I’ve recently been plugging away at a new design called Alfombras, a tile-laying game for 2-4 players who are muralists trying to complete a sawdust mural in preparation for Semana Santa in Comayaguas, Honduras. As the game has come together, it has caused me to reflect on the process of “theming” a game. I’ve discussed this before, but a big fundamental shift in my design approach was to start by designing innovative and interesting mechanisms, and finding a theme to fit, rather that starting with a theme and working backwards. Alfombras is a product of that new approach, as it started with 12 dice on my desk and developed from there. Once I had basic mechanics in place, I started looking for potential themes. I bounce a few ideas around before remembering one of my trips to Honduras when I was younger. I saw the Alfombras de Asserin first hand, and was struck by the beauty and care with which they were assembled. Once I connected that memory to the tile-laying mechanic that I had developed, it was a natural fit.
I often find myself going through this process. There are generic themes of space travel or merchants or civilization building that are fine for what they are. But, I think we’ve begun to see a major shift in game design, centered around the self-expression of the designer. I’ve themed Alfombras as such because I felt something distinct and memorable when I experienced the real thing first hand as a kid. That experience has inspired me to recreate the feeling of wonder in the game I’ve designed. Several of my designs start this way, with me looking for themes that I can relate to on a personal level.
The effect of this process may be really positive overall. I think about games like Wingspan or Sagrada; games that are fun and interesting and unorthodox in theme. I don’t know their complete stories, but I imagine that the designers of these games have gone through a similar approach of making a game that they can relate to, with a theme that they are interested in. The result is more interesting and engaging themes. People are curious about a game like Comanauts or Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr, whose themes are strange but novel. Coupled with solid gameplay mechanics, this theming approach can not only create an innovative game, but a work of inspired art. That’s my goal with my designs, to express something I feel or experience through the games I make. Alfombras may be one of those games.