How Do You Build Around A Theme? Studies in Sorcery
One way to get the creative juices flowing during brainstorming session or board game design sessions is when you build your game around a theme. Not only does starting off with a theme give you a direction that helps you mould your game, but it allows you to draw inspiration from your knowledge and your background, making this a more personal project.
I had the chance to speak to Chris, designer of Studies in Sorcery, to understand more about the creative process. Chris started off building this game with a theme in mind and a fundamental game mechanic. With a single direction and a lot of brainstorming, Studies in Sorcery was created! In this article, Chris explains the importance of theme during the development of his game and talks in-depth about how the game mechanics not only convey the theme, but was inspired by it.
In Studies in Sorcery, players are students at the Academy of Dark Arts who are trying to finally finish their thesis statement and get their Master’s Degree in the Dark Arts. Each field of study at the Academy of Dark Arts is different and requires different skills.
- Alchemy takes time but can grant you abilities instantly.
- Reanimation requires just the right ingredients if you want to really impress the professors and can help you build future projects even faster.
- Sorcery takes work, but can grant you new abilities depending on the phase of the moon.
On their turn, players can choose to scavenge for ingredients or to go get more projects to work on. At the end of each round, players can commit their ingredients to projects and hopefully finish a project so they can reap the rewards of a job well done. The game ends after four semesters have passed and players present their projects for review. Choose your thesis and fields of study wisely and even you can get your degree in darkness!
Using Inspiration from your Knowledge and Background
People always say write about what you know. Or for game design, make a game that’s about a subject you’re particularly knowledgeable about. Sadly I didn’t go to some school of the mystic arts, but certainly there’s something about the aesthetic here that’s very much that style.
For Studies in Sorcery, there’s the literal part of that aesthetic. Like how Halloween is the best holiday or how Haunted Mansion is the best Disneyland. But then there’s the more subjective part, the interplay between dark and playful. Between academic and ridiculous. Good stories have both drama and comedy in them, and for me the games I love are all about telling stories.
To me the idea that you can follow a recipe out of a book and end up performing powerful arcane magic… that’s funny. The players who achieve greatness at this school aren’t those with raw talent — it’s those who make the right gambles in the graveyard and schedule their time well. It might just be my sense of humour, but to me there’s great storytelling to be done in the overlap of the wondrous and mundane.
Theme, although important, is not the only thing
Theme is absolutely critical to me in everything I design. But theme can’t save a mechanically rotten core. It is a game after all, and while it might provide story and escapism, it also needs to engage your brain. It needs a strong mechanical foundation. The theme shouldn’t just limply hang on a pre-existing frame — the theme and game should be interwoven and nourish each other.
I already knew I wanted to build a game around Winston drafting as a core mechanic. In the same way that booster draft had created a foundation for other games like 7 Wonders or Sushi Go, Winston draft is a great inner loop with lots of innate drama. So I was already looking for thematic pairings on that to spark inspiration.
Brainstorming with Theme in Mind
I have a (digital) notebook with root ideas. When one of those ideas seems to be capturing more of my attention, I create a new section where I can dump all the brainstormed sub-ideas that come to mind. Often this happens while I’m walking, so it’s pretty essential I have the ability to record ideas anywhere I am. Also my brain can’t really move onto the next idea until the current one has been transcribed — it’s as if getting the words out frees up space for more.
Thematically, it took a turn early on towards academic, but it started with the idea of tasking the players with something traditionally villainous: necromancy.
For Studies in Sorcery, these game mechanics arose from brainstorming with the theme in mind. This provided direction on that root idea of drafting piles of cards. If it weren’t for theme there wouldn’t be phases of moon in the game and thus there wouldn’t be monthly pacing elements and the whole thing would look dramatically different.
Examples of Game Mechanics working with Theme
For Studies in Sorcery, the identity of each of the schools of study has been a very important place to communicate theme through mechanics. Each of these schools of study teaches a lesson and tells a story, but it does it indirectly through its mechanics and incentives.
The school of Reanimation is perhaps the most straightforward: build creations out of bone and give them life. But a successful Reanimation project doesn’t just use any bones, it uses the correct bones. There are premium bones in the deck that grant extra credit tokens, and mismatched bones which are more flexible but grant demerit tokens. So while there isn’t a lot of text on the card to spell it out, to be successful at Reanimation you need to learn to be picky about your card selection and patient enough to pair it to the right project. Reanimation is about craftsmanship.
The school of Sorcery can grant you game-breaking abilities, but many of these are only available when it’s a certain phase of the moon (which is the turn tracker in the game). You need to anticipate the power spikes your abilities will grant, layer them, and channel them into other projects. Sorcery is about growth and creating combinations.
The school of Alchemy allows you to brew potions with powerful one-time effects. However, if you rush your potions they will get demerit tokens. So you’re better off keeping more than one pot on the stove and slow cooking them. Except for when the right play is to complete the potion right away and burst your way onto greater things. Alchemy is about timing.
Biggest Challenge: Simultaneous Play
The area that perhaps gave me the biggest trouble was the sequence for completing projects (in the game, Studies in Sorcery, players are completing projects). Mostly committing cards to projects and resolving them can be done simultaneously. And I’m a big fan of simultaneous play, as play naturally moves quicker if you’re not sequentially waiting on others. However, some of the project completion effects would create locks between players, where to play optimally you would need to wait to see what they did. For example you might have a project that lets you get something out of the discard, but how another player plans their projects may affect the contents of the discard in the same turn. I went through many different changes to the turn structure attempting to fix these types of problems.
In the end the solution was twofold. First, I broke apart the step where you commit to projects apart from the resolution of completed projects. The former is simultaneous, and the latter (which won’t happen every turn) is sequential. As such the majority case moves quickly, and there’s a rigid order for resolution for when there are conflicts. The second part of the solution was to review all project completion effects that exacerbated resolution order and modify those effects (even if I was very fond of them).
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