Gadgeteers Designer Diary

Here is a designer diary for Gadgeteers. This game was co-designed by myself and Michael Cofer. Michael will be doing the majority of the writing of these posts and I will be posting them here. Enjoy!
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Evolution of Theme: From Pumpkins to Gadgets

Dan Letzring

Rochester
New York
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The Evolution of Theme - Post written by Michael Cofer

The question of theme-first or mechanics-first is, I suspect, only rarely applicable. Usually the two grow and evolve together, and Gadgeteers was no exception to that.

About a year ago, my friend Dan Letzring asked me if I wanted to co-design a game. He had some early concepts of what he wanted it to be, but it was still very loose at this stage. His pitch started with, “So, I’ve been thinking about making a game about birds perching on pumpkins in a pumpkin patch.”
And that, my friends, is how I started working on Gadgeteers – a game with neither birds nor pumpkins.

In the beginning, we knew we wanted to make a game that used majority control of nodes, and had some thoughts about how the various nodes might grant special abilities. If the nodes had different functions, it seemed to me that a diverse garden (rather than a pumpkin patch) would be a better setting… and each unique node could be a different type of “veggie.”
We had a cool, central mechanic and a vague theme. But it wasn’t a game yet; we needed an objective. Pushing and pulling the concept around in conversation, we landed on the idea that maybe you needed certain combinations of nodes to win.

This was enough to get us to our earliest prototype: a dozen veggies, each with a unique power, and a collection of “combo” cards. Combo cards were prescribed sets of veggies with a point value attached.
It wasn’t the strongest thematic link, but it was serviceable. In retrospect, had we called them like, “salad” cards, it would have been slightly more thematic – but still weak.

After a few months of playing “the veggie game,” Dan and I started thinking more seriously toward marketability. Dan felt that there had been enough food and garden themed games recently and that retheming would be a good idea.
We both wanted the game to have kid-appeal (without being a “kids’ game”). And there was still this problem of “combos” needing to be more thematically tied in. These three things guided our theme selection:

What theme suits a game about combining elements into a new thing?
What is appealing to kids?
What isn’t overly saturated in the market?

In the end, we both felt a strong draw toward “inventions” as a theme. It’s an imaginative space, with some STEM flavor, and was a very tight fit with the core mechanics of the game.

This theming later showed itself mechanically as well, specifically in moving the “powers” off of the “Parts” and on to the “Gadgets.” There were several mechanical reasons that this was a profound and positive change, but at its core it grew out of the feeling that you should be able to use the cool things you build.

Jesse Labbe and Alisha Volkman knocked it out of the park in terms of conveying the tone of the game and grabbing a hold of the theme in a captivating way. It’s amazing to feel the difference in thematic engagement that good quality art will bring to the game.

And that, I suppose, is a huge take-away from this process: hold on to everything loosely early on. We are a million miles away from where we began, both thematically and mechanically – but the game today is infinitely better than the one we began with.
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