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Why, Why, Why?! #1: Theme Matters

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Why, Why, Why?! is a series of highly subjective, perhaps personally charged, and often provocative statements about the board gaming hobby.  At least they’re always worth debating.  Maybe you agree.  Maybe you don’t – but that doesn’t mean they’re not true!  And because I’m fair and balanced, I also draw upon the diversity of experience that we offer you here at iSlaytheDragon to present the “other side.”
Today we address…

Theme Matters – or “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!” 

I’m never one to argue that even the most thematically immersive board games make me feel like I’m “really there.”  I don’t pretend I’m Easy Company re-fighting the Battle of the Bulge during Axis & Allies.  Merchants & Marauders gives me no ethical dilemmas about playing merciless, cutthroat pirates.  Board games are only so much plastic, paper, wood, and cardboard.  Nonetheless, theme matters and here’s Why, Why, Why?!

1.  Theme conceptualizes the mechanics.  Otherwise, you might as well just solve equations from a math textbook.  Yes, the skeletal structure – rules, formulas, calculations, probabilities – are a necessity.  But giving reason to the mechanics is what creates an experience beyond the cardboard in which they operate.  When you first explain a game to some one new, you’re not going to start by explaining mechanics or minutiae or arithmetic, but rather what the game is about.  “In this game, you’re exploring the galaxy,” or, “To win this game, you need to build the strongest kingdom.”

2.  Theme animates the design.  Board games should stimulate and entertain.  While abstract games exist and a few even endure, they don’t spark to life. Theme almost always generates emotional responses, letting players engage in world building and not a little bit of role playing.  It allows for narrative, creates memorable occasions, and enhances the social experience.  The vast majority of hobby games have a theme, even if only thinly layered, so it’s quite obvious how important this is to games.

3.  Theme attracts.  Let’s not kid ourselves – people do judge books by their covers.  Yes, everybody likes different things.  But if you want to hook a buyer into pulling your game off the shelf (or clicking it on the internet), cool artwork that reflects an exciting or adventurous theme increases that likelihood – not a guy in a lab coat with a clipboard.  Now that buyer may promptly place it back on the shelf after reading the back of the box.  However, if the cover never attracts them in the first place, he/she may otherwise pass up something they’d actually purchase and enjoy – like the game with a cover of a guy in a lab coat with a clipboard.  This is doubly important in evangelizing the hobby.  Which would sound more interesting to most new and casual gamers?  “Would you like to play a game about clans surviving in the stone ages…or one about delivering mail in Germany?”  I know the answer every time I pose the question…

Even though weak themes are better than nothing, designers must still be careful when slapping on any old subject matter – gamers will see right through it.  You can have the best mechanics in the hobby, but if they don’t mesh with your story, game play will be cumbersome and disjointed, the exact opposite experience of what you hope to achieve with a theme.  Sometimes it works – at least commercially.  With it’s solid mechanics, Dominion (2008), ostensibly about building a medieval kingdom, won the Spiel des Jahres and has spawned half a dozen expansions for what is essentially playing cards to get more cards to play those cards in order to get still more cards.  But for every Dominion, there are dozens of others that slip into obscurity, like Lungarno – a title published the same year with solid, accessible mechanics in which you supposedly earn influence in a city by selecting tiles to lay down and play meeples on in order to claim family crests and earn points.  In either design, the theme is completely irrelevant.  The same mechanics could be imposed on other historic or imagined settings and still be as much work.  In fact they have – and it is.

On that note, theme can also push gamers away.  I’m all for encouraging unique and thought-provoking themes.  Churning out yet another game about zombies or train routes or medieval trading can prove problematic if you don’t have a really distinctive twist or engaging element of game play.  But unique does not always translate to better.  Some subjects can be disturbing for a lot of people – Chaos in the Old World, Tanto Cuore, Tommorrow.  Others just sound boring in that they fail to rise above some mundane, every-day life experience – Prêt-a-Porter, C.V., Blueprint.  But finding a truly fresh and appealing theme, say like Flash Point: Fire Rescue or Last Will, is a good way to offer something really original to the hobby, which never wants for craving something new.

Simply put, theme is important to enhance a game.  The more integrated the better; but even moderate incorporation makes the design attractive, alive, and intuitive, creating an experience much more beyond its mere rules and cardboard.

And now for another view:

Theme Is Secondary – or “Who cares where we are as long as we’re having fun!” 

There’s a reason why games can get rethemed and still remain fully functional and just as enjoyable as before.  You can think of theme as the interior of a car, it’s good for making you comfortable and setting the tone for your drive.  Maybe you’d enjoy your drive more with leather seats then that cheap stuff, but the car is only going to function in the first place because of what’s under the hood.  The ride is going to be smooth because of the suspension.  You’re going to be able to drive at night because of the headlights.  There are so many moving parts that you don’t know about or ignore because you’re wrapped up in your music or radio show.  Sure that superficial stuff is nice to have but you’re probably in the car to get somewhere.  You might have guessed that in this illustration the engine and other various parts that make the car drive represent the core gameplay and mechanics of your game.  They drive the game and make it fun.  The theme might appear to be the star of the show, stealing all the credit, but let’s look at what’s really creating that wonderful board game experience and why theme doesn’t deserve so much praise.  Theme is secondary and here’s Why, Why, Why?!

1.  Mechanics do the hard work.  It may seem like you’re really immersing yourself in a game because of the theme when in fact it’s the mechanics that are behind the scenes making sure everything is running smoothly.  The narrative only exists because the mechanics helped tell the story and didn’t get in the way.  You could argue that theme helps to explain mechanics, making them easier to teach or enjoy, but I think well designed mechanics work because they are well designed not because they have a themey sugarcoating to make them palatable.  Good, elegant design drives a game (like that car) – if they’re good enough you won’t even notice.  They toss a slow pitch to the theme to knock it out of the park and steal the show.  When I play a really good game it makes me think about what design choices made it good, how I could have improved my strategy, and what I might do the next time I play it.  I want to play again so that I can compete (or cooperate) and do better, not so that I can experience some deep narrative.

2.  Theme is interchangeable.  Do a halfway decent retheme of a good game and you’ve got another good game.   You’re going to come out with a winner not because of the theme but because it has excellent gameplay.  This seems proof enough to me that the theme isn’t really what matters here.  Some people even go so far as to retheme a game themselves, tailoring the experience to their own tastes.  These things are a dime a dozen, whether they’re unique or following the latest trends: zombies, steampunk, shipping in the Mediterranean, or grumpy guys on the cover telling you what to do.  You see, things pop up on lists of anticipated games because they sound exciting or a Kickstarter gets funded in the first week with the promise of a rich thematic experience.  Shortly after release you see it pop up all over the latest Math Trade because the gameplay didn’t deliver on the thematic promises.  Just give me a good game not some flashy theme!

3.  Theme repels.  As Jason mentioned, themes can be a big selling point but they can be an even bigger turn off.  Just because it’s novel doesn’t mean that people are going to want to play it.  Founding Fathers has a fairly unique premise but it couldn’t be further from what I would like to play a game about.  Smash Up uses a whimsical and jokey treatment but I’m not really interested in that kind of humor.  These are both good games with plenty of fans but I cringe when I think about playing them because of their theme.  I wish this wasn’t the case and I could move past it and simply enjoy their gameplay.   How many great games have you passed on because of the cover or description of what the game is “about?”  How many times have you had your favorite game get passed over because your group wasn’t into space games, or fantasy, or something taking place in Europe.  I guarantee that you’ve missed out on some gems that you would have otherwise enjoyed if not for the premise.  This is really a shame and I’m placing the blame squarely on theme for not allowing me and others to experience great games.

4.  Theme is rarely timeless.  The context of the theme to a specific culture and time can give games a limited shelf life.  Modern board gaming hasn’t been around for very long in the grand scheme of things so there aren’t any thematic games that have proven they can stand up to the test of time but I have my doubts.  Theme anchors a game to a specific time and place and the extent to which this happens may drastically limit its staying power.  Perhaps you’re not all that interested in your favorite game sticking around fifty years from now or even after your lifetime, but it is an interesting thing to consider.

It’s nearly impossible to refute that theme matters or that it can add to the gameplay experience.  What I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter that much, the mechanics are what really make our games teachable and enjoyable.  In the long run you’ll find theme mattering less and less while gameplay matters more and more.  The theme might get you to pick up a game in the store but the gameplay will have you coming back for more.  It’s often hard not to get swept up in the latest and greatest games, with something new popping up every week on Kickstarter and news of your favorite designer working on their latest project (or four).  However, there’s a movement towards more consistency and depth with playing the games that we love more.  When you start to approach games for their depth I think you’ll find that the allure of theme will fade and the gameplay will finally take the center stage where it belongs.

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion9 Comments

  1. Read this, enjoyed it. Thought-provoking.

    But hang on, aren’t points 2, 3 and 4 in the “Theme is Secondary” section just the result of tacked-on, topical, or just plain bad theming, not of theming in itself?

    As for point 1 – I’d argue that the importance of theme relative to mechanics depends on the game. Try a ‘choose your own adventure’ style book. It’s a rudimentary form of game where the narrative does the heavy lifting and the mechanic just points you to the next strand of the narrative.

    D’y’think?

    • Thanks for your thoughts John-Paul!

      I found it quite challenging to provide a counter-point to theme mattering so I tried to focus on the next best thing which to me was “mechanics matter more”. I was trying not to create a straw man and just end up attacking poorly themed games rather than the point at hand. The first point is my main one and I think it generally holds up for the kinds of games that we discuss. Regarding the other points I do think that even great and tightly integrated themes can be interchangeable and turn people off. I agree that games with a strong emphasis on narrative do make my points hard to sell but try telling someone that theme doesn’t matter in a narrative driven game.

      • Many thanks for the reply. Thought provoking again!

        “even great and tightly integrated themes can be interchangeable and turn people off”

        I have a sneaking suspicion you’re right. I’ll have to give it some thought.

  2. Good article. Some publishers will also retheme a game for marketability purposes. Cave Troll, frex, was originally an archaeologist site game, which would explain some of the mechanics (like the Adventurer, who had a pointy sword that did *nothing* and the gold you couldn’t remove from the caves). Rex, of course, was rethemed Dune when FFG couldn’t get the rights to / the rights were too expensive for Dune.

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  4. I’ve taught Game Design to graduate students at a university for years. Every year, I make them play a few boardgames, one of which is always Bohnanza, a game about planting beanfields. This is usually the most controversial game we play. I always ask the students if they think the game would have been more fun if it had been about collecting herds of dragons instead of beans.

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