Ryan Addresses his Need for Theme!

Ryan Addresses his Need for Theme!

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about theme lately. We have reviewed quite a few games so far on the podcast, and I’m always the one who cares the most about the theme, but I don’t think that I’ve quite articulated exactly why I feel the way I do.


How does the theme of Kingsport Festival hold up to Ryan’s critical eye?


To me the theme of a game has the fantastic opportunity to make me feel something. I’ve heard that in sales and in writing that the ultimate goal is to make your audience “feel” or “care” about the product/writing, and I think that a board game is no different. I understand completely that different types of games will feel differently and care differently about various games, mechanics, and themes. This post is simply how I perceive theme.

1. The Theme Must Matter!

This is the big one for me. If you have a Lovecraftian game, the theme has to be important to the game. It has to be a part of the experience besides just the names of cards and locations. There has to be a sense of mystery and danger. There has to be some kind of Sanity mechanic and a consequence for loosing all of it. There has to be a sense of good and evil and an impending DOOM! If not, the art and the names aren’t going to be enough to make it feel like a Lovecraftian horror.

If you put the King in Yellow on a card and that card doesn’t feel like a King in Yellow card, you’ve likely lost me. The game might be fun, but I’ll likely be thinking too much about what the game could have been if the theme really mattered to really enjoy it.

2. The Theme isn’t the Most Important Thing!

The game should still be good without a theme or by changing the theme. If it is not, it will never be great with a fantastic theme that fits into the rest of my list. The theme will elevate a good game, but it will not help a mediocre game become good. Let’s use Monopoly as an example. No matter what theme gets slapped onto the box, the game has never gotten any better, ever.

But somehow, for me at least, Solar Quest transcends the Monopoly mold by making the theme mean something. Your pieces are spaceships traversing our galaxy buying up planets and moons. You need fuel to fly your ship. You have to get a certain roll on the dice or the gravity of the planet will prevent you from leaving orbit. Oh, and lasers!

3. The Theme must Resonate with the Mechanics and with the Players

This is one of the most important aspects of theme that I cannot stress enough. What I mean is that when you have a creature, a vampire for example, in a game, the mechanics, art, gameplay, and feel of that creature must meet the players expectation of a vampire in some way. Better yet, in every way.

Wizards of the Coast has mastered this aspect of theme over the years with Magic: The Gathering. In the early stages, several of the art for creatures would show a creature with wings, but the card would not have the ability to fly (or vice versa). As much as they tried to point out that the art didn’t matter to the game play, players would constantly play the card incorrectly and complain about the disconnect.

A piece of theme resonates when the component meets the player’s expectations in some way, or surprises them in a pleasant way. Magic: the Gathering, whether doing a top-down design (theme first) or a bottom up design (mechanics first) does a fantastic job making the theme and mechanics resonate.

To illustrate, consider the card Dromoka, the Eternal.
Wizards doesn’t normally have dragons that aren’t red, but this set deals with dragons of all colors. Wizards, in making this card, wanted the card to feel both white and green, to feel like a dragon, to be distinct from a traditional red dragon, and above all to be a great card. If games designers put that much effort on single cards, I would have far less to complain about.

One game that fails miserable at this is Nightfall, a game oozing with theme. The problem is that the monster types rarely matter at all, and the game boils down to colors. You never have to see if someone played a vampire. You only care if they played a card that had a blue or yellow circle on the card. Some of the cards have a bit of mechanical resonance, but overall, the game does not “feel” right to me.

Another way resonance is important is that it can help players learn and teach the game. If I were to tell a new player that vampires can only be played at night, they instantly understand and will likely remember the rule. It makes sense. Creatures with large wings fly. Traveling by plane gets you long distances faster than by car.

Another example has to do with Binoculars as an item in a game. Mechanically, the binoculars could do whatever the designer wanted them to, but if the designer wanted the card to resonate with the players, he or she should consider what the players might expect from binoculars. In one game, the binoculars card helped you evade threats, which seems reasonable as you can see said threat coming sooner. The problem is that this game also had a search mechanic, and in my head, the binoculars should have been tied to that mechanic, and it always felt off to me.

4. The theme must enhance the game play!

This might be the same thing as resonance, but I guess I can’t stress it enough. The theme must enhance the gameplay and never get in the way. Kingsport Festival is a new Lovecraftian themed game, just dripping with theme, but after finally playing the game, the theme just felt flat to me.

In Kingsport Festival, you play a cultist enlisting the help of creatures and gods of the mythos to win the game. Seems reasonable enough, but in the end it boils down to points—cult points. To get said arbitrary cult points, you accumulate cubes that represent evil, death, and destruction, but are just resources. I’m still confused about the theme of these cubes. Do they represent how evil you are? Do they represent how much destruction you can cause? Unclear. And to make this worse, you use these cubes of evil, death, and destruction to move your influence marker into buildings within the city. Am I spreading death and destruction? Not really. I’m not destroying the building. I’m gaining a new ability by being there.

These disconnects don’t really get in the way of the game play, but the game just does not resonate with me. I love Lovcraftian games, but in this one, the theme failed me. I’m a cultist vying against other cultist to be the one with the most cult points. Does that make me the most evil cultist? Or the most successful cultist? Does Cthulhu or Azathoth rise and devour me first for my achievements? Nope. I just win.

Adam Kazimierczak in a thread on Board Game Geek sums it up well: “It’s hard to cubify evil without losing something in translation.”

5. Strapping on a loose theme will not make your game better (though it might make it sell better)

It seems tempting to paste Zombies or Cthulhu onto a game and feel like you have something that will resonate with players. In my case, though, if you do it sloppily, you will get the opposite effect from what you intended.

If your game doesn’t care about theme, I’d consider avoiding a theme that already has excellent games that have done justice to the theme, like what Dead of Winter is for Zombie survival and what Eldrich Horror is for Lovcraftian horror. If your game can’t compete with resonance, get out of the icky green sludge.

Ugly Sweater Contest!

Ugly Sweater Contest!

Just a reminder that you can find games everywhere.

Work ugly sweater contest! I won the “Just Too Pretty” award with a cool $25 prize.


Maybe I’m a little too competitive. Can’t leave a contest/game without a go. Except for BSG.

Gaming Goals for 2015

Gaming Goals for 2015

hanabi_boxI’ve been gaming for a long time now, but I’ve never consciously set goals for gaming. I’ve never really thought about it, probably because I naturally play enough games to meet my internal expectation. But I’ve recently discovered that many people do. By people I mean gamers. By gamers, I mean gamer peeps that set goals for gaming.

What kinds of goals do gamer peeps set you ask? Well, I’ll drum up a list.

• Play 10 games 10 times each (10×10)
• Play a particular game X number of times
• Participate in X number of gaming sessions
• Play X number of games
• Play X number of new games
• Play X number of different games
• Play and Review entire collection
• Play all unplayed games in collection. Don’t buy a new game until accomplished.
• Reduce number of games in collection by X
• Play X number of Spiel des Jahres (or another contest) recommended games (or winners)
• Play all games by a particular designer
• Play all scenarios in a particular game
• Get a certain (or perfect) score in a particular game
• Paint all the figures for a particular game

Gaming Goals or Resolutions can really be about anything. Brent, my fellow podcast host, had the goal of playing 20 games 10 times each. He set this goal so that he can experience the games in more depth. Brent completed his goal at our New Years Eve bash with two quick games of both Splendor and Machi Koro.

The idea of gaming goals was interesting enough to us that we devoted a whole podcast to the topic with should go up this week. We discuss the point of gaming goals, talk about the goals above, and give our individual goals for 2015.

Brent’s 20 x 10 goal was comical for me because Brent is famous for bringing a new game to game night, introducing the game, getting us interested in playing again, and then never bring that game back, instead introducing another new game on this next appearance.

So, I’ve been contemplating what gaming related goals I would set for 2015. Obviously, we want to record, produce, and release at least 52 Meeple Nation podcasts. The idea of personal gaming goals is interesting and also a bit foreign to me. I don’t feel the need to play games a certain number of times. I don’t have a large collection to trim. I tend to get plenty of gaming sessions in, so I don’t think I need to track or force that item.

Different games and new games are both interesting choices. I feel that these will both happen naturally or maybe I just don’t care that much about reaching a certain number. I like the idea of achieving a perfect score in game that gives a score, like Hanabi, which is a nice cooperative game about putting on a firework show.

To hear my other goals and those of Brent and Nathan, check out this week’s podcast.

What about you? What goals are you going to set for the coming year? Also, if you have any suggestions for goals for our podcast or for us as gamers, please leave them in the comments. Thanks, and happy gaming.

Booster Pack Wins!

Booster Pack Wins!

I love trading card games, and I have played many, many different games over the years. The random boosters can be a turn of for some, and it is never fun to open dud packs or boxes, but that feeling of pulling “that card” from a booster pack feels so good. Today, I’m going back down Memory Lane and reminiscing on those moments of pulling “super” cards.

When the Star Wars CCG was in full swing, I was out of the country, living in Germany with limited cash and almost no time to play games, but roommate had played the game as well, so we decided to split a box of the Dagobah expansion. We decided that for the rares, that my roommate would get the Lightside rares and that I would get the Dark side. We pulled the rares without looking at them and stacked them face down in the light and dark piles. Then we flipped them over one at a time. It was going well. He got Yoda and Luke. I got stuff, but I really wanted the Executor. Finally we were at the last card. I was already feeling the disappointment, because what were the odds. We flipped the cards and the beauty of the sideways art stared back up at me. Woot! Much cheering happened.


One day I was at the card store picking up something like card sleeves so I could build another 3 or 4 decks (some of which I probably still have built today {in the same sleeves}, and I didn’t have enough money to buy a ton of packs. Still, I justified buying two packs of the Worldwake expansion to bump up my purchase amount because I was paying with a credit card and using it for $3.00 seemed silly. Well, in the car on the way home, I cracked the packs (which I shouldn’t have done while driving, but still did). No idea what was in the first pack, but waiting for me in the second was a pristine Jace: the Mind Sculptor, which was the chase rare of the set/block/year. I did a little chair dance, probably swerving my car all over the road. Score!


My best card pulled from a Booster is a Magic: the Gathering Unlimited Mox Ruby. Unfortunately, at the time, I did not know what I was opening, and I have no memory of the moment. I was never a tournament player, and the card largely stayed in my binder, but it was the crown of my collection. Unfortunately again, the card was a victim of a little flood in my basement and was damaged. Luckily, the insurance company paid me for the loss. Fortunately, the card still had some value even in its damaged state, and I was able to sell it off.

mox rubyJust recently, my friend, Thomas, and I were playing Pack Wars with boosters from the M15 Magic: the Gathering expansion. Booster Wars are where you blind shuffle land into one or two booster packs (we use two) and play a game. We split a booster box every set, and play booster wars with about half of the packs. In this game, I pulled a Soul of Innistrad, a card I was excited about and started thrashing Thomas with it, but as with all good things, it was destroyed and sat in my graveyard. I was about to use it’s ability, which can be played while it is in the graveyard, when I drew a FOIL Soul of Innistrad from my deck. I raised my fist in the air and proclaimed triumph. I played my second Soul of Innistrad to the table. Thomas had not answer, and on the next turn the second Soul retrieved the first back to my hand. Thomas was out gunned and quickly lost. We were just playing blind packs and he drew nothing useful before he died. Soul of Innistrad isn’t the best of cards or worth a ton, but I like it and loved smashing face with those dudes.

soul of Innistrad

What about you? What are your best pulls?

Skull & Shackles

Skull & Shackles

DamielAfter completing the Rise of the Runelords, our group has moved on to the Skull & Shackles adventure path. I decided to play Damiel, the alchemist from the Character Add-On Deck. He’s the one on the left in the picture above. I chose him because I like the idea of throwing alchemical bombs in a fantasy setting. On ships even.

We are only through two scenarios, but so far it is pretty much the same as the first adventure path. The inclusion of ships doesn’t add that much, so far. Maybe as we progress it will become more integral. I don’t mind playing this game in a group of six players, but I think the game shines with one or two people playing two characters. I’ve played it solo and with my 6-year-old, and the game is much more of a puzzle and adventure than with five ore six players.

We were consistently playing Rise of the Rulelords every week to get it finished, but I think now we’ll pace ourselves a bit with Skull & Shackles. I do think the game can get repetitive, but I still enjoy the time playing, mostly because of the people I play with.

Which brings me to the Pathfinder organized play that Piazo has created for use in store and at other public gatherings. This is a great way for players to enjoy the multiplayer experience without a regular play group. I myself have to be very selective with the time I spend gaming, and will probably not go store to play. There is something about playing with friends that make the experience so much better. Risking a few hours to game with a random group, however fun it may end up, just isn’t something I do often, mainly because of the chance at playing with people that might annoy me. Does that make me a bad gamer?