This tile represents a house. That wooden cube stands for a real piece of construction wood. The deck of cards is the set of magic spells that you could cast. A turn is meant to convey a year. Placing a worker gives the idea of doing a certain amount labor.
Board-games exist by the grace of representations or metaphors. Anything in a game is a stand-in for something else (it probably wouldn’t be a lot of fun if you actually had to harvest a field if you placed your worker on a grain tile).
In this post I want to explore what this means from a design perspective..
Theme: The first metaphor
Puerto Rico would play exactly the same if you removed all references to production, shipping and taking the role of a certain person. What you’re actually doing is moving components from one location on the table to another. At the end of the game you count a certain kind of component and declare the player with the most as the winner. It is only in your mind are you growing coffee and loading it into a ship.
So why not be satisfied with moving bits of cardboard and wood around, why do we tack on this bit about building plantations in a Latin American country?
To answer that, let’s take a look at games without a theme first.
Games without theme
There are games that don’t have a theme, so called “abstracts”.
4 in a row is a nice example of this: As far as I know the discs you slide down the holder don’t represent anything. Victory doesn’t imply that some evil was defeated or that you built the best civilization. No: Get four meaningless discs in a meaningless row of and you win!
The freedom of the abstract
Abstracts are the “cleanest” of games: There is no meaning to convey and thus there are no restrictions on what pieces you can introduce or what you can design with those pieces.
This can certainly be an advantage: Full freedom in theory would allow for the most interesting games to be built.
In practice however I feel that this is generally not the case. A theme helps to limit the design space significantly (see this post on design spaces) and through that makes it simpler to make design choices. Limiting the design space makes it easier to explore what is left and thus come up with great choices within those limits.
Advantages of metaphors
Most modern games are not abstracts. Above I already give a reason why a theme can help in designing a game. There are however other reasons to include a theme (and other metaphors) in your board-game.
Theme and metaphors to make sense of the game
Metaphors help players to make sense of what is going on this game.
Compare: “So I need to hand in two of my yellow cubes for each blue cylinder at the end of round 4?”
To: “Ah, at the end of round 4 there is a harvest and I need to feed my family so they don’t go hungry!”
With metaphors we can much more easily make sense out of rules. Of course you need to feed your family. Of course it makes sense to pay wood and stone to build a building.
And rules that make sense are much easier to remember.
When there is no rule
We try to write rule-books that cover all possibilities. Unfortunately we are few and our players (hopefully!) are many. This means that there will be situations that are not covered by the rules.
If your game is thematic then it is in general much easier to figure out what to do when something crops up that is not covered in the rule-book: Do what would also make sense in real life.
Telling a story
Board-games convey a story: “Four civilizations came to this island trying to achieve economic dominance over the others. In the end the white civilization prevailed!” (Yes, that’s Catan).
People like stories, they like to be able to feel what is happening. To see the rise and fall of great nations, to enjoy a poor farmer’s family build out their farm to become an economic powerhouse. This creates a sense of meaning and empathy.
Without a theme it is very hard to generate a story: “This bunch of discs fell through a grid until one color victoriously got four discs in a row. And they lived happily ever after!” It just doesn’t have much of a ring to it…
A thoroughly ingrained theme makes a game feel more like a story. It helps to suspend disbelief and to keep players in the make-belief world that they together are creating. It helps players to “get into” the game.
A theme is conveyed through metaphors
As mentioned, the theme says “what the game is about”: This is a game about space combat, that is a game about intrigue in the roman era, here we’re dueling zombies in a hospital.
Board games make use of components. This red cube of wood represents a space ship in the first game, an influence point in the second and a wound in the third. The component is exactly the same but the way we use it and see it is completely different.
The meaning we give to that one component is a metaphor.
Likewise, any actions we take are metaphorical. We move that red cube from one space to another and we’ve flown our spaceship, influenced a senator or healed a wound.
The story gets told by having our metaphor-actions work on our metaphor-components.
The perfect metaphor
A real house requires wood, bricks, roof-tiles, plumbing, wiring. It’s built by a plethora of experts, of which each would be hard-pressed to do another’s work.
In games however it just requires a wood and a stone (or whatever the game proscribes).
Metaphors in games need not be perfect. In fact, they absolutely should not be perfect! Board-games work because we make abstraction, mostly simplifications. Real life is messy and chaotic, while in a board-game things work exactly according to the rules.
There is a lot of freedom to be found in this: Chose the metaphors you want to use, at the level of abstraction you want. Do you want to build plumbing, buildings or cities? Each is possible, each can work for the right game.
The winning metaphor
Many modern games do very well with their metaphors, except for at one point: Determining the winner.
Victory points are left, right and center in modern board-games. And though they work well, it’s sometimes very hard to see what they are a metaphor for.
In Puerto Rico you get points for delivering goods and building buildings. Why do these things specifically make you the “best” (from an in-game perspective)? Why not the number of colonists (having the “largest empire”) or money (being “richest”)?
One reason is that in real life there is no “communal end”. People move on or die, but the world (the story!) goes on without them. A game however does need an end and creating one that “makes sense” is hard.
In real life nobody truly wins or loses either. Sure, some people have an easy life and others a harsh one. But in the end we all die, without there being a podium or a gold cup handed out.
There are however games that make perfect sense regarding their ending and the winner. Racing games stop when someone gets to the end (and is declared the winner). Chess ends when the king is certain to be captured.
So come up with a plausible ending end winner!
That doesn’t make sense!
There are of course downsides to theme and metaphors. Mostly, they have to be consistent.
Let’s say you have a building themed game. You’ve been testing and it works really well to remove a worker every time you build a building. From a real-world perspective that is really hard to explain though; buildings don’t eat humans.
In this case you either have to accept that your theme and mechanics clash, change the mechanic or change the theme (perhaps in a distant future buildings are grown from humans?!).
This also shows that even though consistency can be a difficult, there are options when you run into this restriction.
Abstract games don’t require any “fluff” that makes thematic sense but doesn’t really add much to the game. Because of this it’s easier to get a deep game with simple rules (Go being a prime example).
However, without a theme and metaphors you’re missing out on story building and making sense of the “why” of certain rules. Do your metaphors help to create a story and to make sense of the rules?
The flip side of this is that for a thematic game it becomes more difficult to add a rule that the game needs but that doesn’t make sense within the theme. How much of a limitation should this be?
When designing your game, what kind of metaphors do you use? Could you use different ones? Or could you use a different component with the same metaphor? This becomes especially relevant when you are using a theme that has been used again and again (another zombie game anyone?). Dice as space-ships? Cards as health? Tokens as building plans? With some imagination I’m sure you can come up with some interesting ideas!
For any game you have to make a choice as on what metaphors you do and don’t include. This relates to the level of abstraction you use in your game. It would be interesting to look further into these levels of abstraction and what they mean for game design.
I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!
Hi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.
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