Theme Driving Gameplay — Ft. First Ascent

Board game themes… who needs them anyway? Themes are just “skins” or story elements that give the game more flavour. They don’t actually do anything… right?


If a game is crafted with a theme in mind, the end result can be an immersive engaging experience. It would not feel like something tacked on. The theme not only tells the story of the game you are playing, but provides you with understandable goals and motives for you and your character to accomplished. This combined with intuitive gameplay mechanics that reflect the thematic actions, will provide players with an immersive experience.

But now the question is how do we do this?

I had the pleasure of speaking to Kate, designer of First Ascent, and asked her about her thoughts on building a game around a theme. She was able to craft a well thought out game that incorporates the rock-climbing theme with the objective, gameplay, and board game components seamlessly to give players an interesting and immersive experience. Let’s see what Kate thinks about this topic!

Game Description

First Ascent is a rock climbing-themed strategic board game. The goal in this medium weight, competitive game is to gain the most points by climbing the best route up the mountain and becoming the most skilled climber! Each player assumes the role of a unique asymmetric character, and throughout the game they will be building their route, managing resources, drafting cards, achieving objectives, and increasing their efficiency by accumulating skills and gear! This game is for 2–5 players and takes 45–90 minutes to play.

What comes first Theme or Mechanic?

In First Ascent, the theme came first — which made designing the game a lot easier because answers to many big picture questions came easily. Since Rock climbing isn’t a “take that” or combative sport, those elements were taken out.

Rock climbing involves a lot of training, planning, risk assessment, and skill management (managing what you can climb based on your skill); so I knew early on that I wanted the game to be more of a euro style game. I wanted a game where you are working your way up the mountain but also managing resources and becoming more efficient over time.

How to develop a game around theme?

How should players FEEL when they play the game?

I think one of the biggest questions creators need to establish early on is “what feelings should people have when they are playing the game?” — What is the desired experience I want players to have when playing my game?

I wanted First Ascent to replicate some of the same feelings we have when climbing. Climbing is actually pretty slow and calculated, with elements of risk and uncertainty. There are times where you are holding your breath and hoping you can pull it off. Other times, you have to make decisions about whether you want to take it easy and climb conservative, or shoot for the moon but know that failure is more likely. While, there are not tons of dramas or interaction with other climbers on the mountain, there is always a bit of anxiety about beating someone else to a climb, or getting stuck behind someone. These were some of the feelings that guided everything from the mechanics, complexity, and gameplay.

Early play-testers consisted of a lot of climbers, who were pretty hardcore about wanting the game to represent climbing accurately. I tried to not stray too far, but at a certain point you can’t let the game suffer for the sake of accuracy. I think keeping the end user in mind is helpful with this idea. Games without any imagination aren’t much fun to play — and a lot of times, make games more complicated than they need to be (I’m looking at you, Brass Birmingham market connections!)

How can the GAMEPLAY reflect the theme?

A useful exercise is thinking about the arc of the game and how it relates to the theme — do turns start out simple in the beginning and more complex? Does the pace change? In climbing, your skills build over time, so the longer you climb, the easier it is for you to tackle more difficult pitches. That aspect of climbing helped drive the arc of First Ascent — introducing an engine-building component where you work in the beginning starts paying off later.

Reverting back to your theme is helpful when you need to tackle big issues that come up in playtesting. The biggest example of this with First Ascent was the introduction of “the Ledge”. In playtesting, many people complained about analysis by paralysis — seeing the entire mountain from the game’s beginning was daunting and even made it a little boring because you could more less plot out all 8 pitches before your turn. Additionally, we didn’t have a good way to address people getting “stuck. The lack of mobility also impacted players who didn’t plan their opening turns carefully. We needed a way to add mobility and uncertainty to the board.

In climbing, many cliffs are split by larger ledges that allow you to start on one side of the mountain and then walk over to another area. It is common to get up to a ledge, see that the route you want is occupied and then walk over to another route that is less crowded. Related to this concept is the mountains often have an “apron” which is usually a little less steep and less difficult than what’s above it on the “headwall”. Thinking about these concepts and the feedback from testing, this drove me to split the mountain halfway up into an apron and headwall, which were divided by horizontal ledge. So now the board starts out with all the pitches on the headwall being hidden. These are not revealed until the player reaches the ledge. This solves the analysis by paralysis issue as well as providing increased mobility on the board to prevent players from getting “stuck” in crowded areas. The ledges additionally acted as “milestones” for players to reach. It gave the game a sense of progression.

3. Developing intuitive board game design — Using Hierarchy of design to enhance the experience

I have a background in information design and wayfinding, and one of the principles we tell our clients is that we are designing the products or space specifically for the people who aren’t familiar with it. So when you design your game, be doing as much as you can to help first-timers learn how to play. If first-timers have a bad experience playing because there were too many hurdles in the way of them understanding it, they’re very unlikely to give it another shot. I think a lot of game designers focus on streamlining rules, but we need to remember how to also streamline graphics and visuals so that players catch on more quickly.

You don’t need to be a designer to understand and implement these principles. The most important principle of design is Hierarchy. When you are designing cards, the board, player mats, etc, ask yourself “what is the most important thing for someone to understand when they look at this?” Whatever that element is, make it stand out with color, size, contrast, or composition. You can layer a lot of elements onto a card successfully, but you need to always be ranking those elements in order of importance and designing accordingly. This helps players understand what they’re looking for more quickly and helps them make faster decisions.

You can also think of hierarchy from a rules-explanation point of view: “What are the most important actions for you to play the game”; this is important for games with many strategies to win, “point salad” scoring, or just have a lot of complexity and options. Make the most important actions stand out, by either listing them first on a player reference card, making the labels larger on the board, having that action area occupy more real estate, or include game objectives somewhere on the board/player reference card, ranked by point value. Players new to a game often feel aimless in their first few turns as they try to understand the strategy, so give them as many physical clues as possible for what they should be doing throughout the game and what will end the game.

The other element non-designers can keep in mind is the inherent physicality of the objects they are working with, and the opportunities those objects present. For example, cards and tokens are two-sided. That means you always have the option of keeping one side flipped over, to either keep hidden or distinguish it from other cards (like cards that have already been played). You can also control the size and color of these objects. If players keep discarding one set of cards or resources in the wrong area, make them different sizes and/or shapes. A lot of times, simple confusions can be solved with design, rather than reworking the mechanic. Especially early on in playtesting, it’s important to observe what players do incorrectly, get confused by, or completely ignore, and then evaluate if there are physical or visual changes you can make to clarify the action or rule.

4. Make a theme players will be interested in playing!

If you’re wrestling with or considering several themes, remember that some themes are going to be inherently exclusive — it’s going to be really difficult for some members of the gaming community to feel empowered by say, a game with overt colonialist themes. Or a theme with very traditional masculine characters and very few female characters that are interesting, exciting, and well-integrated. Every board game designer should be thinking how their game is helping the gaming community grow stronger together, helping the community evolve, and welcoming everyone to the table. It’s true that not everyone is going to like your game or be interested in it, but you should do everything you can do to make sure anyone who could be interested isn’t turned away or turned off because they can’t see themselves in the game world you have created.

Social Media Information:

For more information on First Ascent, please follow them on their social media. Be on the lookout for their Kickstarter campaign coming soon!

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