The idea of thematic game design – games where the mechanics directly support the aesthetic in a way beyond telling a fixed story – has taken a much stronger hold in the design space of board and card games than in video games. A board game, with a few exceptions, is designed as a repeatable and variable experience; games which tell a fixed story such as Gears of War exist within the border between role-playing and traditional board games and tend to have certain design constraints which limit variation between iterations. For example, many dungeon-crawl type games which do focus on telling a story have a dungeon-master figure or shared “admin” role – Descent has the “Overlord” player read event text from a book and place figures according to a map (the most extreme role-playing side of the divide) while Gears of War keeps the narrative event text but has figure placement determined randomly.
All the examples provided so far, however, are games from one subset of board-games, where there is the most natural narrative aspect. A dungeon-crawl game is based, generally, on the combat engine of a role-playing game and so providing a written motivation for the game to take place is important. In a more abstracted or competitive game, where there is less of a unity between action and thematic effect and players play for their own gain, there is less of a story. A narrative may emerge as a competitive game progresses but it is a narrative of the play process rather than one created by the game (A’s business empire out-earned B’s because they bought one resource over another and so A won the game). What replaces the story is a theme to make the actions meaningful and unify the piece design. For example, consider two worker-placement games, Lords of Waterdeep and Manhattan Project. Both have almost identical mechanics – the players select actions from a diminishing pool of options until they have assigned all their pieces each turn. However, thematically they are very different – the former positions the players as the council of a fantasy-world city hiring mercenaries and wizards to solve problems, while the latter has the players as world leaders trying to win the nuclear arms race by amassing the largest stockpile of atomic bombs.
Yet despite this, neither game really tells a story or has a memorable narrative element; the components are themed in design terms but generic in implementation and integration. Manhattan Project is a strong visual pastiche of early Cold War propaganda, with retro-futurist fonts, newspaper-headline action boxes and player boards set up like draughtsmans’ desks – yet there is nothing really in the mechanics to make it feel like a game of political back-and-forth and the fate of the world. One is moving around pieces of different suits and collecting cubes to cash in for victory point cards in exactly the same fundamental method as Lords of Waterdeep – in the former game, two yellow cubes become a Plutonium Point to be converted into a Hydrogen Bomb card, while in the latter four orange cubes become a completed Quest to slay a dragon. Both games also have a building mechanic, whereby new action-spaces are added to the board which are more efficient than the stock ones. Again, the difference is only aesthetic – a Wizard’s Keep might turn one action into two purple cubes and a white cube in exactly the same way as a University might turn one Labourer into two Scientists. The strength of such games, and their design emphasis, is in the mechanics, not their capacity to tell stories.
Where a mechanically-focused game can, however, come into its own in a narrative sense is within the design space of collectible card games. The collectible competitive card game, popularised arguably by Magic the Gathering, has almost limitless mechanical variety and the capacity for combinations of cards to become crucial. Take for example this simple card combination from Magic:
The three cards Urza’s Tower, Urza’s Power Plant and Urza’s Mine are individually basic resource-cards, providing one mana. When combined together they each increase in value – a simple mechanical combination which reflects thematically combining the efforts of three aspects of an industrial complex. It is not a complex narrative device but it is a strong one – one where the mechanics are more narrativist than in, say, the worker-placement games mentioned above. This is largely due to how Magic names its cards; its mechanics have thematic names and rules which develop those. The Urza‘s cards are “Land” cards, representing locations, and so it is logical that three thematically linked locations would benefit each other. Each turn, a player may use the facilities they have built to deploy more spells and creatures. On its own this is not significantly distant from, say, Manhattan Project‘s “espionage” action in thematic terms; that allows a player to deploy a “spy” on the appropriate action-space and then activate an opponent’s building. Where Magic stands out, however, is in its extension of the theme beyond one kind of action or card – there are Urza’s Artifacts, Creatures and other spells, creating a kind of sub-suit within the game that implies a story behind the generic theme of a wizard’s battle that an individual game represents.
To see this taken in a different direction, consider Android Netrunner. There, there is a very focused marriage of card mechanical design, card art and card flavour that is at times more subtle than simply “match three Urza lands to gain bonus mana.” That kind of combination does exist in that some cards work together and share art elements or flavour elements (for example the Identity card Chaos Theory references the Console card Dinosaurus and decks using one often feature the other), or a natural synergy exists (as with the upcoming chess-themed programs, new Identity The Red Queen and the chess computer Console Deep Red) but the creation of a narrative around the design extends throughout the different factions. For example, although it is not specifically mentioned, the character on the card Scorched Earth recurs on a card specifically representing her as a character – Elizabeth Mills. Chaos Theory turns up on Test Run and possibly Quality Time – cards with natural synergies together, but which are not specifically identified as such on the card-text.
Perhaps the most interesting example, though, is this combination of cards from the upcoming expansion pack Creation and Control. On the surface, they appear to have no narrative interaction; there is not the art link, or any kind of flavour-text link. Yet their narrative link – or role in the creation of a thematic narrative out of game events – appears when the interaction between them is considered. Successful Demonstration thematically represents the corporation that the player represents turning a rebuffed cyber-attack into a PR opportunity to show off its network security. Thomas Haas represents a beneficiary of corporate nepotism given free reign. In game terms, though, the cards form an interesting combination. Thomas Haas can be stocked up with advancement counters on the corporation turn, and sacrificed in response to the runner attacking his location to turn those counters into money. This then leaves the runner attacking an empty location, and so their attack is unsuccessful. Since an unsuccessful attack has occurred, Successful Demonstration may be played on the subsequent corporation turn. Thus the card interaction’s thematic link appears – a favoured son is given a low-risk department to manage, and when it is attacked it is rapidly shut down to minimise damage and the corporation can turn it into a PR coup. In a neat rules interaction between two apparently unrelated cards, a miniature thematic narrative arguably stronger than simply matching Urza lands emerges via the card names. This is a major appeal of Netrunner – it is a game where the mechanics are well-reflected in card design and themes, and synergies are presented in narrativist terms via stories told across sets of cards.