Theme in Design: Nightfall and Innistrad

Nightfall and the Innistrad set of Magic: the Gathering owe their final form to the same trend for gothic horror embodied by Twilight, True Blood and the vampire/werewolf imitators/successors. However the way the theme entered their respective designs are stark contrasts.

Nightfall was originally titled “Chainmaster” before the publisher AEG renamed it and added the werewolves/vampires theme. Innistrad started as a brainstorm about gothic horror, gathering into themes, and determining which mechanics best express the theme, then using them as the core of the set. Innistrad had a very different process: the designers brainstormed the elements of gothic horror, gathered the related themes and connected them to existing Magic mechanics. The designers identified the fundamental role of gothic horror as providing cautionary morality tales, and designed the central transformation mechanic to express this idea (see werewolves, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, vampires).

The byzantine mechanical interactions of Magic: The Gathering tend to overwhelm the theme, but the theme-mechanic connection in Nightfall is problematic: the art and flavour text is engaging, but the conceit plays no role in the gameplay. The chaining mechanic is interesting but has no narrative justification.

Within the hobby boardgaming world the advocates for “mechanics-first design” and “theme-first design” clash; however I think they both miss the point. The former category can result in bland experiences, while the latter can lean on flavour text and art, or fiddly yet irrelevant mechanical exceptions. The critical issue is not the order in which the game elements are developed, but the nexus between the two. Innistrad endeavours to implement the horror theme its the mechanics – in this first case “duality” with “transformation”. (Apparently this is the most top-down theme-driven design so far in Magic.)

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