There is often a discussion of theme-versus-mechanics among board game designers. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I wanted to get a Q&A with A.J. Porfirio, of Van Ryder Games, about this topic. So, here it is.
Matt: Howdy, AJ, great to chat with you on this topic. Of all of my game designer/publisher friends, you are the one that specifically mentions looking for and loving “thematic games” … can you give me your definition of what you mean by that term?
AJ: Thanks Matt! I’m honored that you think of me in that respect as it is basically the mission statement of my publishing company, Van Ryder Games, to publish great, highly thematic games. Locking down a definition for exactly what the term “thematic games” means would be difficult, but here is what I would say … … if after the game, the player or players are recapping the events of the game in a sort of narrative fashion then I believe you have successfully made a thematic game. If the conversation is more about points and specific mechanisms, the theme is probably not very strong.
Matt: Your first game — If I’m Going Down — is a zombie killer, and very rich on theme in both story and art. But yet you promote it as having some unique mechanical features, calling it a “dying card game” (as opposed to a Living Card Game), etc. Do you think that when you work a common theme, like zombies, it’s important to have something new to offer mechanically?
AJ: Haha! Well that didn’t take long … poking the bear right away I see! Ok I am supposed to complain about how saturated the Zombie theme is right? Or maybe I am supposed to defend it? Look, there is a reason why Zombie games are popular. It is an interesting theme! Dead of Winter is set to release any day now and seems to be an extremely popular title already. Do I think you have to offer something new mechanically? No, actually. But I do think you need to bring a new EXPERIENCE. For example, if someone made a Zombie game with the exact mechanics of Tales of the Arabian nights I would be ALL OVER IT!
Matt: Man, if you were to complain about there being too many zombie games, I’d fly down to check your temp and make sure you were alright! It would be like me thinking there were too many space games or games about castles and cannons — not gonna happen. Instead, I’m glad you focused on the combination of a theme with its mechanics and how the experience is the important part. How deep into a theme do you feel a game needs to lean with its mechanics? Does it help for it to be more of a simulation than an abstracted set of mechanics? Or is this one of those “it depends” type answers?
AJ: Yeah it definitely depends. I think this comes down to designer preference and player preference.I think you can paralyze yourself as a designer if you try to make every single mechanic 100% thematic. I don’t think any game has ever perfectly meshed everything. What I don’t like is when a game clearly selling itself as a Thematic experience and has mechanics that don’t make any sense whatsoever or specifically fly in the face of what is intuitive. The example I like to use here is Zombicide. In that game if you shoot a ranged weapon at Zombies on another tile and there is a player character there as well you are forced to shoot and kill the player before you can hit any Zombies. That might be the dumbest most anti-thematic rule I have ever seen and it ruined the game for me. I have no interest in playing it ever again. Do I have any hope of surviving the hordes if I don’t even know how to aim my weapon? Again that is just my preference and obviously that game is immensely popular, so clearly there are folks that are ok with that sort of anti-thematic mechanic.
Matt: Your second game — Tessen — has a cool theme, but could really have been built using any number of themes. What caught your eye with that game, and how does it fit into your search for thematic games?
AJ: You are absolutely right. Most people don’t know, but we (the designers and I) explored many retheme possibilities for the game. It was important to me to at least consider what might be the best theme for the game. Ultimately, we stuck with the original feudal japan theme but really amped up the backstory and thematic reasons for the actions that happen during the game. Per my “definition” above I think we have succeeded because after the game you hear “If I would only have saved that set of foxes!” as opposed to “If only I would have scored 3 more points!”
Matt: Well, when I go back over a game I just finished against my teenage daughter, I generally am recounting the story about how my old-man hands couldn’t pick the card up off the table when I needed it to! She grins a lot when we play Tessen. So, can I take it to mean that a designer of a game that is simply fun to play could still get your attention even if it doesn’t have a tight theme yet? Is that something you would drive during the development phase?
AJ: Anything is possible, though I would say it is unlikely. With Tessen I felt there was enough there to make it a thematic experience and it was such a fun game. I honestly would like a designer to at least pitch a theme, but for the right game I’d be willing to look into putting a lot of design work in on the theme.
Matt: Your current kickstarter — Hostage Negotiator (kickstarter link) — is back to being a very immersive theme that drives the mechanics used. What made you think of making a game about negotiating a hostage standoff?
AJ: I was thinking of new ideas with the basic question of “What is a dramatic situation that would be interesting to put a player into?” Hostage Negotiations stuck out for me so I began researching. Man what a cool thing it would be to play out the conversation between a negotiator and a hostage taker. That would be so intense!
Matt: The game feels to me like an action movie. I see a guy in sunglasses stepping out of a tinted-window car and walking over to the police comm van, steps inside and says “I got this.” Lots of attitude and tension. I’m guessing that was your intention from the start, but when did you first know that the game was giving that vibe?
AJ: When playtesters started giving accounts of their games in those terms as opposed to reciting game metrics. Something like, “Man that was an Epic win! I gave him what he wanted sending his escape helicopter to the roof, but when he went for it my sniper took him out! What a finish!”
Matt: Do you have advice or recommendations for other designers on choosing rare or unusual themes?
AJ: Honestly, my advice would be to be careful and don’t let the need to have a unique theme cripple your design process. There seems to be a bit of a culture in the design community that you HAVE to have a unique theme and it simply isn’t the case. There are tons of great games that fit into widely used themes. Everything depends on the design goals of the designer and how important theme is to them. If I were to answer that for designers interested in publishing a game for VRG, I would say this … “Would you watch a movie about that?” If the answer is “yes” then it just might be a good fit for us. If the answer is “Hmmm transporting goods from place to place to sell them for a profit… no I guess that wouldn’t be a good movie.” Probably not for VRG.
I want to be clear that I do really enjoy some less than thematic games, since I am probably coming across as anti-euro or anti-dry strategy game. While I certainly prefer thematic games and that is the publishing strategy of my company, I enjoy a good Euro as well and have absolutely nothing against them or mechanics first designers and games. The great thing about our hobby is there is room for all sorts of greatness!
Matt: And I’ll vouch that I specifically had you on to talk theme-first design, but know that you can rock a Euro when it’s on the table. I remember barely beating you at a game about camels at GenCon last year. Can you list a few Euro-style titles that you really like and why they click with you?
AJ: Ah, Yspahan, yeah I went home and later acquired that game. I really like it! Others at the top of my list are Fresco, Bruges, Agricola, and Suburbia. Something about the stress of Agricola that turns a lot of people off actually I find quite enjoyable. Fresco is simply a masterpiece and I am always 100% engaged when playing it. Bruges is Feld’s best game by far and the card play is what separates it in my opinion. And Suburbia is just a fun engine building game that I think has nice mechanics and a good thematic integration. – Although look out for the Castles of Mad King Ludwig (I demoed this at Origins) which I think is an improvement over Suburbia in both regards.
Matt: Have you ever started a design of your own strictly on a cool mechanic that you wanted to build a game around? Or has it always been theme-first for you?
AJ: A long time ago in the early days when I was cutting my teeth as a designer, I essentially designed two theme-less games. One was called Organized Chaos and one was called Componegotiate. Neither were great games, but the lessons learned during that time were very valueable.
Matt: Did the lessons learned help you better define the type of games you wanted to publish at VRG?
AJ: I think I always knew what I wanted to do with VRG – the inital goal being to publish IIGD. What I learned was how to make a prototype, how to and how much playtesting is required, how to take feedback and make a better game, just to name a few.
Matt: When you attend an event as a publisher — protospiel/Unpub type, or a con where designers are showing off prototypes — what is it you look for? What are the types of questions you generally ask the designer to gauge if it might be something to consider as a future Van Ryder game?
AJ: To be honest with you, if I get past that first initial sales pitch and the game sounds interesting, what I focus on most is the person (or people). I always tell my designers that I am publishing YOU as much or moreso than the game. I believe that great people do great things and I am looking for people that will be great to work with, can take criticism without getting emotional, but most of all are passionate about their game and are willing to do whatever it takes to be the best that it can be.
As far as questions, I will ask game questions of course, but also ask questions to get a feel for the intangibles mentioned above. The best advice I could give to designers seeking publication is when pitching your game, don’t forget to sell the publisher on YOU!
Matt: I know your last few months have been taken up gearing up for Hostage Negotiator, and the next few will be taken up with the normal business and logistics that follow a successful KS campaign … so after that clears, what’s on tap for Van Ryder Games? Will you be at any cons or other events in the near future?
AJ: Yes, it has been a very busy time, and the post KS work is even more hectic. When the dust settles, we’ll move on to putting a full court press on Salvation Road which I discovered this year at Unpub. It is a really great cooperative game set in a post apocalyptic wasteland. A band of survivors living on dwindling resources, and in constant fear of marauder attacks, hears about a town called Salvation that is a safe haven from the danger. They set their sights on making the trip, but need to gather gasoline, food, ammo, and med kits to make the dangerous journey.
As far as cons go, I went to Origins. Gencon is a glimmer of hope that is quickly diminishing, but we’ll see. It is difficult to go to multiple conventions having three small children.
Matt: Salvation Road sounds cool, and I’ll watch for it on the dystopian horizon. And I certainly know what it’s like to work the game stuff around an already full work and family life. But, I will tell you that a lot of folks are happy that you have VRG and are using it to bring unique theme-rich games to the market. Thanks again for taking the time during the middle of a Kickstarter campaign to answer these questions for me. It’s certainly been educational for me, and I hope other designers get a benefit from it as well. Anything else you want to make sure gets mentioned?
AJ: Only to thank you for all your support through the years. You’ve been one of my earliest and best designer friends in the industry and an inspiration from the moment I learned that Jump Gate won the Games Magazine game of the year! I’m always excited to see what Matt Worden will come up with next!
Matt: Awwww! Thanks, dude! *chest bump* *bro-hug*