For most people board games are an escape from the grind of everyday life. Through them they can enter fantastic realms and inhabit diverse personas. Even the most hardcore cube-pusher likely prefers a colorfully fleshed out game world to a monochromatic abstraction. One of the first places players begin to taste the flavor of a game after opening the box is the cover and opening pages of the rulebook. This is the perfect opportunity to entice them into the atmosphere of the game–the thematic introduction.
To be clear, theme is a very broad topic. It is ideally conveyed by every detail, from the art and components down to the fonts and graphic design. This article will be specifically addressing the text of the thematic introduction section of the rules. More on developing theme in general in rulebooks may follow in a future article.
First things first. What is the thematic introduction? In part, that question can be answered by what it is not. The thematic introduction is not concerned with game mechanics. It does not speak of meeples or victory points. It simply serves to introduce the reader to the world of the game. It can fundamentally be broken down into the five Ws.
Who are we? The cliche phrase, “You take on the role of…” exists for a reason. It gives the players a perspective from which they can view the game.
What will we do? Think of what happens over the course of a turn or a game and summarize. Remember this is from a purely story-based perspective. You’re not moving meeples, you’re sending workers to the fields. You’re not collecting resource cubes, you’re harvesting grain and lumber.
When and where does it happen? Many games are set in ambiguous times or places, “the far future” or “a fantasy kingdom.” While these are perhaps the least important Ws, when appropriate consider providing specific details to enhance the setting. A game set in the seventh year of Kanng’s dynasty on the planet Ceto may be more interesting than a generic, unnamed planet.
Why? Perhaps most importantly, what is our motivation? Epic games deserve epic conditions. The fate of the universe rests on your shoulders! More subdued games can have more humble goals. Please the sultan, and you could be his new vizier.
Examples of thematic introductions
Now that we’re clear what the thematic introduction entails, let’s take a look at some examples. I examined rulebooks from some of the most thematic games on my shelf and found a wide variety of introductions.
Some have extremely detailed backstories. Take Android: Netrunner.
Most of a page of introduction, complete with a two-paragraph mini-novella. For fans of the genre and those very into theme, this is great. For many other readers, it is overkill, and they will skip ahead to meatier matter. While details are important, I prefer a pithy few paragraphs to walls of text.
Additionally in this category, I would be remiss if I did not mention Mysterium.
Three pages of characters and backstory! Plus a nice blurb on the cover. It all looks great, and for a thematic game like Mysterium, it makes sense. But don’t expect many readers to make it through such excessive introductory text.
Toward the opposite end of the spectrum is Zombicide.
Pretty weak on the five Ws. We know we’ll be playing “Survivors of a Zombie infection” trying to “live to see another day.” Who exactly, when, where, or why is anyone’s guess. Not only is it very general, it breaks the fourth wall and combines story and game elements. “Cooperative game,” “Mission objectives,” even “gaming group” have no place in the thematic introduction. One strong point is the writing has voice; it is presented in a specific jocular, informal tone. (Whether that is appropriate for the zombie apocalypse is another question.)
Another example, Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery, is pretty spartan.
It fulfills the basic requirements of the thematic introduction. The text provides a fairly specific person, place, and time (Dominus in Capua in Ancient Rome.) The second paragraph effectively translates various game elements into their thematic counterparts. The real problem with this introduction is that it’s just not very exciting. A good thematic intro reads like fine advertising copy. It instills in a person particular emotions and compels them to learn more.
How about a short intro with advertising-level copy? Mage Wars: Arena fits the bill.
As compelling as the initial text is, the introduction could be better. A brief mention of the nature of the game (“the card-driven board game of dueling Mages”) is forgivable, but it says nothing of where or when we are. And most importantly, the why is missing. We’re here to duel to the death, but what is the reason? A meaningful call to action would be far superior to a generic last man standing scenario.
Finally, in my opinion, the best thematic introduction I could find, Risk: Legacy.
It’s specific. It’s a little long for my taste, but still manageable. It’s written with exciting language, especially the end taglines. The story even introduces the concept of a legacy game in a novel, thematic way. The left-hand text stands alone, but people interested in the details can explore the factions on the right to learn more about who they can be in this world.
Putting it all together, thematic introductions serve an important role in introducing the world of your game, the players’ place within it, and perhaps most importantly, their reason for competing. The best intros provide specific details and use exciting, compelling language to set the mood of the game and entice the players into pursuing it further. They’re written with enough content to be satisfying without overwhelming the reader with excessive text.
Honorable mention: Castles of Burgundy.
Again, the intro is concise, specific, and atmospheric. On the down side, the why is merely implicit (“lead their estates to prominence.”) But the biggest issue is the conflation of thematic introduction and game overview. The latter provides a high level view of gameplay–what we do on a turn at a mechanical level and the criteria for victory. And that just happens to be the topic of our next article, the overview.
Rulebook Cookbook is an ongoing column dedicated to helping you write better rules. Each article will take an in-depth look at one aspect of rule-writing, elucidating best practices and providing positive and negative examples.
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