Why Themes Are Impactful! Century: Golem Edition

Good themes can make games better.
Let’s see why, then ask what this means about us as humans.

Case Study: Golem Edition

Century: Golem Edition is basically the exact same game as Century: Spice Road. Some players like the theme of Spice Road because of the wooden bowls and/or the familiarity of the theme. I much prefer Golem Edition, however. The ‘story’ of Golem Edition - discovering crystals, trading them up for better crystals, crafting golems - feels way cooler than farming and trading wooden cubes (spices) for what Spice Road vaguely labels as “score cards” (pictures of cities).

First I’ll describe three good parts of Golem Edition’s theme. Then, we’ll talk about human experience!

1. The theme is unique and invokes wonder.

Exploring for crystals, trading them up with friendly folk, getting big golems that do stuff like build boats or play music: this is a unique theme, and an idyllic world.

To play this game is to be a part of this world. If nothing more than curiosity for what it feels like to DIY golems, this theme makes engagement with Golem Edition sound appealing even before knowing the rules.

2. The crystals feel cooler than wooden cubes.

Fun fact: these crystals are all the exact same cut. However, their design (weight distribution, balancing points, translucence) makes them look unique from one another. Nice!

Considering that players hold and move crystals dozens of times each game, the amount of quality that goes into those pieces is very important as it’s the primary point of contact. Luckily, they feel great, look great and even make cool colour palettes with each other.

The fact that these actually look like crystals is a victory over the abstract cubes that Spice Road uses. Players of Golem Edition engage with the theme (crystals) almost every turn, keeping them in the fantasy of the game.

3. The art is cute - each golem tells a story.

This is how I got my parents into Century. Each golem does something different! These giant powerful beings, acting as playgrounds and anchors and grape-stompers… it’s super endearing. The constituent crystals are even visible in the golems!

This art sets great tone and makes each golem feel desirable; e.g., instead of working towards “score cards” (as labeled in Spice Road) you work towards making giant rock friends. Yeah, they’re also only worth points. But on the other hand, you’ve just assembled a roaming desert house. Acquiring cards to your section of the table, in a direct physical way, lets you look closer at the art and appreciate what’s going on.

Playing any game multiple times wears away its theme, but giving you extra reasons to want these cards is a great way to get you into the game in the first place.

Extrapolation: “Experience”

There’s plenty of games without themes. Many puzzle games like Tetris do just fine.

But when games do have themes, I believe they provide opportunities for us as humans to live multiple experiences: we simulate multiple lives through the lens of imagination and the robust ability for us to (amazingly!) draw experience and conclusions from the things we imagine.


It’s altogether not that different from practicing instruments or doing mock presentations, except with one additional layer of abstraction.

I posit that when we practice most things, it makes us better at the specific thing we’re practicing. But when we use imagination [whether in a book, movie, game, etc], in exchange for not developing one focused skill, we see a multiplicity of experiences that we can draw from.

For example, while one person’s experience playing Golem Edition may develop efficient planning ability, another person’s experience with Golem Edition may develop their ability to set goals and highlight what they need to get there. Still, others may get value and rejuvenation out of spending time in an idyllic setting with no visible human conflict.

A good theme makes games more interesting to play, yes. But more than that, a good theme makes it easier for players to extrapolate experience from whatever’s going on in a game. Themes helpfully demonstrate how mechanics relate to real-life problems like ‘thinking ahead’, ‘finding efficient opportunities’ or ‘setting goals and working towards them’.

Experience is difficult to qualify yet seems to be an integral focus of desire for many humans in their everyday lives. Seems good if a game can do that.


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Musical Overlay and Generative Experience

“Life’s the biggest troll but the joke is on us” - Donald Glover as an orc launches my body across the map

“Life’s the biggest troll but the joke is on us”
- Donald Glover as an orc launches my body across the map

I love music! And I have a habit of inevitably replacing most in-game music with my own. Do you do this too? How much does this effect the game experience?

After the first 300 hours of Slay the Spire I started to get a little bored of the same ol soundtrack. And at any rate, as much as I love StS, their music isn’t a strong suit. So now, Donu and Deca murder me to the tunes of El Huervo and The Neighborhood, which is a much-needed improvement…

…but it’s not strictly better to replace music, is it? Even unassuming music - especially unassuming music - does its own job of establishing a lot about a game.

Obviously, music establishes tone and atmosphere. High-intensity music helps you feel ready to ROCK in combat, while slower music can do stuff like help you recognize a town as a safe space from monsters. This stuff, I think, we all know intrinsically. But there’s other stuff that’s maybe less obvious too.

For example, we know that background music should generally be unassuming / loopable / tune-out-able so that players don’t get annoyed. But also, I think unassuming songs are also good because they can “fit in” a wider variety of contexts. Conversely, the more the bgm slaps in a game, the narrower its application probably is. For example: combat music has room to be exciting because it’s only going to be used in high-adrenaline situations. But town music can sometimes be difficult to make “special” if a variety of moods are going to happen in that location. This is a big argument in favour of letting the game select appropriate music for you (assuming the game is well made) - the music is more likely to match w/e you’re doing and not accidentally ruin a sad time or sully a happy one.

Wait, this album has a game??

Wait, this album has a game??

There’s another neat thing that I think in-game music does too… The fact that game music is “isolated” - that is, rarely heard outside its own game - means that hearing its soundtrack can easily re-immerse you into that world. Comparatively, an IRL song may be loaded with other associations, and therefore may prevent you from getting as into the mood even if the tone matches. Things get murky once you download Darren Korb on Spotify, but you get the idea.

What I mean to say, I guess, is that a well-made game will have good sound design that makes conscious choices with their music. And, once you spend enough time in a game, even just hearing a certain song will give you a kind of gut-instinct-pavlov-doggo-reaction due to association. Cool!

Buuut, the thing is, I think choosing your own music has a lot of benefits as well.

Like, okay, so you get to replace potentially-annoying/boring music with something of your own taste that you enjoy. But also, if you happen to be in a particular musical phase in your life, you get to form associations between a “real-life” artist and that game. Maybe whenever you listen to Future Islands you’ll get some faint nostalgia pings for Spelunky? Maybe you were on a Madonna kick when you were grinding for a specific set of mats for a gun?

Since a song you chose can traverse both “out of game” and “in-game” experiences, your real-life experiences with a song could influence how you perceive the events, tone, atmosphere, etc of the game you’re playing. This isn’t a strictly bad thing, in my opinion - while yeah, you can drift away from the “intended” atmosphere you were “supposed” to be getting from a certain location/game/event, you also get to put a bit of a personal spin on it.

In other words, listening to your own music when playing a game is a small way of personalizing your experience and interpretation of that game. If game BGM can do a good job of setting tone, real life music should be able to the same. And if that’s the case, choosing music carefully can be your way of "shaping” what kind of game you’ll end up playing. Your experience could end up being very different from another player’s just because you were listening to Bjork? Seems great!

Conclusion: Music affects your gameplay experience in a few ways. It seems like playing with the default music is best until you have a good sense of the game, then swapping to your own music is cool for subsequent playthroughs.

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Ultimate Kings Cup, Part I: What Makes A Good Drinking Game?

With regards to party games, I feel that in general there are two poles that a gathering can lean towards: beer pong (sportlike, competitive, easy to play vs strangers), or kings (friendly, creative, gets conversation going). 

With regards to the latter, I think there's a lot of interesting flexibility in how you construct a game of Kings and I think it's worth digging into. It seems like a small thing, but I do think a well-planned drinking game can be a great way to start an evening depending on the size and type of your social circle. 

Drinking games are funny because I wouldn't really call most of them "games" as much as "rituals". I think they're kind of their own category, and that's why [in my opinion] purchasable games that specifically revolve around drinks tend to fall flat.

For starters, here's a few observations about drinking games. For the sake of simplicity I'm going to look at Kings Cup specifically, which I consider the epitome of what a drinking game means.

  1. The "goal" of most drinking games tends to be not-losing, rather than explicitly winning.
  2. In these games, the penalty of losing a round is to simply take a drink and continue.
  3. Since the purpose of drinking games is to drink, this creates a tension where performing well at the smaller goals means performing poorly at the larger goal [to have an excuse to get tipsy+].

This explains why playing drinking games too competitively is a social mistake in many circumstances - such individuals are forgetting that most drinking games are more of a ritualized set of fun actions rather than a competitive sport. 

Unlike a lot of other games, the point of drinking games is pretty much entirely to socialize. Drinking games are a means for people to get comfortable talking and interacting with each other. So when designing a set of Kings rules, I think the worst decisions you could make are rules that prevent or discourage people from talking to each other.

On that note, I also try to avoid mechanics that encourage people to play until the end - IMO, a good game of Kings is one left unfinished because people got buzzed enough to feel comfortable making their own conversation.

Overall rule guidelines for a nice game

You'll want a different set of rules if you're at the soup kitchen compared to the brawler's guild

You'll want a different set of rules if you're at the soup kitchen compared to the brawler's guild

  • Everyone is allowed to have their own definition of what "one drink" means; nobody should be goaded into drinking more than they're comfortable with. (I've had a house rule where people must drink something though, so if they don't want alchs I get them water)
  • Don't punish people for socializing.
  • Avoid buzzkillers and bummers.
  • Read the room with regards to what rules are most suitable for the mood - Sabotage-style stuff for competitive people, "compliment circle" type stuff for conflict-averse people, etc. Getting the wrong mood makes for a bad time.
  • Include a variety of minigames/rituals to keep things fresh. This means having a healthy mix of both simple and complex / philosophical and funny / memory-based and reflex-based games, so that every card draw feels fresh and has a higher chance of being interesting.
  • None of the rules should be so complicated that a drunk person wouldn't be in the mood for thinking so hard. Or, if it can't be done right, it should at least be funny.

First I'll write out a set of rules that I use with a small group of 5 friends. We know each other well, and we're all in relationships, and we're all conflict averse, and we're all okay with quiet contemplative conversation. As such, this one is markedly more relaxed than the other list below this.

A- AC Drinks: I drink. You could change this to match the occassion, like "host drinks", "birthday guest drinks", etc. Or, send an email to cloudfallinteractive@gmail.com informing me that you drew an ace.
2- You. Choose someone to drink.
3- Me. You drink.
4- More. After a countdown, everyone points to the person who needs a drink the most RN. That person drinks.
5- Drive. The person goes "vroom" and steers their wheel to the next person, who must then either go "vroom" and steer towards the next person, or "ERR" [screech] to change direction to the previous person. First person to mess up drinks.
6- Fix. Describe a problem of yours and the other people take a few seconds to describe how they'd fix it. Best [funniest] solution doesn't drink, everyone else does.
7- Heaven. Everyone raise their hand, slowest person drinks.
8- Date/Mate. First person to draw 8 is "ready to mingle" and drinks. Each subsequent 8 drawn joins the relationship; whenever an 8 is drawn, all people in the relationship drink.
9- Rhyme. Say a word. The person after you must say a word that rhymes, and then the next person, etc. First person who can't think of a rhyme drinks.
10- Categories. Say a category, then something in that category. People will add to the list of things in that category. First person who can't think of smth drinks.
J- Jacuzzi. Everyone says something they like about the person who drew the card. The person who drew the card drinks in honour of themselves.
Q- Would You Rather. Ask a 'would you rather' question. After a countdown, everyone puts out 1 or 2 fingers to declare their vote. The people of the minority opinion drink. In a tie, the questionmaster drinks. [you can make it majority opinion if that feels more subversive to you].
K- Your'm Majesty. Whoever drew this must be referred to with some kind of royal moniker or else the referrer must drink. [Bonus rule: the Majesty must use the royal "we" pronoun or else they drink.]

Here's a set that I used for another friend group who was a lot more antagonistic to each other for fun. Specifically, this one is designed to allow more chaos, light physical risk, and the ability to mess with others.

Some people enjoy a bit of lighthearted rivalry.

Some people enjoy a bit of lighthearted rivalry.

A- Rant: [Yeah, we didn't care much for alliteration or rhyming.] Other people decide on a topic and you need to rant about it for 30 seconds. IE chairs, Tim Horton's, the colour orange, etc. If you can't fill up 30s with a rant, you drink. [Avoid bummers!]
2- You. Choose someone to drink.
3- Me. You drink.
4- Floor. Everyone must put their hand on the floor. The slowest person drinks. Hard mode: Everyone lays their entire body down flat on the floor.
5- Jive. Perform a simple pose/dance move. The next person does yours, then adds theirs. The next person does yours, then the other person's, then adds their own. The next person.... etc. If people start groaning, just make 5's = Drives instead, or even "Guys" (name a guy you hate, if you can't, drink).
6- Chicks. If you are femme OR if you are attracted to femme people, drink. 
7- Heaven. Everyone raise their hand. The last person to do so drinks.
8- Date. Choose someone to be your date. When you would drink, you can make them drink instead. When they would drink, they can make you drink instead. 
9- Rhyme. Say a word. The person after you must say a word that rhymes, and then the next person, etc. First person who can't think of a rhyme drinks.
10- Categories. Say a category, then something in that category. People will add to the list of things in that category. First person who can't think of smth drinks.
J- Thumbmaster/Viking. The Jack describes a prompt. Next time they do that prompt, everyone must follow the described action, and the slowest person to catch on drinks. [This is a one-time use, unless you trust your friends to not spam it every two seconds].
Q- Paranoia. Whisper a question to someone. That person answers out loud. If you want to hear the question, you must drink. [Once people can no longer think of creative questions, change it to Your'm Majesty, described above.]
K- Rule. Invent a new passive rule! People must abide by that rule until the next King is drawn. New Kings may choose to either add to, or overwrite the previous rule[s]. Next article I write about this will include a section on good/bad rules. :)

So as you can see, there's a lot you can do to mess around with the general format of the game. The most important thing to remember about drinking games are for getting the party going - they're not the place to show off your sweet gaming skills, and they're not for peer pressuring others into drinking. Even the DD should be able to benefit from the relaxed atmosphere that a drinking game can allow.

Next week I'm going to make a big master post of every Kings Cup rule that I know so you can make the ultimate Kings ruleset for your own parties/social gatherings! Until then though, I hope my templates can inspire you!