Theory: Avoid Thematic Mismatch

We shouldn’t judge books by their cover, but we expect the cover to tell us something about what’s inside. Similarly, a game’s theme sets expectations about what it will be like. What’s more, just as we’re disappointed when a book turns out to be other than what its cover advertised, players are apt to be frustrated when a game’s play diverges wildly from its theme. It’s therefore important to make sure that a game’s experience and theme align, lest players be put off of otherwise good products because they weren’t what was expected.

I saw this issue crop up when playing Ryu. Ryu is absolutely plastered with dragons. There’s a giant dragon on the box, dragons on the player screens, even big dragon meeples! Everything about this game screams dragons.

Pause for just a moment and think about what you would expect to find in a game about dragons. Fire-breathing, maybe. Accumulating a hoard of treasure. Doing battle against knights.

Ryu has . . . visiting islands. It also features a simple economy (expressed through wooden cubes). One wins by building a mechanical dragon.

Not fighting with the mechanical dragon. Not breathing fire with the mechanical dragon. Building the mechanical dragon.

There’s nothing wrong with a building a mechanical dragon, and after playing Ryu I found that the game actually had some interesting things going on. A key dynamic in my play-through was acquiring enough materials to build sustainably without having so many as to be targeted by thieves. Judging when opponents would push the thieves into motion, and how to spend enough to avoid being a wealthy target while saving enough to maintain a critical mass of economic power, was interesting.

However, I couldn’t help but be disappointed as the game drew to a close. I had so very much expected excitement, and I got something awfully dry.

By contrast, Agricola’s box is very clear about what the game is going to be—a family-friendly take on farming. No one ever bought it only to be frustrated when the play didn’t match the cover!

Not every game is a thrill-a-minute affair, and those that aren’t are better off without themes that establish expectations they can’t meet. In the same way, pulse-pounding games will find it harder to attract their desired audiences with sedate art. Choose a theme that works with the game’s play; your players, and by extension you, will be happier for it.

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