Writing for Games: The Re-Theme Assignment

In fall of 2017 I am teaching a class at St John Fisher college titled “Writing for Games.” The course description I have cooked up goes something like this.

“In this course students focus on the practical and artistic writing elements of game design. This includes writing dialogue scripts for video games, understanding the part that narrative writing plays in informing game mechanics, and the creative and technical writing aspects of tabletop role-playing games. Students will workshop their writing in class similar to a development or playtest team, while working to create their own game as part of this course.”

Of course, my goal is to have some fun with the class structure having worked on all sides of the tabletop game industry, from playtesting and development, to publication, to sales, I get that “what makes a hit” is a complex alchemy that goes well beyond writing, but that theme, creative and technical writing, and marriage to mechanics all factor in. One of the cool things about this class is that with the advent of Kickstarter, students who build a complete tabletop game could choose to pursue publishing it completely on their own accord. (I’ve taught before, I know the odds on this happening are low, but just that the technology exists for an individual to do this is very cool). So, here’s an assignment I’m mulling over.

This would be a “middle of the course” kind of assignment that would create a project suitable for workshop either by reading the rulebooks produced or, for those students going the extra mile, actually playing the game. The results would be usable for the final project of building a game prototype.

The Re-theme

A large number of games borrow from earlier games mechanics and tweak theme and some small mechanical bits in order to create a new work. As both an exercise in game design and an examination of how creative writing can change the look and feel of a game, changing the theme of a game is an opportunity to dig into the elements of genre, as well as creative and technical writing.

  • Choose a board game you know, the simpler and older the better. For example, Monopoly (*you may not choose Monopoly, mostly because I’m using it as an example, partly because I’ve already played too much Monopoly)
  • Remove all elements of theme from the game, and summarize the game at it’s most basic mechanical level. For example, in Monopoly the basic game is “Roll a d6, move that number of squares around the board. If the square you land on is controlled by another player, you owe them a resource. If it is not owned, you may purchase it for X resources. If at any time a player runs out of resources, they are eliminated.” Chance cards, names of spaces, those are all elements of theme.
  • Having written a basic mechanical statement, now write a statement of theme. In Monopoly we might say the original theme was “Investors compete to control all commercial property in Atlantic City, New Jersey.” If I were rewriting that theme I might say anything here, so long as it somehow meshed with the base mechanic of competing for resources. I like stories about heists and scoundrels, so I might say “Become the boss of your crime organization by bribing various city officials.”
  • Having done that, go back through the original game and create and add elements that suit your new theme. I might say “Well, my game is about crime bosses. I like sci-fi a lot as a genre, so I’m going to make this a Blade-Runner-esque game about gaining control of a megacorp in the far future.” From there I could begin by renaming all the squares of the board as different officers of the corporation, or city officials to bribe. Each time a player pays a bribe, they get a token representing that official’s ‘favor.’ When another player lands on that official’s square, the official extracts a fine from them. Do this for each element of the original game.
  • Finally, add a new element that makes the game uniquely your own. This should be a major mechanical change to compliment your new theme. For example, in our Monopoly re-theme we might say “Instead of rolling 1d6 to move, you roll 3d6 to determine which officials you have connections to in order to bribe. You must purchase one of them with that number on their card. If all numbers are already bribed, you must pay a bribe to the highest ranking official. The highest ranking official is the one with the highest rank number on their left shoulder in their picture.”
  • You can see that our final game looks very little like Monopoly. We aren’t rolling to move any more, we don’t have an element of purchasing property, and we certainly aren’t in Atlantic City. However, at it’s core, the basic inspiration for this game is still Monopoly.

Assignment Rubric

To complete this assignment successfully a student must

  1. Write a complete set of rules for a re-themed board game that is not Monopoly.
  2. Write a rulebook that describes the theme and explains all mechanical elements of the game, including sketches of the board and any components that will be visual in nature (sketches may be very rough, they are only necessary for purposes of clarity, focus your time on writing the rulebook)
  3. Be sure to consider carefully the reasons for each mechanical element of the game. Does it compliment some part of the theme? Work with it or against it?
  4. Make at least one major mechanical change to the original game to compliment your new theme.

Extra credit will be given for (see syllabus for explanation of extra credit)

  1. Completing a full prototype of your game board, including all thematic elements
  2. Making several major mechanical changes to the original game
  3. Writing a brief paragraph on what kind of customer you believe would purchase your game, such as might be used to start a marketing plan