Thematic Introductions

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.

Thematic Introductions

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.

Over the course of 18 hours, the runners hit Jinteki, Haas-Bioroid, and Weyland Consortium with DOS attacks, datathe , and a truly vulgar piece of cyber-vandalism. ese attacks cost each megacorp millions upon millions of credits. NBN put together a holo-report inside half an hour. irty minutes a er the third megacorp node went dark, Lily Lockwell was standing in front of the Beanstalk gravely lecturing on the evils of unregulated networks and the rise of cybercrime worldwide. Five minutes later, the runners had struck again; now Lockwell was reading out the Anarch’s Manifesto. ey hadn’t bothered to make her lips synch with the new audio track. One in three feeds got a special bonus: Lockwell’s head gra ed onto a sense-star’s scantily-clad body. e talking heads said it was a legion of organized cybercriminals, Tri-Maf activity, Martian terrorists. ey were wrong. It was three people–a g-mod from Heinlein, a cyborg New Angelino, and a baseline woman from BosWash–who knew one another by reputation only. But the heads were right about one thing: it was the start of a cyber war, one that neither side could a ord to lose. Introduction TM TM Welcome to Android: Netrunner. It is the future. Humanity has spread itself across the solar system with varying degrees of success. e Moon and Mars are colonized. A plan to terraform the Red Planet is well underway, hindered only by a civil war that has broken out and locked down many of its habitation domes. On Earth, a massive space elevator has been built near the equator in the sprawling megapolis of New Angeles, stretching up into low orbit. It is the hub of trade in the solar system, and most people refer to it as the “Beanstalk.”...

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.

One page introductory letter, one page newspaper headlines, and one page character summariesOne page introductory letter, one page newspaper headlines, and one page character summariesOne page introductory letter, one page newspaper headlines, and one page character summaries

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.

Zombicide is a cooperative game where players face hordes of Zombies controlled by the game itself. Each player con- trols one, two, three, or four Survivors of a Zombie infection. The goal is simply to complete the Mission objectives and live to see another day. The good news: Zombies are slow, stupid, and predictable. The bad news: there are a lot of Zombies! Survivors use whatever they can get their hands on to kill Zombies. If they nd bigger weapons, they can kill even more Zombies! You can trade equipment, give and receive (or ignore) advice, and even sacri ce yourself to save the girl! Only through co- operation, however, can you achieve the Mission objectives and survive. Killing Zombies is fun, but you will also need to rescue other Survivors, clean out infested areas, nd food and weapons, take a ride through a ghost town, and much more.

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.

In the game, each player takes on the role of Dominus, the head of a house in Capua, a city in the era of Ancient Rome. Each house is competing for in uence. Fight for dominance through a combination of political schemes and glorious battles on the sands of the arena. As Dominus, you have a variety of resources at your disposal. Guards protect you from schemes launched by rivals. Slaves run your household and earn gold for you. You also control a Ludus, a gladiator training school. Gladiators compete to bring glory to themselves and in uence to their Dominus.
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.

The Arena Calls... A hush falls over the crowd as the two Mages enter the arena. Casting a look across the cracked agstones, you try to estimate his powers and guess his secrets as you are announced to the crowd. In a moment, the signal will begin, and nothing can stop the battle until one of you lies defeated in the dust. Running your ngers across the edge of your spellbook, you mentally select your rst few spells. But in the back of your mind, the doubt is there: do you have the power and the wits to defeat the foe before you? Mage Wars is the card-driven board game of dueling Mages. Two rivals trained in different schools and philosophies of magic have come to the arena to determine whose magic will reign supreme and the winner will be the last Mage standing! Armed only with your spellbook, you must outwit and outmaneuver your foe while protecting your own Mage from destruction. Prepare to enter the Arena!

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 YOUR WORLD. In 2128, after years of global warfare, theoretical physicists joined together with astronomers, engineers, and particle physicists to announce a breathtaking breakthrough: the ability to create new Earths. Instead of warring over ever-scarcer resources and ever- diminishing supplies, factions and populations could transport to a verdant Earth, untouched by humans. With great fanfare, the colonists departed for the rst earth clone created, ready to leave war behind. It took two months for the rst battle to take place. It turns out that factions weren’t so ready to share, to give up past grudges, or to forgive trespasses. As future Earths were colonized, future wars followed. You have one of these Earths. It is waiting for your story, your wars. As of now there are no cities, no wars, even the continents are unnamed. But all that will change. The wars will come. They always do.

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.

The Loire valley during the 15th Century. As influential princes, players devote their efforts to careful trading and building in order to lead their estates to prominence. Two dice set out the action options, but the players always make the nal choices. Whether trading or livestock farming, city building or scienti c research, many different paths lead to the prosperity and prominence of the players! The many ways to gain victory points in this building game require careful thought round after round along with extensive planning ahead. Thanks to the different estates, the game remains challenging for the players for a long time, as no two games play out alike. The winner is the player with the most victory points at the end of the game.
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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