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Theme Parties

November 30th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · Design

In his Decade Retrospective essay on Combat Mission, Bruce Geryk wrote one of those lines that still make me envy his writing skill:

If you give players a hook, they will hang themselves on it every time.

In most cases, a strategy game’s hook will not be the mechanic or the appearance but the theme. The designer chooses an appealing setting and an attractive role for the player and attaches a game design that doesn’t do too much violence to the theme. The difference between theme design and mechanic design is most obvious in two of this year’s most celebrated remakes – Majesty 2 and Tropico 3. The former’s appeal is rooted in the way in changes the players’ expectations of how to play a RTS – it’s a generic fantasy world and would probably be a very similar game if it were scifi. The latter is about playing pretend tyrant and, as the pirate themed Tropico 2 showed, this setting is apparently integral to the series’ success.

Theme design springs to mind because of two games I’ve been playing heavily for the last week. Solium Infernum is (as readers and listeners already know), Vic Davis’s follow up to Armageddon Empires. It is, for all intents and purposes, a board game based on the idea of conquering and ruling hell. King Arthur: The Roleplaying Wargame is a Total War-esque game from Neocore that uses the enduring appeal of Arthurian myth as the selling point.

Though I can’t speak for either developer, I think two different approaches to theme design are obvious in these titles. Davis was, by his own admission, inspired by a line in Milton’s Paradise Lost about reigning in hell. So he built an imaginary set of conditions, rule and traditions that would surround getting elected boss of hell. Neocore adapted the engine and game play from an earlier Crusades themed title by adding Arthurian names, a quest system and some magic powers – presto, an Arthur game.

In my time with King Arthur, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the Dante’s Inferno (the game) of the strategy world. It’s a competent game that absolutely no one would pay attention to if it weren’t for the “historical brand name” attached to it. Just as EA has glommed on to a medieval epic poem as a marketing device for a God of War clone that is more Hercules and Alcestis than Dante and Beatrice, Neocore uses the Arthur name and just enough of the Arthurian feel to sell what is otherwise an average game that I probably wouldn’t have bought at all if I weren’t such a sucker for Lancelot, Gawaine and Merlin.

I am certainly not suggesting that Neocore is using the Arthur legend for mercenary purposes – they have treated the material with enough respect for me to conclude that they genuinely wanted to make an Arthur game. But the Round Table is just a Council like you’d find in Knights of Honor, the RPG elements are quest dialogs and trait trees, the Arthurian legends themselves twisted to fit the game’s illusions of choice. (For example, an early choice forced you to decide between supporting the rightful ruler Balin or his evil brother Balan, with different rewards from each. If you know your Arthur tales, you’ll know that these brothers unknowingly killed each other in a duel – there was no disputed crown or good/evil thing going on.) In short, mechanics are either shoe-horned to fit the story or the story is mangled to fit the mechanics. This is how most theme games operate. Under its Caribbean skin, Tropico 3 was mostly a standard city builder, and the buildings served purposes not too different from those in the Caesar games – earning money and helping you reach numerical targets.

One of the biggest appeals of Solium Infernum is the setting. It’s hard to imagine people getting equally excited about a city council game that had similar mechanics. But even though I could certainly see additional card sets constructed for other settings – maybe a Clash of the Titans/Battle for Olympus set? – the way the rules have been constructed evolved out of the initial conceit. Where King Arthur is a medieval wargame with legends tacked on, Solium Infernum is a leap of the imagination. One game wears its theme, the other one is its theme.

This week’s Three Moves Ahead will deal with Solium Infernum in great detail, and I hope to address the issues of theme and design in great detail with Mr. Davis.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • James Allen

    I’m having fun with SI myself. Some good mechanics are contained herein.

  • Morkilus

    I can’t wait for tomorrow, then! I’ve been playing a PBEM and already things are grossly unfair. I wonder how it’s all going to shake out, given the strange mechanics of waging war.