Theme doesn’t matter!

Theme doesn’t matter!

That provocative title isn’t true – until I explain what I mean.

Sure board games have themes, including Senet and Peter Coddles and Star Trek Ascension. Even many historical abstracts have themes, like chess and daldøs. But many abstracts do not have themes, like checkers and seega and salta.

But in more modern tabletop games, a theme is generally the first level of evaluation. For example, modern games are usually ABOUT something (like Kim-Joy’s Magic Bakery or Potion Explosion or Trekking the National Parks). Considering the name, the artwork, and the sales pitch on the box, one can get a pretty good impression of what the game is about, how it works, and whether you want to try it.

Personally, I’m not too crazy about combat, spell-casting, hack-and-slash games. I rarely even pick up the box at the FLGS if it’s all monsters and weaponry.* I’m not interested in “acting” games or goofy make-a fool-of-yourself party games. There are a few hidden-role games I like, but those are not really at the top of my list. I’m not into athletic themes (except racing maybe) or gigantic space-conquest epics that take days to play, or games with lots of card text, iconography, card combos and arcane terminology to learn.

I like trading games, worker placement, engine building, and puzzle-solving games. I like cooperative adventures, not-too-heavy deck-builders, resource management stuff. Some “point salad” games are fine, and hidden information in moderation. Again – look at the box, read the notes, and I can generally tell if it’s my cuppatea.

But, I’ve been fooled! I like Gloomhaven! There have been a few war-theme games like Shogun or Cyclades that have a resource-management aspect to them that I like. The little “Age of War” dice game has nothing at all to do with warfare. If I hadn’t been introduced to it by a friend, I would not have picked up a copy.

When I start playing a new-to-me game, the thematic elements and mechanics (if it’s well designed) will help me learn the game. But after I learn the game and get a strategic overview, the theme doesn’t matter. I don’t feel like I’m directing giant corporations against each other or moving cowboys around a frontier landscape. I’m just playing the game. Cute dragons or cartoon gangsters are not the game (to me) – the game is the game.

So through the experience of the “book and its cover” cliché, I’ve learned not to jump to a conclusion based on theme alone. I let myself try stuff I normally wouldn’t to see what the game is about. Theme doesn’t matter.

*NOTE: But some of the artwork is wonderful.

It’s not hoarding if you have them written down!

It’s not hoarding if you have them written down!

“It’s not hoarding if you have them all written down.” Sound familiar?

I have a lot of games. That is to say, “lots” of games (plural). Games of all kinds, sizes, ages, themes, etc. And they’re all on shelves…more or less.

Are they sorted by any of these aspects? It seems reasonable that they should be—or perhaps alphabetical by name? Or publisher? Or primary mechanics? Well…nope. Every couple of years I try to reorganize so I can find what I’m after in there. But it never lasts.

Here’s my sad tale:

I have one shelf piled high with Word Games, a pair of shelves that are all Star Trek games, and one shelf dedicated to 3M Bookshelf Games. (Seems appropriate, doesn’t it.) 

There’s a tall bookshelf plus several other (low) shelves of kid’s games. 

There are a few shelves dedicated to party-style games, and those “stacking things until they fall over” games. Next to that is a shelf that mostly has race games, and another of trivia games. 

Shelves that are modern games that get played fairly often, and shelves of not-so-great games that are quite dusty. A couple of shelves are just versions of Monopoly and Clue, and a plethora of chess sets. 

I have several bins of card games, and bins of games in bags, and another bin that contains games without containers. 

There are fantasy games, strategy games, and CCGs on another shelf, plus the “shelf of shame” games (still in shrink wrap). There are a couple of shelves which are conflict-centered games (mostly multi-player). There are also segregated stacks of railroad games, wild west games, and spy-themed games, too.

I have five or six shelves of antique games (don’t touch these, kids) and a handful of dexterity games (I’m not so good at dexterity games). 

There are shelves for my original designs, prototypes, and the Peg Pastimes games (of course). These are near several shelves full of books about games.

Organized? Sort of.

How do you sort your collection? Is there a “Dewey Decimal System” for table-top games? Intriguing idea. Maybe I should get working on that.

Take It Personally

Take It Personally

When my kids were small, we played games (of course). But we generally played by our own house rules rather than the mundane exercise offered by the publisher. Rules were made to be bent, right?

So when the kids pulled out Candyland, we started at the basics. Draw a card, move your dude, suffer the consequences. Rinse and repeat.

Then we began to make it into a game.

  • Name your character. This is not just some soulless plastic standee… this is your avatar for the duration of this little adventure. This is Duke McLargehuge, or Silly Sally, or Sir Fartsalot. They have a serious stake in the outcome of this journey. We care about these characters and their dreams and aspirations. In fact, let’s use some minis from some other game to represent these characters. Keep a journal of who wins and loses, game after game.
  • Keep a secret, for a while. Draw a card from the stack and keep it hidden. This is your secret power. When the going gets tough, flip it down on the table with an “a-ha” and a prideful flourish, then cross that rainbow bridge with confidence!
  • Choose your own path. Missed the bridge? On your next move, go backwards! Sometimes a tactical retreat is the key to a later advantage!
  • Those creatures lurking in the shadows along the path… What are they really up to? Mr. Mint seems a helpful sort, and Lord Licorice looks a bit sinister, I think. That gal that lives in the Lollypop Woods scares me a little, and that thing in the Molasses Swamp looks like he might kill Tasha Yar just for the heck of it. Let’s make these characters part of the story, and grab a few more miscellaneous pawns out of some other game box.
  • Allies or enemies? Now we have non-player characters in the game, let’s give them some powers and let them be part of the story. Maybe they’re like familiars that do our bidding, or golems that wander mindlessly about, wreaking havoc on the countryside once they’ve been released.
  • All for won or won for all? Perhaps this can be a cooperative effort. Nobody wins unless everybody wins. “I have the Power of Greyskull, therefore I will fend off the evil Mrs. Nutt to allow you to pass safely through her dark domain!” “And I will rescue you from the clutches of the creepy Gumdrop Ghoul!”

It almost makes a game out of this box of plastic and cardboard.

Games for your Hallowe’en Party?

Games for your Hallowe’en Party?

Someone asked me, “What games would you recommend for a Hallowe’en party?”

My first question was “What KIND of Hallowe’en party?” Would it be a sit-down affair with room for a table-top game (or several)? A large gathering with room for dexterity or group games? A rambunctious fun time with families? A loud crowded kegger with silly costumes?

(These are fundamental questions for any themed gathering, of course.)

With the atmosphere of the party determined, I can begin to sift through my mental and physical collection to see if I can make a recommendation. But for Hallowe’en… hmmm. What do I have that would be thematic? I’m not into the horror genre, and how “scary” can a board game be anyway? I have a copy of “Nightmare on Elm Street” (a terrible game, barely playable).

“Which Witch” and “Goosebumps” and “13 Dead End Drive” and that glow-in-the-dark ghost game…these can be fun with the right crowd (usually under 10 years old). More modern monster-themed games include “Horrified” (classic movie monsters), a bevy of Cthulu-themed games and expansions, plus hundreds of games involving fantasy-style monsters.

Into the Hallowe’en Spirit

For some gatherings the “Werewolf”-style hidden role games are fun, but unless guests are into it, it can fall flat very easily. If there’s an enticing door prize for the winner(s), such social games can better maintain their momentum with a non-gamer crowd. Table-top hidden role games like “Dracula’s Feast” are great and very thematic, and there’s “Salem” and other witch-themed games of that type. They take a certain amount of concentration. Will that fit your party?

Zombies, of course, are everywhere in the game stores. Everything from “Zombie Dice” (a quick push-your-luck dice game like “Farkel”) to “Zombicide” or “Dead of Winter.” The more complex Zombie games border on role-playing and are hard to play in a party atmosphere. But again, it depends on the party.

Traditional dexterity games like Jenga, Bandu, cornhole, beer pong, washer toss, or even carroms can be holiday themed and take very little mental effort to make fun with friends. These are the defaults that everyone is familiar with, and often my final recommendation.

What’s YOUR favorite Hallowe’en-themed game?

Games Workshops

Games Workshops

Over the years I’ve provided many games workshops for audiences of all ages. In addition, I work with Boy Scouts who wish to earn the Game Design Merit Badge. (Yes, there is one!)

The workshops depend greatly on the audience, the setting, the materials at hand, and the expectations that have been set. So I tailor the content and the process for each session.

I generally start my presentation by trying to establish more of a conversation than a classroom atmosphere. I ask everyone what games they play, what games they like, and what games they “prefer not to play.”

Using a marker board (if one is available), I offer them a little analysis of these games—define the mechanisms they enjoy (or not) and describe others they might enjoy just as much. I help people see beyond the commercial package or colorful licensing, and how to find a game’s roots in the history of play.

With that vocabulary established, it’s time to make a game. I tell the story of sitting down with a group of bored kids at a gathering of some kind. “There’s nothing to do around here” is my favorite starting point. I prove them wrong.

For most workshops, I bring along a kit of components that often raise a few eyebrows: Cowry shells, popsicle sticks, Sharpie markers, bottle caps, and a handful of pebbles, a stick of chalk, maybe a piece of cardboard. (Depending on the setting, I might “plant” some of these components to emphasize their common availability.)

“So, let’s play a game!”

We usually start with a simple race game. We can draw a long line and divide it with cross-hatches into a track of intersections and spaces. Or we can draw a winding circuit of little circles meandering around the page. Or we can create a grid and zig-zag from point to point in some predetermined pattern.

“On this track,” I say, “let’s have a race. Go ahead now, and let me know who wins.”

“But what shall we use for game pieces?” to which I respond, “What do you have in your pockets, or on the ground, that you can use?” Talk about the materials at hand, and what they might represent in our race. (The player? An animal? A rocket? A robot? In the image above, you’ll note that it’s a race between a sports car, George Washington, and a rock.) Once everyone gets a token, I repeat the challenge: “Go ahead now, and let me know who wins.”

“But how do we know how to move? What shall we use for dice?” This gives me a chance to talk about chance. What are dice, or spinners, or tee-totums, or casting sticks? They are “randomizers”—methods of generating a range of unpredictable results within a certain range. After demonstrating a number of these options (including a deck of cards), I get the players to choose their own methods and materials. (Here’s a picture of some randomizers from my collection.)

Games workshop randomizers

OK, it’s not rocket surgery, but it’s a start.

Finding meaning

Now we talk about common aspects of games with tracks—spaces that have meanings or consequences. Can these spaces provide decision points instead of random results?

As the race progresses, can the players interact with each other somehow, to help or hinder? And we talk about each player’s tokens — does each have a special advantage or handicap? These aspects might be randomly assigned or chosen.

In each case, we decide as a group if we add any of these features to the race. And we play a few turns together to see how they work.
Then we talk about themes; If this is a footrace, a car race, a horserace, or a contest between spaceships…how does that affect these choices? If this was a race between superheroes or cartoon characters or historical figures, how would that affect the rules of the game?

The objective is to inspire the group to think about things in a little more depth, and to be a little more analytical. But this is also a way to see how a few simple components can add up to make fun! Simplicity can be added to and embellished to make a game complex. Conversely, complexity in games can be broken down into simpler components.

Given time, we talk about non-race games. As an example, I tell the tale about eating at a favorite restaurant in my youth where they had checkered tablecloths. Yes—that’s a game board! We made up plenty of games with sugar packets and coins while we ate!
All this makes me wonder about the inspiration behind the games people play. What inspired these games, and what mechanisms work together to make them fun?

The possibilities are only limited by your imagination!