Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Best Theme is a Boring Theme: Xenon Profiteer and Uwe Rosenburg's Patchwork

The Compelling Truth, as told by T.C. Petty III

Recently the  designer of  just-released Xenon Profiteer offered up an in-depth Designer Diary on the nature of his creative process. What struck a chord with me was his analysis of the role of theme in games, and how many of the most interesting games actually had pretty dull themes.

T.C. Petty III wrote:
There's something deeply humorous (absurdist? dadaist?) about creating a game that transforms an activity that sounds absolutely un-fun into a deeply rewarding experience, and it's apparent that I'm not the only one that agrees. Some of the most popular games on this site have the most boring titles, cover art, and themes that the world has ever known, but against all odds, and with intense focus on the fundamentals that make gameplay truly engaging, they pull even the most skeptical board gamer deep into their worlds of abstract grids and crop farming and transitioning from canals to railroads. Seriously, Brass is a game about the transition from canal systems to railroads. Riveting. How is this not considered ridiculous? How is it not considered art?

This insight struck me hard, and I saw the incredible truth. I have felt this way myself, instinctively, for plenty of time during my gaming life. But it took Petty’s words to put all those theme yearnings together under one umbrella that made sense:
The most rewarding games often have the most boring titles, cover art and themes. 
Yet I want to play them, and then I enjoy them, and then I want to get more. Badly.

Time to Lay Some Pipe

And its not just me. One of the most popular games in my household...with the wife, with the kids, with my friends, is Galaxy Trucker. You might initially argue at the boring theme:
“What do you mean, boring? This game is about space, and spaceships. You fly around in space and get hit by asteroids and fight space pirates.
But, I would argue, the flying in space of Galaxy Trucker is actually the uninteresting part of the game. It’s essentially a super-long scoring phase, when the construction of your ship is “judged” against a revolving menagerie of variables. From cargo delivery, to exploration, to combat to the aforementioned asteroid collisions.

Where does all the fun come from in Galaxy Trucker?

The fun part is welding pieces of pipe together. The quick thinking involved in locating just the right piece. The rush of finding a spot it connects with. The balancing of different types of components to ensure your ship can reach the destination. The delight when your opponent fails to find a legal position for his chosen tile. It doesn’t really look or feel like a spaceship. I’m really pretty sure this is not how anyone actually builds spaceships. It could be anything. A bridge or a skyscraper or a sewer line. The fun would be the same.

It’s Time to Talk about my NEW second-favorite Uwe Rosenberg game

If you want to talk about how a boring theme allows you to build up elegant unconstrained mechanics, the best example I’ve seen yet is Patchwork, by famed board game sadist Uwe Rosenberg. Unlike most of his games, there’s no starving children or tortured mutant farmers. Instead each person is weaving together a delightful patchwork quilt.

Of course, its competitive patchwork weaving, so each player is drawing patches from a shared pool, paying some nefarious entity for the patches in the form of bright, blue buttons. Actually, now that I think about it more, this game might be about mutants, too. That makes a lot of sense. The theme, however, is definitely boring quilting.

Much like Galaxy Trucker, no one is going to look at Patchwork and say “oh, this is a perfect simulation of craft quilting.” No, instead the theme is used to surround some exciting mechanics, namely weighing the “value” of different pieces based on their shape, cost and ability to generate more buttons when another income phase comes around.

See I think these are mutants or goblins of some sort. Probably living in someone’s attic, I’m guessing. Play the game yourself and give me your theories.

I want to know where the buttons come from.

The Shape of Things to Come

Before playing Patchwork, I had heard it described as Tetris-like. I would agree on this. Certainly, you are paying buttons for specific pieces to fit better into your quilt design. Because you want your quilt to be complete, without any holes or ragged spots. Because here is the final “I Have No Mouth, But I must Scream” moment Uwe Rosenberg is known for:

At the end of the game, you have to pay this button freak back his buttons, 2 for every missing spot in your quilt. Which means if you don’t play this game right you might actually end up with less buttons than you started with, or even a negative number of buttons. And that’s how this guy gets more buttons, apparently by enslaving mutants in these predatory quilting expositions. No one’s going to buy a quilt with a ragged corner!

And ragged is how they all come out, guaranteed. The natural timer built into the game ensures it.

This Game Had Me in Stitches

The mutants, the button tax, everything is laid out in very abstract, bland terms. But in that vacuum, I was able to take the components I was given and tell an incredible story. How else would you use such an impressive Tetris tile-laying mechanic. You either use patches on a quilt, or you make a game literally about Tetris. Or maybe make it about snake stacking. Fun for you, but not so fun for the snakes!

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