Thursday, December 11, 2014

No second chance to make a first impression

The theme of a game is something that needs to be considered carefully, as I tried to prove the last time I tackled the topic, pointing to issues that turned out to be somewhat problematic when it came to reception of some games. Sometimes navigating through what rubs players the right or the wrong way turns out to be surprisingly difficult, as a small misstep can make some of our potential customers unwilling to buy our product, regardless of the quality of its mechanisms. So, maybe dropping the theme completely would be a better idea altogether?

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The obvious answer is, well, no. Themes are there for two important purposes. The first one relates our game to other games already present on the market, allowing it to either stand out, or fall in line with similar products. This is a little bit like sending a message: “If you like games like Puerto Rico or Caylus, you will like this game as well” or “This might tickle your fancy if you like Talisman style fantasy adventures”.

The second purpose is of a seemingly different nature, as it is a more practical one. A theme is something that helps us learn a game. It uses shortcuts that help our brain process all the new information we are feeding it in order to finally sit down and have some fun around a gaming table.

Now, I know that at this point some of you might say that a lot of games do not have a theme and they are doing pretty well. However, even in some of those cases rudimentary theming is often also involved, especially if the game comes with six types of pieces, with each of them using different movement rules (and as a side note: while I would never try to argue that Chess is thematic, once you read The Flanders Panel, you will never look upon Chess the way you had looked at the game before).

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However, if you try to completely remove a theme from a more complicated (rules wise) game like Agricola, you will quickly see how ungodly difficult it would be to teach it to new people. Just think about trying to make new players remember that the yellow and orange pieces are multiplied through placing them on brown squares (which you first place on green squares), while the white, black and brown pieces are gained through placing them on green squares which need to be either surrounded by your sticks or need to contain a cube of your colour before you are actually allowed to place them, and any multiplication is performed only once every four, three or two rounds.

The two above reasons make some of the most abstract European games, excellent titles like the classic Goa, Shipyard or Yspahan cling to their theme, hoping that even with a significant number of disassociated mechanisms, they will still be able to make use of the ones that make some sense, and give new players a foothold, that will allow them to actually learn the rest of the game.

In short, the theme of the game is there to translate a bunch of complicated mechanisms into a language we can easily understand and relate to something we already know. Farming, building a castle, constructing ships, sending good overseas – all this help us make enough sense of some wooden cubes and some strange symbols to actually have fun while pushing them around a board. And the memory of this process also allows us to choose efficiently while making purchases, which brings us back to relating our game to other games on the market.

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A proper theme of a game announces what we can expect inside the box. A ship, a sheep and a sad guy on the cover will tell us that we will most probably be optimizing our moves, exchanging cubes for other cubes and preparing a nice point salad. A dude with an oversized weapon, a fiery dragon or a charging army will tell us that we will most probably be rolling dice, playing “in your face” cards, putting narration over common sense and relying on both strategy and luck to win the day. Altogether, the box tells us then, if the learning process will be aided by a positive filter, or hampered by a negative one.

Finally, it all boils down to our likes and dislikes yet again. I know a very aggressive gamer, a fan of extremely confrontational games, who suffered through an explanation of Istanbul and ended up really liking the game, after he had powered through the somewhat stunted learning process to appease his wife. I also know a very multiplayer solitaire centred gamer who decided to give Combat Commander just one try and ended up having lots of fun leading her troops, but only after overcoming her aversion to aggressive gameplay and World War II history.

And as much as the above cases tell us that many gamers can actually enjoy games towards which they were initially reluctant, the publishers should probably learn a completely opposite lesson. Because in fact, most people will not play a product they are not fond of right from the start, and with the abundance of games on the market today, no game will have a first (not to mention the second) chance to make a good impression – and very rarely will there be another person around to help with making the first one really count.

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