This is the seventh entry in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX”. The earlier installments set up some an awesome baseline we build on below, so head back and check them out!
I’ve written before about how I like to approach designing — and I know that there’s a spread of opinion on the matter, some of which doesn’t agree with me. I also think it may be one of those topics that I ascribe way more contention to than actually exists in the game design-o-sphere :). But, nonetheless, the forces of theme and mechanics — most effective when optimally balanced — factor heavily into the Player Experience. Consider a game with ‘fiddly’ or complex mechanics, which intend to simulate a simple interaction, or to generate a simple outcome? (I can’t even come up with an example, because this would be a terrible game…) This would take away from the experience, and remove the player from the immersion. Contrast with a game like Onitama, which abstracts a complex martial arts showdown between two schools of kung fu masters in an arena-style duel. The theme is incredibly understated (which, cleverly, is further on-theme by reflecting an asian minimalism); the mechanics are also about as simple as can be, with an average teaching time of two minutes. This balance leads to players experiencing not only a sense of lightness as they control their pawns as “in-game”, the pieces are making moves they’ve rigorously trained, representing balance, concentration, and a similar ‘quickness’. There’s also a sense of zen, where choosing moves to make are like a koan: after making moves, they’re available to your opponent, and no longer available to you, until your opponent chooses to make it in reply. Here, the mechanics and the theme slot together perfectly, making the player experience incredibly tight, and ‘fight-like’: It’s short, the exertion is high (here in a mental sense rather than a physical on), and the flow between players is quick and fluid.
The Secret Cabal podcast (likely my favorite board gaming podcast), frequently covers these theme & mechanic balance issues. The founders (hosts) represent a broad spectrum of player styles. In fact, on a recent mini-episode, they explored an app that categorized player profiles on several axes. They also represent fans of a great cross-section of genres, as well as a great spread of theme-focused and mechanics-focused players. So, much of the interplay during their reviews hinges on these concepts. One way in which they frequently describe aspects of games is: “I really feel like I’m doing X…” when they reviewed the Runebound re-release: “…like I’m out there traipsing through he woods questing” or when they cover The Grizzled, “…like I’m surviving in the trenches with my buddies” — which, both are fairly ridiculous after stepping back to examine objectively. But the fact is, that a combination of theme and mechanics well in harmony, can create that immersion for players. It’s a powerful tool.
That’s the experience we should all be working to craft.
PX also completes a feedback cycle into this balance. A game like Dominion, without its theme, or with different mechanics, would quickly disintegrate. The experience of ‘building a kingdom’ out of the available cards make both the theme and the mechanic interesting. Or in Study in Emerald, the feeling of immersion contributes to the theme by making the card drafting each round feel like recruiting agents for an army rather than simply collecting cards.
Even games which lean heavily on mechanics, but leave theme thin, such as 18xx titles can craft an experience via finding a balance. They’re quite abstract, however, the overarching object of these games is to be a 19th century railroad CEO, who, from their office, these concepts could feel distant, just as the theme is presented in these types of games — they’re about the business of running a railroad company, so the abstractions of each piece of the specifics, (if balanced well in any particular 18xx iteration) can really enhance that feeling. The guys (& gal) at Heavy Cardboard (another kickass board gaming podcast) claim they’re not theme hounds, but I might argue that they’re just into a theme that presents in a less theme-y way.
A pure abstract like Blokus, or chess or Zendo provides players a pure puzzle experience, a mental challenge against the opponent(s), whereas something entirely abstract, but with a pasted-on a theme can actually detract from the experience for players. At the other end, a game where the theme is too heavy, can land with a weak experience. Take Munchkin — the theme is hilarious — it’s a great sendup of Dungeons & Dragons and its tropes, and the theme is a total romp. The mechanics support that… to a point, until they don’t. Then when the mechanics break down into ganging up and king-making toward the end of the game, players aren’t left feeling like they’ve just wrapped up a sarcastic dungeon romp, they’re left frustrated because the game dragged out just a hair too long.
Human brains include a type of cell called a “mirror neuron” which activate when we see another person doing a thing, our biochemistry reacts as if we were doing that thing ourselves. Relatedly, these well-tuned experiences do in fact trigger these feelings of immersion, which is why The Grizzled example from earlier isn’t quite as ridiculous as it may seem.
Tuning the balance between theme and mechanics is a core part of creating an immersive experience for your players. When these things are well-tuned, both aspects (theme, mechanics) fade to the background, leaving only the the experience. From one of my favorite episodes of Futurama… “when you do things right, people won’t realize you’ve done anything at all”
Up next, let’s talk about feelings!