I haven’t designed a board game before (or at least to completion), but I imagine that theme is very much a chicken-or-egg scenario in the creation process: does the theme come first, or are the essential game mechanisms created and then a theme built around them?
Both happen, I imagine. Games like Battlestar Galactica are the easiest examples of games which start with theme: the designer is looking to craft a game around a particular theme. Above all, they’re creating a game to capture an experience they saw or read. The Battlestar game delivers those feelings and experiences very clearly—tension, betrayal, Cylons. When theme drives the game, it’s about how it can take those interesting thematic properties and condense them into engaging mechanics.
Theme is also about feeling immersed in the play. What game elements ensure immersion? Relating to a known work is an easy way to connect the audience with a theme. Games like Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire rely on common imagery, names, and events to set the scene of the game—we understand the history and characters, which allows us to easily connect to the gameplay.
But games based on new work also spend significant design time creating a sense of theme. Instead of relying on outside context, these games use game mechanics to help players create individual identities for themselves while separating each other with differences and conflicts.
Role cards are important for directing how the player fits into the context of the game—you represent Germany, your character is a medic—and guiding the player toward their goals and purpose. Good game design will translate that role into specific gameplay bonuses or weakness available only to that player. Games like 7 Wonders, Citadels, Bang!, and Pandemic make players feel individualized and special because they’re working with an ability or bonus that nobody else has in the game. Games like Race for the Galaxy don’t have role cards, but give each player a unique world which directs how they’ll strategize for the rest of the game. In either case, the point is to specialize a player and make them feel unique from others.
Role cards give players a game “avatar,” someone they can become within the game. Unique goals further a player’s immersion by changing how players can succeed. By giving players different objectives, the game creates tension and conflict. This conflict separates players and forces them to understand each other in a new context as ally or enemy.
Ticket to Ride is relatively light on theme, but the wonderful reliance on individual (and secret) route cards creates separate goals for the players. Suddenly two players are enemies because they’re attempting to build along the same line, while others must constantly guess at potential places others are moving toward. Differing goals recontextualizes players and forces our understanding of each other within the game’s context. As is often mentioned, some people choose to not play specific games with friends or spouses for fear of real-life conflict.
Goals don’t have to be so specific—bidding games like Chinatown naturally create different paths to victory: each player begins to amass a specific kind of resource, which creates distinction and difference. Because of that difference, players understand each other via competing resources and relate to each other differently. Like roles, goals create identity and orient a player within the game world.
Allowing players to build out an individual space or territory is also important for theme. When placing starting pieces in Risk, players define themselves and understand each other within the context of their respective territories: this player becomes the Australia player, this player is sharing North America and is therefore an enemy.
A similar feeling occurs in cooperative games like Pandemic: the initial placement of diseases instantly sets the theme for which disease is most dangerous and where the action will be; suddenly the game becomes about Africa, or securing Hong Kong and Shanghai from out-breaking.
Territories break the game into different areas of understanding, which forces players to relate and think about each area differently. Even simple things, like calling money “Dinars” or “Credits” instantly orients players toward an ancient or sci-fi setting. Naming areas “Colony Converter” allows players to use that name and understand it within the game’s theme. A shared vocabulary lets players feel like they’re interacting with game pieces a bit more.
The purpose of these mechanisms is ultimately to drive home a feeling of immersion in a theme. That may be an end in itself, but isn’t always necessary. Games like Qwirkle are themeless beyond the elegant block design, but then again the game is not about becoming someone or something different, it’s simply about a particular mechanism played through a simple game. On the other hand, extended games like Twilight Struggle or Rex almost always require a deep sense of theme because immersion becomes critical to the enjoyment of sustained play.