordinary.
This concludes our exploration of What Makes a Board Game Theme Great. Despite my difference in opinions with one particular judge, I want to be clear that, as a designer, the Pitch Project has been an excellent resource and worthwhile event… even for Balloon Jockeys! Our current plan now is to self-publish Balloon Jockeys through Kickstarter (campaign expected late 2021 at the earliest). To follow our designs as they come to fruition, subscribe to our newsletter and follow Bitewing Games on social media!
Article written by Nick Murray. To learn more about his tabletop gaming tastes and preferences, check out his blog series: Tabletop Tastes: My Favorite Flavors in Board Games.