I did quite a bit of frantic work on a design for Minion Games this week. The only problem? My game does not have quite enough theme. This isn't the first time I've encountered this comment. As I was showing off two prototypes for Jay of Rio Grande, he also thought my games were just not getting the theme right. What? My games have tons of theme! Don't they? I was confused.
Then I had an epiphany while discussing the MG game with my buddy, Michael, at Thirdfloorgamers. He also had mentioned that the theme needed work. So I asked, "How big a part of a game is the theme?" He told me that in his club (middle school group), he found some people who are Math Players--they don't really care about the theme at all. Space, Vikings, Ninjas, whatever. Just show me the numbers and let me figure out how to min/max this game and win.
On the other side of the spectrum, he notices the Theme Player. These guys (and girls) really care about the theme. If the theme isn't happening, the game isn't going to be played. I don't want to just move little bits around on the board, I want to be the Governor (or Captain, or Spider Monkey, etc.). And then you have lots of people at various points in between. Most people like good mechanics and a nice theme.
During this discussion, it became very obvious to me that I am very close to the Math Player side of the scale. It also became apparent that Michael is very close to the Theme Player side. This was a real chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment for me (apologies to those not alive in the 80s). Suddenly, I understood why I missed what Jay was telling me. He started our session by saying, "What are we doing?" That's a textbook Theme Player statement. Jay is a Theme Player. No wonder we had trouble communicating! I've also had trouble understanding Michael's helpful comments at times. Now I know why!
This also explains why space-themed games sometimes struggle--people just can't get into the theme as easily. Unless you're doing something in the Star Wars universe, you don't really know what you're doing.
This time, I decided to listen like a Theme Player. Michael had come up with several amazing ways to add theme to the game while making excellent use of the mechanics. James from Minion Games has been generating new ideas at Protospiel all weekend (even playing the game with Randy from SJG!), so I don't know if everything will make it into the final version, but I feel much better about the theme now.
In closing here are some good Theme Player questions to ask: What are we doing? If I am X, what would I expect to be doing even before I see the game? If I am X, what else should I be able to do or need to worry about in this game? What happens in this game that just doesn't make sense if I am X?
And here are some good Math Player questions: Is this game balanced? What is each resource worth? What is each move in the game worth? Is there an interesting dilemma? These all look absurdly obvious to me because I am hard-wired to think like this automatically. So which kind of player are you?