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The Play’s the Thing… (further discussion on theme)

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Rendering of the Globe Theatre from Wikimedia Commons.
Rendering of the Globe Theatre from Wikimedia Commons.

Theme. It’s a word that many of us in the board gaming hobby employ and assume that everyone else all know what we’re talking about, but it also leaves some of us scratching our heads, saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So, while my esteemed colleagues Jason and Andrew debated the importance of theme several weeks ago, I’m aiming to look at it a little more fundamentally. What is theme?

Theme is the unifying vision that ties a board game together. It’s reflected, to varying degrees, in the artwork, the components, the goals, and the mechanics of the game.

I see four main philosophies of theme, and I’ve tied them to a hopelessly overwrought analogy:

  • Theme as stage: The theme is what people have come to see. The actors would have no chance to do what they’re doing without a stage. (And we get it, Shakespeare: all the world’s a stage. But some stages are stagier than others.) What this philosophy means in board game terms is that theme is the centerpiece. You’ve got this hankering not for a betrayal game, but for a space game. And you want to inhabit the world of Battlestar Galactica, if only for a short while. We’ve got just the thing for you, sir or madam.  You’d better show up with your best Adama impression and your most convincing “I am not a cylon!” face. Games with theme as stage tend to allow (and encourage) some role-playing elements, immersing players in the events of the game. Playing is not merely a cerebral activity; it is an experience. And that’s the positive side of it. What some (I?) would argue is that theme-as-stage games prioritize the metagame elements over the game itself. Theme drives mechanics, and so where we might expect imbalance in the wild, we will find it in the game. It may be fun and epic to have one alien race that just keeps coming back to life, but it’s much less fun if you’re the Loser, and you are living up to your name. The metagame is something to be talked about, but for those who aren’t as into role-playing, the experience may be lacking. Even a bad script can bring people who love the theater to the stage. But if you’re just taking theater to get the school credit, you’d prefer to perform lines you won’t feel embarrassed saying. (Why, yes, I can stretch an analogy even thinner!)
  • Theme as set: The theme provides a convincing atmosphere in which the play can take place, but it is secondary. It’s there, you see it the whole time, and it roots the events on the stage, but the action on the stage is what we’re supposed to be paying attention to. In game design, these are games that have some definite ties to their theme–either through components or rules–but typically, when it’s time for a design decision to be made, the designer will choose in favor of smoother gameplay rather than a seamless thematic experience. Innovation, despite many calling it an abstract, is a good example of a game with the theme as the set. The gameplay itself–draw, meld, achieve–is abstract and doesn’t “feel” like a civilization game. Yet the game still has an arc, as ages progress from prehistory all the way to the information age, and technologies get more and more powerful. The game mechanics and art don’t support the idea of civilizations besting each other through ideas and innovations, but the game’s arc and each individual card reinforce the theme. The Pirate Code, for example, allows a player to raid the other players’ score piles. Canning let’s you get rid of old cards and “store” them in your score pile. It’s abstract, but also thematic. Euphoria is a recent game I’ve played that also falls into this category. The art and components are beautiful and evoke the dystopian world of the game, but the mechanics don’t often reinforce the theme of wresting power in a dystopia. There are some thematic twists in the markets and in the knowledge track, and the atmosphere gives interested players enough cues to believe the world as they play, but doing so isn’t necessary to the game the way it is when the theme is the stage itself.
  • Theme as playbill: Have you ever read the back cover copy of a book, only to discover that the book’s contents don’t really match up? Similarly, have you ever read the back cover copy for a Reiner Knizia game? You might think, “Hey, I’m about to enter into the struggle of kings!” And instead you’re bidding in Egypt for tiles that might as well have puppies on them for all the marketing patter has to do with the game. I’m not saying this as a bad thing; it’s a legitimate philosophy. (In fact, Ra is one of my top five games.) But for games that follow this philosophy, theme is a means to save the game from becoming a pure abstract. Abstracts don’t sell well in the modern board gaming hobby, so it’s better if a game can bear some window dressings to pretty up the pieces rather than admitting their impertinence. Some background story can usually be invented to tie the pieces together, but one story is as good as any other.
  • Theme as script: Mere markings on a page, promising some entertainment if only a trained actor could give them voice. Abstracts are like this. It’s like reading Shakespeare at home. It will provide the intellectual enjoyment you might get out of hearing great words but without the trappings of the theater. There are no window dressings, no set pieces, no frills, and no illustrations: just you and the bard (or the board). Abstract games can be great fun. I’ve enjoyed my fair share of abstracts, because I like puzzles.

I’ve pointed to these as four discrete categories, as if there is no intermixture, but the truth is that games will have different shades and hues of these philosophies in them, and experience of the theme will vary from player to player. I played Lords of Waterdeep with a player who pretended he was questing and achieving great things, that he really was enlisting warriors, wizards, rogues, and clerics in his bid to control Waterdeep. I saw the game in the playbill category: a simple cube-conversion game (and not a very interesting one at that). A recent game of Inkognito, which in my estimation is a theme-as-set game, was played more as a theme-as-stage game. And I’ve played The Resistance, very much an experience game, with players who (at least at first) are unwilling to enter the spirit of the game and thus don’t quite understand the point. So players are clearly important to take the “theme” and make what they will with it. Imaginative players can make even the dry and dusty traders in the Mediterranean game  into an excuse to role play if they choose, and reticent players can stop even the most experience-heavy game dead in its tracks.

My point in addressing theme is twofold: first, there are different games for different environments and different players. Just as, aside from a Swiss army knife, there is not one tool for every job, there isn’t just one game that fits all players (although some come close). Games can seek to accomplish different things (in Kevin Nunn’s parlance, they have different “core engagements“) and provide different experiences, and that’s okay. I usually prefer more cerebral offerings that allow me to make plans and see them executed, but every once in a while I’m in the mood for a game that is completely metagame-oriented. And second, theme is very much dependent on the people and what they bring to the table. I have a friend who is working on a game design based on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The game idea arose from The Lord of the Rings–that is, he started theme-first–yet my guess is that most hobbyists who sit down to play it would call it dry and dusty and an excuse to capitalize on a popular franchise. Hearing him explain the game, the theme makes sense–especially if you’re a fan of the books more than the movies. But I suspect that players expectations when they hear “The Lord of the Rings” will trump any actual relationship to the book. My point is that, while it can be fun to oversimplify and rag on the “Ameritrash” games that create an experience at the expense of a solid game or the Euro games that might as well be abstracts (rather than relying on old standbys), in the modern board gaming environment, there’s a lot more overlap than we might at first admit, and we also have to realize that much of our perception of theme depends on who is at the table.

So what does this mean? If you like “theme-driven” games, the next time your Euro-loving friend shows up to game night, role-play a spice trader. If you don’t much care for role-playing, find a mechanism within the theme-driven game that you can enjoy and exploit (and try not to get too annoyed when others use funny voices). Despite the four (admittedly crude) categories I enumerated above, remember that the play’s the thing.

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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