Theme and emotion in board games

My game design process involves having several different game ideas that I’m working on at any one time floating around. I’m not great at being focussed so my mind tends to jump from one thing to another and back again as I’m in the creative process. An idea from one game will often find it’s way into another so that games get merged and evolve into whatever they’re becoming. Games come and go, but sometimes, one particular game idea will keep coming back again and again.

One such game, and one of my favourite game concepts that I’ve been working on for a while now, is a cyberpunk game. I love cyberpunk settings, and find that they’re often underused in board games compared to the fantasy, renaissance, and space themes we usually find. Perhaps because of my love for the theme, this game has become something of a grail for me. A magnum opus. It’s an ambitious game, certainly outside the scope for a first release, but one that I’m convinced I’ll see through to a final release one day.

To give a brief outline, the game is set in a future city full of the usual street gangs and megacorps. Each player controls a character who will travel around the city, completing missions, avoiding the authorites, and earning credits. I’ve designed the city to be modular so that the layout will vary from game to game, and each character will have different abilities that make them suited to different mission types. I’ve spent hours immersing myself in the theme for ideas. Anime, comicbooks, manga, movies, William Gibson novels, you name it. I keep a list of keywords and ideas on my phone that I add to when something comes to mind; a wealth of flavour and narrative ideas to build the game’s theme. But I’ve been hitting a brick wall with the overall design that I couldn’t quite figure out.

The problem has been that even with all the fluff I’ve been building for the game’s design, I still felt I wasn’t able to convey what I wanted to. Flooding the game with ‘biomorphs’, ‘hackers’ and ‘designer drugs’ is building the right atmosphere, but something is missing. Then it came to me. I realised that what has been missing is actual emotion, not just flavour.

A cyberpunk world is full of juxtapositions. Endless stimulation, entertainment and bright neon lights, contrasted with a dark oppressive society. When we think of cyberpunk there’s a flood of theme ideas that come to mind, but deeper than that are the raw emotions. What does it feel like to live in a dystopian cyberpunk world? More importantly, how can I make the players feel like this when they play the game?

My original idea for the mission mechanisms was that each mission would require the completion of a small minigame. For example, a ‘thief’ mission would involve a little ‘push your luck’ card game, and a ‘hacker’ mission would involve chucking dice to match symbols, Yahtzee style. I really liked this concept, but ultimately had to abandon it because (a) it made the game overly complicated and component heavy, and (b) because it was too hard to balance the different mission types. Instead, I streamlined the game to have a common mechanism for all mission types, but couldn’t figure out what this should be.

So the next question became, “what should the mechanisms in the game look like?” This is where I’ve been getting stuck for so long. Now though, I feel like I’ve finally turned the corner. Once I stopped thinking about theme and started thinking about emotion it all became a lot clearer. What I realised is that the theme will carry itself. Artwork, flavour text and the narrative of the mission cards themselves will provide all that’s needed. What I need to do instead is to use the mechanisms of the game is capture the emotions of the the setting.

So, how does living in a cyberpunk world feel? What are some key ideas that describe the mental and emotional state of a character in this game? This is what I came up with:

Competitive – Cyberpunk citizens thrive on competition, making deals, and stepping over each other to achieve their goals.
Fast paced – A world full of adrenalin junkies, tweakers and stim-heads, all amped up to give them the edge over the competition.
Paranoid – You never know who’s after you: the police, the megacorps, the cyborgs, the Yakuza, even the other players.

So, now I’ve worked out what I want the players in the game to feel, the next step is designing mechanisms that will bring out those emotions in the players. So to make players competitive, include PvP interaction that lets them take each other down and try to out-do each other. To make the game feel frantic and fast-paced, include some kind of timer to race against when completing missions. To make the players on-edge, include push your luck elements and hidden threats that can screw up their plans without warning.

By using the way the game itself is played to evoke the feelings of the players, I feel like I can now see how I want the game to play out, and I can move to the next stage which is actually designing and refining those mechanisms so they work together smoothly and in an engaging way. I now feel like I have an exciting direction to move forward in with this game and that’s a great feeling.

I hope some of the ideas in this post have resonated with you. Think about some of your game design ideas that you feel stuck with. Do you think this way of looking at your designs would work for you? What great ways of bringing theme out and engaging players have you found in your game designs?

Theme and emotion in board games

Taking a chance

After nearly six years of working for the same organisation, I recently bit the bullet and handed in my resignation. This was a big decision and I gave it a lot of thought, but now it’s done I can definitely see it was the right thing to do. I quit for a lot of reasons; the stress of  an increasing workload with reduced resources being one, but mainly I’m quitting so I can focus on my true passion: board games.

I’ve been designing board games for a couple of years now and really want shift my life to be able to focus my time and energy on my creative projects and get them out there to the world. I’m not sure where this journey is going to take me but I’m excited to give it my best and see what happens. This blog will be a space for me to share my experiences, feelings and ideas, and to hopefully connect with other like-minded lovers of board games. I’m looking forward to seeing where this adventure takes me, and hopefully getting to know some amazing people on the way. That includes you!

Taking a chance