Die of the Dead Designer Diary 2: Theme and Cultural Consistency

By the time I saw the game, the theme of Dia de Muertos was already there. James, the designer, had repurposed the caskets from another prototype about the mafia. As soon as he put a little stock art in then people wanted to play it. And of course they would, Dia de Muertos is criminally underused as a theme, but it has so much beautiful imagery it draws players in. The two games people think of when thinking of Dia de Muertos, are Skull, which is a fantastic game but light on theme, and one of my favourite videogames- Grim Fandango.

Recognise these?

Early on I read “The Skeleton at the Feast”, a fantastic book about Dia de Muertos customs. It was increidbly interesting, and started moving my thinking away from what we only learn in pop culture.

One of the first agreements I had with James was on hiring a cultural consultant. If we are theming around an occasion from a different culture we needed to hire somebody to help us get a deep understanding of the culture. There are some high profile games out there which have hit the headlines for having embarrassing cultural mis-steps and blindspots. We wanted to take every opportunity to make the game as rich and culturally consistent as possible. We were also incredibly fortunate to hire a Mexican artist, which again helped provide insight and suggestions to improve the game.

So our boards for the caskets became papel picado, the 4 aids for the players were bread, incense, candles and marigolds. The marigolds were also on the path which guided the souls back to the land of the living, which was 9 steps to represent the 9 levels of the underworld. Caterina is on hand to help each player. The whole game developed, and as the theme got richer it meant we could think about how it meshed with the mechanics. I can honestly say it’s been a fantastically rewarding experience, and I’m so glad we did it.

Footnote- I’d never actually had any Bread of the Dead until a friend brought me some last year after playtesting the game. So thanks Angel, it was delicious and I can heartily recommend some.

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