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Holiday Guest Blog 5: Dirk Knemeyer – “Theme and Mechanics”

January 3rd, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Design, Guest Blog

I “met” game designer Dirk Knemeyer through our Out of the Park Baseball league. He’s had marginally more success than I have mostly through not finishing 30 games back four seasons in a row. Dirk is also an employer and collaborator, since I am doing research and consulting for him in the evenings and on some weekends. He’s a really smart and interesting guy. In yet another instance of people wanting to write about board games, Dirk takes on the issue of how mechanics connect to theme – something we’ve talked about on the podcast and is completely relevant to computer strategy game design.

More often than not, the manifestation of theme in games makes me grumpy. Games that superficially integrate theme are common and people generally like them. Some nice graphics and historical facts, and reviews laud the game as being richly themed. But that is only a small part, and the easiest part, of paying off theme in a game. The highest form of game design is found in the perfect marriage of theme and mechanics, deftly pulling the player as closely as possible into the operating dynamics of the theme itself while maximizing playability and enjoyment. It’s not easy to do, and that is why most games fail to achieve it in a meaningful way. I think of it as answering Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s famous question, “What is the essence of the Problem?”

Recently I’ve gotten into game design and experienced these challenges first-hand. The first design I worked on was the game now called Road to Enlightenment. It is a civilization-style game set in the 17th century. The initial motive for the game is that, as a player, I feel even marvelous strategy games pay too little focus and attention to the key people of history, particularly those who are not generals or monarchs. So, with Road to Enlightenment, I set out to create a game where ALL the different types of influential people of their time were the focus and played proportionally crucial roles. Fairly early in the design process I asked myself, “What is the absolute most realistic way to model the contributions of these different people?” Rembrandt, the portrait painter; Newton, the scientist; Stradivari, the maker of fine violins; John Bunyan, the writer and preacher. The very diversity of the tableau was the challenge. Ultimately, in terms of realism, I initially solved the problem pretty well. For example, Rembrandt was renown for quickly painting portraits for wealthy patrons. Thus, given an investment of time (Rembrandt’s card being dedicated to the task) and money (coins from the player to simulate the money required to have Rembrandt paint) Rembrandt might produce art that provides culture (die roll against a chart based on the amount of time and money invested). Comparing Rembrandt to another painter in the game – say, the at the time obscure Vermeer, who also produced far fewer paintings in his life than Rembrandt – Rembrandt would have a high percent chance of success with minimal time/money investment, whereas Vermeer would take a higher investment and still not have as good of odds in most cases.

However, there was a problem: from a game play perspective this relatively realistic solution was lacking in both usability and fun. Usability-wise, to do it in a way that authentically captured the nuance between different practitioners, required either super tiny text on the individual’s card that represented them in the game or – even more damningly – an old-fashioned die rolling table on an external player aid. Or more superfluous bits. Or one of some other broken solutions. At that point I had to either: a. accept clumsy gameplay in service of the greater, more meaningful good, or b. simplify the mechanic and lose authenticity, or c. change the theme. I actually chose c. My answer was to make the game more abstract, to make it about an inter-relationship between all of the cultural forces and participants that rulers would need to focus on at the time. In so doing, by going up a level or two in the mission and focus of the game, I was letting myself off the hook of realistic representation. My hope is, in the process, to authentically communicate the operating dynamics of an era instead of representationally modeling the physical dynamics of each luminary’s successes. It was a valuable learning experience.

My research working on Road to Enlightenment inspired me to work on another design, this one about the Scientific Revolution. The very first thing I did was try to figure out how best to help players experience the different activities and considerations that 17th century scientists had in revolutionizing human understanding. Very quickly it turned into a reductio ad absurdum, where it seemed clear to me that each player needed a microscope, a journal to work thru equations and other arcane tools of era scientists. Sure, that would get players closest to the authentic experience, but in the process it would stop being a game. People might as well sign up for a chemistry class at a local community college, along with a workbook to translate their mechanistic activities in 2011 into the reality of 1661. I’m sure you see the absurdity of that train of thought. People don’t want to take a chemistry class; they want to be entertained. So I used that starting point of what seemed the most authentic experience and slowly abstracted from there, trying to get to the perfect point where the mechanics deeply reflected the historical reality while providing the player an enjoyable and engaging experience. Where I ended up was a worker placement mechanic, where each player – as a great scientist of the era – only has so much time to do different things (represented by energy, in the common Euro gaming form of cubes) and each turn must split that time between the different activities that filled the real-life time of these people: researching, experimenting, publishing, corresponding, hiring lab assistants and networking. The implementation of these “worker placement” mechanics look a lot like another board game I like, Age of Empires III. I’m fairly certain this is the right level at which to represent the theme, but how enjoyable the actual gameplay is remains a verdict for players.

One recent failure in wedding theme and mechanics is the 2010 board game Founding Fathers. Created by popular designers Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews, they position the goal of Founding Fathers as “…to be the founding father with the most renown at the end of the game, which consists of making the U.S. Constitution.” This game was celebrated for being richly thematic. Superficially, that might appear to be the case. There are individual cards for the Founding Fathers, communicating their state, their political leanings, and a special ability. The board is drawn to have rooms appropriately representational to those at the actual U.S. Constitutional Convention. There are delegates and votes and issues and committees, all represented in the game. The pieces are all in place. The problem is, they don’t function in the game in an analogous way to how they happened in real-life.

By happenstance I was reading a book on the U.S. Constitutional Convention around the time I played Founding Fathers, and it was in that context that I realized how bereft of paying off the theme the game really is. It essentially ignores the crucial issue from which all of the other dominoes ultimately fell – that of slavery – and while representing many historical things in a chrome-y way, those aspects do not manifest directionally in the mechanics. While there are, indeed, emphasis on Big States and Small States and Federalists and Anti-Federalists, they really only exist as icons on cards and tracks. In reality, the dynamics around the conflicts of those different factions are what created the knotty and interesting problem solving inherent in actually writing a Constitution that would successfully ratify. And, from a gaming perspective, the particularly delicious potential is the asymmetrical intertwining of them all: each state had a different mix of how those factors impacted their perspective. Each delegate from within the states also had their own unique perspective.

The U.S. Constitutional Convention was about some of the most interesting, complicated and strategically challenging negotiation in human history. The history lives in those dynamics. Yes, sure, the nice art and having all of the pieces in place is part of it. But without really manifesting those remarkable operating dynamics, it is just clever game mechanics with nice art and a bunch of short bios. The game fails to help players viscerally enjoy an experience authentic to that unique and important moment.

As a counter-example, a game that very nicely wove theme and mechanics together was the old Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective game. In that game you are, not surprisingly, investigating crimes. To translate the experience of detection players read paragraphs in a case book, decide what is important in that text and – using a period map of London – “visit” different people or places in order to read more text, pay attention to the details, consider the problem, and continue their search until finally reaching what they hoped was a correct conclusion on the specifics of the crime. The game very nicely gets at the heart of what solving crimes is all about – gathering evermore data, scrutinizing the details, connecting the dots, and otherwise synthesizing toward clarity. It is actually quite a fun game but perhaps not for everyone: presumably some large percent of gamers would not consider scrutinizing paragraphs of text to assemble clues and theories an enjoyable thing. But therein lies the tension between theme and mechanics: the closer you get to representing the theme as an authentic experience, the more necessarily arcane and idiosyncratic the game becomes. Most games, particularly board games, have a “pasted-on theme” because the market expects games to fall within a certain tolerance of mechanics, depth and feel. It is why so many Euro board games are simultaneously clumped together as fine-but-indistinguishable experiences, even as the market continues rewarding those designs.

Continuing with the detective theme, L.A. Noire used the higher definition medium of video games to improve on the theme alignment compared to Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. In L.A. Noire you not only traveled to graphical representations of places to detect, you even got to interrogate well-rendered suspects in a fairly realistic way. However, the potential unlocked by this wonderful detail also introduced classic video game friction that shake you out of the moment: the unnecessary driving between locations; the ultimate railroading of searching for clues; the binary nature of the interrogations and accusing/trusting the suspects. Not only did these foibles make the theme less authentic in its representation, it also lessened the joy of the experience of playing. In game design, more can easily become too much.

The ultimate test of a design’s success rests on the complex calculus inherent in realizing the most authentic experience of the theme while remaining enjoyable, playable and elegant. In my own work as a designer I’ve discovered it is a difficult balance to achieve. The problem with the majority of games out today is not so much that they are failing at it but, I suspect, do not even try to properly solve the problem. The shame lies in the fact that game designers have a remarkable opportunity to impact the world: people come and play our games, with themes that outside of being part of a game most people would not even cross the street to themselves participate in.

Within the bounds of their games designers have a powerful opportunity to translate knowledge, experience and understanding from the conceptual and representational into the minds and hearts of our players. Rather than allowing a cool theme and sexy artwork be enough, if we aspire to master our craft and do something wonderful, we must drive toward that special and powerful place where our manifestation of theme through our games isn’t simply fun or entertaining: it imbues our players with a broader world view, one that appropriately pays homage to the theme we’ve deemed important enough to build our game around.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • Bruce

    I think you’ve made a nice distinction between mechanics that are incidental to a theme and mechanics which advance a theme. The problem is that essential elements in one medium don’t work in another, and forcing a theme into a two-player game forces the designer to distort issues into either-or results in order to make it competitive. The distortions you mention in Founding Fathers are all pretty much due to the fact that the game’s victory conditions are about being the most influential author of the Constitution, regardless of what it says (limited only by their faction). This presumes that this was the primary motivating factor for all the delegates. which I don’t think anyone would assert.

    I’m not sure some themes can really support good games, or if they could, it would require some kind of game no one could easily play. Civilization is one of my favorite examples of a game that works beautifully as designed, but isn’t really supported by today’s market. A twelve-hour game that really needs seven players to work right? How many problems in game design are a consequence of topic choices constrained by market realities? Ok, let’s make a game about the Reformation. But it has to be playable by 2-4 people, and finish in under three hours. No wonder you get a bunch of games with interesting game mechanics, but themes that basically consist of “…and the red cubes represent Catholicism.”

    When I retire from neurosurgery I’m going to start a game company, the premise of which is going to be, how many good boardgames can we make on topics that I like, and lose no more than half a million dollars. Maybe people will be more creative if they know they don’t have to sell the stuff.

  • Victor Dosev

    Good read. I just wanted to thank you.

    I particularly like your closing thoughts. I think ultimately designing games is about making a point. (teaching a skill, or communicating a crucial grasp of reality)

  • ShadowTiger

    I think that good game design requires a solid understanding as well as lots of research with abstract gameplay mechanisms.

    When I create a new game design, I usually focus on mechanics before choosing a theme. How the game plays is more important to the wide audience than what the game is about. It certainly determines the fun, ease of use, and replayability of a game.

    So if you want to make a deckbuilding game, you need to look at other deckbuilding games like Dominion, Magic the Gathering, etc. Why do people like these kinds of games, what are the cross game similarities, what are the differences? How important are resources, randomness, card rarity, complexity, diversity? By mastering the mechanics of the game, by looking at both hardcore min/max players and casual players who will accidently break the rules, you can craft a game that has an optimal experience.

    Without this important step, I don’t see how you could tie together a coherent theme to the gameplay. You need to have a wide pallet of tools at your disposal, you need to understand how to mix them together, and finally you have to create a composition that is balanced and attractive to your target audience. Games are art after all, and you have to decide if you want to be a Rambrant or a Vermeer.

    Great article by the way!

  • Hell-Mikey

    Dr. Geryk (and other despairing Civ fans):
    I’ve found Civ surprisingly well with 5 (but better with 6 or 7) and that with the modern bookeeping tools and a laptop for everyone, you can run a game in 8 hours. No, that doesn’t change your core point, but I did want to share in case folks were wondering how worthwhile the game is with smaller groups.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Now we just need somebody to port Road to Enlightenment to electronic form — I’ve wished for an Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, or Industrial Revolution-themed video game for a long time! It would be far more interesting than the endless parade of WW2/angry space marine games…

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