Scandinavia and the Theme

Today I am preparing the Scandinavia and the World card game files for printing reviewer copies. Looking for spelling errors, instances of “player” that should say “opponent” and other such grist. In doing so I’m re-experiencing how the mechanics and theme interact. It’s particularly important in a game that is based on a webcomic, as it needs to carry the theme of the existing material strongly enough that existing fans recognise and enjoy it, introduce that material to people who have shown up for a game but don’t read the comic and not to let that get in the way of the game itself.

So today we’re going to talk about how mechanics and theme interact in card games, both in this game and in others, to deliver the best possible effect.

So this is what I have to work with for each character card: Their name, flag and gender – which are pretty much set by what is established in the web comic that is the source material for this game. An image of them and some items that they want. The name of their ability and the effect of that ability (including an icon to indicate its type).

There are elements on there that have no mechanical impact and that exist purely to carry the theme – the name and image for instance. It is good for cards to have elements like this to reinforce what the game is about and to try to make the interactions in the game feel more meaningful – but they will fall flat if the game itself doesn’t back them up.

Imagine playing a game in which you played “Summon a horde of dragons to reign fire down on your foes” and the effect of that was to roll a die and on a ‘6’ kill one of their forty pieces – your dragon would feel more Puff than Smaug. A name and image can give a set up that makes someone interested, but the mechanic has to deliver or the overall effect would be worse than if the game had remained abstract.

This leaves the ability itself as my primary area for establishing the loves, hopes, personality, dreams, fears and more of entire countries. Tricky.

Very often, the title of a card or ability is the glue that holds a mechanic and theme together. Here we see a mechanic of “Get an opponent’s creature and use it for a turn” tied to an image of an angry angel striking someone on their knees. The title connects the thematic payload and the mechanical payload. Thematically I am casting a spell to manipulate your follower into an act of treason. Mechanically this creature that was yours a moment ago is now attacking you. The two sync up neatly creating a card that feels “complete” even if a player wouldn’t consciously think about what makes it feel that way.

There is a reason for titles having this kind of impact.

Rules text is necessarily dry, sprinkling the “what to do in the game when this is played” bit with adjectives is a great way to confuse your players and have them asking things like “This card says eviscerate rather than kill, so can I use my ‘prevent a kill’ card on it or not?” Almost by virtue of being rules text it can carry only very limited thematic information.

Pictures are necessarily rich. Even a very simple image can contain a lot of nuance and it’s not clear what matters most. In the image above, what’s important? That the attacker is an angel? That the background is an angry colour? That the person is already on their knees? That the attacker is behind them?

The title tells you what aspect of the image to pay attention to and how the mechanics should be interpreted in terms of “what is actually happening” in the context of the game.

Cards in SatW rely on this principle as well. The ability “Choose two opponents, they each steal a character from the other” is carrying a lot of weight mechanically. If a player is coming second, then the best way to use it is to force the winning and losing players to steal from each other – the losing player will typically steal something better than the winning player does (Since the winning player has better things) which allows the person who played the card to gain some ground on the current winner.

This is also one of the cards in the game that acts as an implicit catch up mechanic. It is very rare for it to be played in such a way that the weaker player in the pair won’t gain more from it than the stronger one – but as it is a bidding game any player can make an effort to win the card and can therefore decide which two players are effective. As such it feels “fair” – a winner who is knocked down a peg by it has less of a “I hate that the game punishes me for doing well” reaction and experiences something more akin to “I made a mistake by not bidding higher for that card”.

Thematically however the “mutual stealing” ability needs to sit with a particular country or character and needs to be tied to that somehow. Brother Turkey felt like the reasonable choice since a full half of the comics that feature him are in some way about Turkish Oil Wrestling. The “Wrestle” ability gives some indication of why a conflict between two people with some give and take has started and related cards (such as the oil) can have extra information to flesh out the thematic interaction for players to discover as they play the game.

On some occasions the mechanic can be the theme all on its own. Consider “Decoy” here – it costs two mana to play and when it’s revealed it’s destroyed and you get two mana back! What a bargain. Right up there with buy one, get one.

The purpose of the card is to allow a player to con an opponent into thinking that the face down card is something meaningful. If the card were not titled “Decoy” and continued to have an image that as far as I can tell has nothing to do with decoys I think that players would still experience the card as “a decoy”.

Assisting here is the physicality of the thing. When this card is played it is physically placed somewhere on the board (or on another card). There is no greater way to carry the idea of “This thing is here. You should pay attention to it.” than to physically place the thing on what is essentially the display that tells you what is going on in the game.

I’ve written before about divisive cards and how the inclusion of something like this will be optional so that players that love this sort of thing can enjoy it without ruining the game for people who hate this sort of mechanic with the burning passion of a thousand suns.

However, whether you like it or not, there is an emotional impact to a card that has a physical delivery as this one does. A country posturing with their air force is a theme that has some weight – perhaps more so in the current political environment than when I first wrote the card – but the act of physically dropping the thing onto your targets yourself lets the mechanic carry more thematic weight then comparable abilities without that sort of physicality.

I’ve deliberately picked quite extreme examples here, but this idea is really more of a continuum. Activities like drawing or discarding a card may not feel like they apply in the same way, but they are physical acts. A game could create a divide between sacrificing one of your own things and having it destroyed by an opponent simply by shifting whose job it is to physically put the card in the discard pile (If other ergonomic issues of the game didn’t interfere) – A “physicality carries theme” approach is possible without needing people to throw cards at each other.

Another way to have a mechanic carry a theme is through consistent usage. The Javelin offers +1 in battles against animals. So does the spear. And the legendary black spear. Basically if it’s long and pointy you get +1 against animals.

The strong point of this approach is that once you’ve established a pattern it locks in your theme and it makes it possible to reverse it. This allows you to use “+1 against animals” to carry the notion “spear” which saves you the space of writing it explicitly and frees up that useful useful title for something other than describing the object’s physical form.

It also makes the thematic choice feel stronger than it is. When every spear behaves the same way then “Spear” starts to feel like a meaningful class of thing – because the mechanics are treating it this way. The mechanic can’t be at odds with what the thing is, but even if it’s not that strongly connected it’ll start to feel like it is as people play the game and the pattern becomes established.

In short, if you want your spears to feel “speary” include a few in the game and make them all do the same thing, what that thing is does not particularly matter.

There are six abilities on Scandinavia and the World characters that allow you to steal another player’s character:

Shared Pleasures (Sister Sweden) Sexy but not Vulgar (King Europe) Classic Seduction (Sister France) Naive Lover (Sister Iceland) Seductive Vampire (Count Romania) and Misunderstood Artist (Brother France).

The astute reader should notice a commonality in theme between these abilities that explains how it is that a character who was previously loyal to your opponent is now more impressed with you. Brother France is the odd one out, but this should have implications for how exactly he is behaving as an artist.

A seventh card allows you to nominate a character to be stolen by a third party – Seating Plan (Brother Sweden) – which is again is a nod to the ulterior motives that sometimes drive his seating plans.

Now this post has focused on cards going into the game, as I happen to be in the process of arranging them they’re particularly salient to me today. However we learn as much from our failure as our successes so it’s worth a quick look at some of the attempts to harness mechanics to carry theme that didn’t make it out of playtesting.

Sister Germany previously had a “You Dare?” power which responded to any loss by making an opponent lose the same amount. The theme this is trying to carry is that she doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone (though again, I hear that it is a trying time to a prominent female German politician). The problem was that once people had the card they would do things like using cards that obliged them to pay opponents and then destroy the payment as cards they had lost. This made her more about “not paying debts” than “not putting up with this shit” and undermined the theme. It is important to consider the interactions between your thematic abilities, not just their impact in isolation.

Christiana previously held a “The Good Stuff” power, which resulted in shuffling some cards together and giving them to players at random. This was supposed to establish a pattern of “Drugs cause randomisation” similar to “Spears kill animals” but one by one the randomisation cards were deleted as playtesters didn’t enjoy them and soon it stood alone and made little sense. It doesn’t matter if something lands the theme if it’s not fun as a mechanic – obvious really – but it’s easy to fail to see the wood for the trees when you’re close to a design.

King Europe used to have an “Aggressive Recruitment” power in which he stole a character from the poorest opponent. This was supposed to be in line with the comics about him trying to recruit Norway into the EU but failing due to oil making Norway independently wealthy. However because “steal a character” was already being used elsewhere in the design and it couldn’t pull double duty without weakening the both abilities. Fortunately King Europe has already been shown to resort to alternate tactics. The takeaway is to try to keep things clean. Well, not clean clean, but consistent.

So there you have it! Three techniques for making card games carry their theme and three ways to make that fail by undermining yourself. I’m looking forwards to announcing the SatW launch soon, though as it’s a lighter game I’m not sure how many people that read lengthy blog posts on design theory will enjoy it, but please let people who might be interested know.

The game aside I hope it was helpful to dive into this exploration of mechanics and theme. It’s nice to talk about ideas, though this is a huge huge area and there are easily another dozen posts in it to write sometime. Happy gaming and look out for animals.

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