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The importance of flavor and theme

Games have always been about more than just their mechanics or their narrative for lack of a better term. A game is the culmination of both of these broad elements. Even chess has a narrative structure to it on some level, but for various reasons that narrative has been removed over time. While in non videogames the mechanics are far more important than the theme or the flavor, the narrative is still important. And games that are made today don’t have the same luxury of being chess. There’s a lot more competition and a lot more people with differing tastes. (Note I will be referring to flavor and theme collectively as the game’s narrative)

On one hand you have a game such as Dominion, where the narrative is that your parents have died and you, unlike them, are actually going to build up your kingdom/realm/fiefdom.  The flavor is really easy to forget and this doesn’t really change with the expansions. While there is a certain theme to each set, the unifying factor tends to be the mechanic, such as Intrigue being about choices.  On one hand, Dominion is a really well built game; on the other hand, some people dislike Dominion because it’s just the mechanics.  Depending on what type of gamer you are, that last sentences has just made you roll your eyes, or say of course, or something in between. The thing is there’s noting wrong with that, gaming is an incredibly diverse field that makes both happy.

While Dominion has very little flavor, it still has a flavor. A Village is a Village and not 3 cost action card no. 2. for instance and this matters. It gives players a way to play the game with ease by clearly and concisely defining every card.  There is still a narrative present and some cards are rather flavorful, City from Prosperity comes to mind, it grows as the game goes on as things build up. However the general rule of thumb for Dominion is that the narrative exists so that players have something to work with when they’re actually playing the game and not just design designations.

One more point about Dominion, the deck building genre that it spawned does have more flavorful games. So it isn’t something that is restricted by genre.

Conversely, there’s a game like Mansions of Madness where the flavor is rather strong, or at least can be strong for a certain type of player. The mechanics are a decent base surrounded by crud. For someone who wants a flavorful game experience then MoM fits, for someone who wants a well balanced game, then they should try something else.

These two extremes don’t represent the only options with gaming however. Take Twilight Struggle for example, it’s steeped in the history of the Cold War and playing it out can be fun. On the other hand, you can not know anything about history and still enjoy it because it’s a good game.  Ignoring the difference of genres between the two games for a moment, the player who can’t get into Dominion will have no problem getting into Twilight Struggle.

So this all raises the fairly valid point, so what? Well a narrative is important in both designing a game and marketing a game. In design it gives you direction and constraint. In marketing it allows you to appeal to a wider audience.

Admittedly part of this is purely speculation on my part, but it’s also important speculation. As I’ve seriously begun the process of creating my own game, in designing everything from the the names to the effects, a certain narrative begins to build. Forging it into a cohesive narrative can only improve a game, not hinder it.  But there may be elements to this that I’m missing for some reason or another; whether it’s a lack of experience or just not thinking of something. Regardless a game needs a narrative, and there’s no reason why that narrative has to be bad.

Until next time this is a horrible pondering on good people saying horrible things.

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