Tying Theme To Mechanics with Emily, Designer of Pluckoff!

The importance of theme in a game is always debatable. I personally find it very important. It tells me, from the game’s perspective, who am I, what am I doing, where and when is all this going on, and why I am trying to achieve my objective(s). In other words, WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON!

What makes theme even more compelling is when there are mechanics that can convey a story that works with said theme. As a basic example, you are a scavenger in a game, and you have a special ability to draw extra resource cards. Though this example is a very simple illustration, I appreciate when games design their mechanics around the theme and try to fit it into their narrative.

I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with Emily, designer of the card game Pluck Off, to learn more about her perspective on tying theme with mechanic. I would like to share with you what I learned about her board game design process!

From the start, I knew I wanted to create a game about city life that drew from my NYC experience. Since pigeons are probably the best universal animal representation of cities (that aren’t rats or bugs!), I designed my game as a pigeon-centric parody of city life. Along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons about theme throughout the process of creating Pluck Off!:

  • Theme tells a story, drawing people in
  • Theme makes the game more interesting and relatable
  • Theme allows players to make logical jumps in understanding, without having to study the rules

Theme Tells A Story

I like to think of theme in terms of a story. When you set up theme as a story, you’re creating a metaphor for the end goal, setting up tension points and immersing players into the world of your game.

In Pluck Off!, the story goes that a flock of pigeons just moved to the city and need nestmates, because the rent is too plucking high. As a player, your goal is to help the pigeons find nestmates and move into a nest, but you must watch your back because there are Urban Vermin out to pluck up your game.

Theme Makes The Game More Interesting And Relatable

Players are attracted to games they can relate to and themes they are interested in, which is why licensed Star Wars and Marvel games are so popular. When you’re brainstorming your theme, it’s good to take a step back and ask, who will be interested in this theme? And what kinds of mechanics, art and text would those players like to see?

For Pluck Off!, we knew that we wanted to target urban Millennials, so the core game cards are unique pigeon characters that you might see in any city, like Hipster pigeon, InstagramTM pigeon and Basic pigeon. Each character card has its own artwork and a limerick that tells a short story about the pigeon and their world. The limericks are just flavor text, but players love reading them and often recognize themselves or someone they know in the pigeon characters, which makes the game instantly relatable.

Theme Allows Players To Make Logical Jumps In Understanding Game Rules

Theme is more than a story that drives interest in your game; it’s also a vehicle that helps players understand how to play it. By weaving theme into every possible aspect of your game, you’ll help players better understand it without having to constantly refer to the rules.

One way to convey meaning through theme is by naming different cards after the actions they perform and bringing it to life visually on the cards or board. For example, we have an end-game condition called the ‘Egg-celerator’ that speeds up play after the draw pile has run out. There’s also a mechanic called Pigeon Poop that allows you to call other players out for lying, and cards called Poop Shields that allow you to block Pigeon Poop. The art on those cards is an umbrella.

All in all, the key to pulling theme through the game is creating a theme that you’re really passionate about. When you really enjoy your game’s theme, it becomes an exercise in creativity to see how much you can make that theme stand out and shine!


Pluck Off! is a card game parody of city life where pigeons rule the roost and you win by helping them find nestmates (because the rent is too plucking high!). It’s part memory, part strategy and part pluck of the draw.

We’re continuing to playtest and fine-tune the game, so please follow us @PluckOffGame on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook or visit pluckoffgame.com to sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll keep you updated on the timing of our campaign launch.

Article published on www.fourtato.com

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Tiny crew of board game designers! Four potatoes trying to make their ideas come to life!

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