Wednesday, March 7

Re-theming It's Alive!

I've been monitoring the comments on Yehuda's blog, the Board Game News story and obviously in the emails I've received.

Lots of people have been discussing the change in theme between Yehuda's prototype: The Menorah Game and It's Alive! So I thought I'd post here to give a little more background into my thought processes, rationale and whether or not I still think it was the right choice.

My Experience

Border Reivers is themed around the chaos and conflict on the Scottish Borders during medieval times. It's a pasted on theme, I invented the game way before I thought of the theme, but I thought the theme fit the gameplay pretty well. A lot of my Border Reivers customers have bought the game because they live in the Borders region, are from the Borders region or have a Scottish or Northern English heritage. In that sense the theme is good as it attracts people to the game. Still as a proportion of British people, those who live in the Scottish Borders are a small percentage, and as a fraction of a world-wide audience it becomes vanishingly small.

Why Re-theme?

First of all: I liked the Menorah theme. It's unusual, there aren't that many religous games in the mainstream and very few of those are Jewish - an unusual theme gets extra points in my book.

However, theme serves a purpose when you are publishing (as opposed to playing) a game. The theme of a game is the hook that attracts people to find out more, play the game or buy the game. What a publisher wants from a theme is something that will attract as many potential customers to a game as possible, while putting off as few customers as possible. Not every game has a theme - abstract games like Go and Chess make do without, but most modern games do. Once the customer has been attracted the game will live or die depending upon it's quality - so a good theme won't save a crap game, and a game that has an unpopular theme (or none at all) can become popular just by being a good game.

As I've mentioned before the majority of my customers are in the UK, which is a largely secular country with a small proportion of Jews. While the Menorah theme will appeal to non-religious people and non-Jews I felt a different theme might appeal to more British gamers. There's the crux of it - I wanted to appeal to as many British gamers as possible.

What Theme?

So the next question is obviously what theme do I choose? Here I was aided by my friend Dave who suggested during our first play of The Menorah Game that you needed something to cry out when you complete your set of candles - we used 'Menorah'.

That started the gears whirring in my head. The next step was to work out who I sell to. At the moment most of my sales are to fellow geeks over the internet - most sales of Border Reivers have come from BoardGameGeek. I also get a decent chunk from friends and family (who tend to buy because I made/published the game regardless of theme) and from playing the game at conventions. Most of my customer base is male, mid-twenties to mid-fifties at a guess and I'm guessing here: has a broadly similar set of interests to me: games, comics, sci-fi, computers and general geekiness.

I wanted a theme where you were collecting eight different items, the different coloured candles in Yehuda's prototype had the potential to ruin the game for colour-blind players - I wanted something that was clearly distinguishable even if you see in shades of grey. My brother and two of my gamer friends are colour-blind so it is always in the front of my mind when designing games. In addition, it needed the concept of a wild card (gold candle/coffin) and a thief (soldier/villagers' uprising).

I don't remember when I first thought of the creating a monster theme, but I instantly loved it, I thought it would fit well with the people I think my customers are, and the people I suggested it to thought it was great. The biggest problem by far was going to be getting Yehuda to agree to it. I'd taken his nice, stately religious game and turned it into a macabre game of grave-robbery and body-part trading. Gulp. They are poles apart as several people have noted in various forums since the game was announced. Fortunately, Yehuda was prepared for me to change the theme and was ok (not delighted!) with the theme I had suggested. I think he'd been hoping for something more urbane, but there you go.


So far there's been a range of feedback. AndyB regretted the loss of the religious theme. Several people commented that the themes were wildly different (no argument there), and I'm assuming a mild disapproval in their cases but I may be wrong. Several people have definitely approved though, saying it will be easier to get others to play the new theme.

Overall, I still think I've made a good choice. Is it the best possible choice? I doubt it. But I'm new to games publishing, and if my theme is good enough for me to sell out I'll be happy.

Interestingly Mike Doyle has recently posted on theme, and while I've obviously pasted this theme on a game that has (according to Yehuda) had many different themes, I like to think that I've tried to fit the new theme to the game with some success.

What are your thoughts on the new theme? Why not rate me on Mike's scale?


Ozvortex said...

If you want the game to appeal to a wider range of gamers and therefore more likely to be a commercial success then I believe you have made the right choice in re-theming the game.

Phil said...

I think the new theme is excellent. Apart from my personal love of monster movies, I hink what you have chosen sounds like it suits the gameplay extremely well.

If it is a set collection type of game, the best theme will be one the gives the impression to the player that they are 'building' something. And surely, 'building' a person out of body parts fits the bill in a very fun and visceral way!

I am not sure if part of the traditional use of menorahs involves actually piecing them together, but regardless, I do think the original theme was interesting and unique, and I hope Yehuda revisits it sometime.

Jack said...

Thanks for the feedback guys (and welcome ozvortex!). I hope I've made the right decision, but I'll not really know until a year or two down the line.

Yehuda has pointed out to me that my choice of theme could well be right for the market I'm targetting, but not good for the mainstream (Cluedo, Monopoly, Rummikub, etc.) as it's a bit much for them. He's got a good point - but I've not got the resources to target that market yet (I'd need to be doing very large print runs and selling in department stores and toy shops), so I'll stick to the guys I know I can reach for the moment.



Dave said...

I like Mike's chart, though i'm not sure that I could really classify It's Alive! as a simulation...

It seems to sit squarely in the middle of the Euro line, not controlled by theme, but not abstract, in other words; just right.

I really like the re-theme. If only for the fact that it provides the game with some amazing artwork opportunities. It's still a great game, but the theme is the icing on the (macabre) cake.

hmocc said...


With as much respect as I have for Yehuda, I'm afraid the religious theme woudn't appeal to the broad target audience you're aiming at, so I'm with you on this.

It's Alive is a great theme which instantly achieved what it was set to: it got me hooked.

I think and am sure that the game will be a success and can't wait to try it out.



Jack said...

Thanks Hugo,

I'm glad I've got you interested :-)

You'll have to play it with me some time at BM when I next get there.