Theme and illustration are both very important for building engagement with your game. They can often be the first thing that attracts a player to your game. Before a player reads your rules or sees a play through, they see the box cover, the board, the cards. They have already started to form opinions. This can be a crucial step in making an elegant game.
Theme and illustration are where you first create players’ expectations. If the gameplay matches those expectations they will reinforce each other and make the game flow more easily and feel more thematic. If the gameplay is at odds with those expectations it can be confusing. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
If a player is enticed by a box that gives the impression of an epic, 3 hour, space empire, battle, but the game is a 30 minute, push your luck, card game, they will be disappointed and looking for more. Even if they end up liking the game, it can slow down learning of the mechanisms if they are always expecting more.
If a mismatch of theme and illustration with gameplay is large enough, it can contribute to negative reviews of your game because you didn’t attract the right audience.
If engaged in a game, players pay more attention and learn more easily. If elements of the theme or illustration do not fit with the rest of the game or are offensive, it can be distracting and disengage players.
Diversity of characters in a game can increase player engagement. If a player has characters in a game that are more representative of themselves, they can more easily become part of the game instead of just observing the game.
Theme as Heuristics
Heuristics are rules of thumb to help you know how to do something. Players will learn heuristics for your game as they play, or adapt heuristics they already know from similar games. This can factor into what I said in part two about not fighting the players. If players come into your deck building game with an established heuristic of how to play a deck building game, going against that can make teaching the game more difficult.
People use heuristics for all sorts of different things outside of games. Your theme is a way to bring heuristics from other aspects of life into your game. Done correctly, you can simplify teaching some mechanisms because the players already know how that works. If the goal of your game is to harvest crops and one of the game resources is seeds players already know they need to plant those seeds to grow crops so they can harvest them.
These heuristics can also work against you if you don’t design around them. If the seeds in your game having nothing to do with growing the crops, your players will constantly have to correct their already established heuristic.
Illustration Should Be Functional
Illustration can be used to reinforce information from graphic design. Or, in some cases, make additional graphics unnecessary. Illustrations can also be a helpful way for players to quickly differentiate components. If your game has a unique illustration on each card, once players have learned the cards, they can quickly see that illustration and know what card it is. This is especially good if the illustration is representative of the card’s ability.
If different cards have identical or similar illustrations, they can be easily confused. Or, if the illustration is not representative of the card’s ability players can easily mistake the card’s ability.
What are some games that you feel use theme or illustration to increase their elegance? What are some ways you have increased the elegance of a design with theme or illustration? What are some examples of theme or illustration making a game less elegant?
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I’d like to thank Phoebos Stergiou from Hercules Game Studios, Odin Phong, C.M. Perry, and Rick Lorenzon for their feedback on this article.