In gaming circles, people tend to fall into two groups (when you oversimplify things): the gamers who prefer highly thematic (and often highly complex) games, and those who prefer the often simple-but-strategically-deep eurogames, whose themes are often pasted on and rarely affect gameplay all that much.
As with all “there are two types of people…” shticks, it’s really more complicated than that, but I’ve simplified for simplicity’s sake.
But really the division there is fairly common. The tightly packed eurogame is usually fairly easy to learn, fairly difficult to master, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference if you were building castles out of dwarf hats or riding ponies through middle-eastern Europe. Then you have the highly thematic games like Twilight Imperium or Battlestar Galactica or Thunderstone, which have a lot of rules to really fill out their theme and create an experience. Players in either camp can certainly find things to complain about in the other camp—thematic games are too complex, eurogames are too dull, etc. etc.
The other day I taught my parents Pandemic. This is the most complex game they have learned so far, but I have been gradually working my way upward, and with each game they learn, they start to inherently grasp more and more gaming concepts, making new and more complex games easier to grasp.
Pandemic is an… interesting game to teach new players in that it is cooperative; and as such, new players who may feel very overwhelmed by the information presented to them tend to let the experienced players run the game. As a teacher of this game, one must be very careful to encourage new players to think through strategies on their own, listen to their thoughts, and allow them the chance to make their own decisions—even if it means losing a game or two—so they can become an active and effective collaborator, and not just a vehicle for your own plans.
I was surprised how quickly my parents started contributing. They made a few mistakes early on that cost us the game, but they quickly learned and were soon offering up ideas and plans of their own, even in the first game. I was surprised because in previous games I’ve taught them, they spent a lot of time asking questions about the mechanics before they could even start to formulate strategies. Though I was able to handle the more complex elements, such as infections, epidemics, and outbreaks, they still had little trouble grasping the actions they could do and were able to jump quickly to strategizing.
I realized the reason for this: it was the theme of the game. Now, Pandemic is more thematic than your average Eurogame, but it’s not heavily thematic; the concepts could easily be replaced with something else that wouldn’t result in much of a gameplay difference. But unlike previous games they’d learned, such as Ticket to Ride, the theme actually does inform your actions. You move around to cities to treat diseases—a highly familiar word that makes sense in the context of the game, and thus isn’t hard to remember.
Pandemic somehow manages to find an excellent middle ground between refined mechanics and an interwoven theme—not just something pasted on top as icing, but something that helps inform your choices and actions and makes it easy to learn a complex game.
I’m sure there are plenty of other games out there that do this well, but Pandemic is a great example of where theme and mechanics collide to formulate an awesome whole.
I guess the end point is this: if you’re designing a game, try to make your theme inform the mechanics. You don’t have to create something overly complex, but if you can tie the actions you’re making to a theme, that helps the game make a whole lot more sense, it makes the game easier to teach, and it makes it more accessible. Not that there isn’t room for more abstract games or much more thematic games, it’s just something to consider where you can.
As for teachers, it’s great to be able to tie in mechanics to theme when you’re teaching new players. Not only does it spark the imagination, but it helps make connections in a new player’s brain, helping them to understand more quickly what’s going on—to move past trying to remember the actions one can do, and start learning strategies.
Games where mechanics and theme work together are my favorite. Like you said; it can go a long way toward easing complexity when the rules just make sense for what you want to do in the theme. It is why a game as complex as Merchants and Marauders is so popular.
Pandemic is the only game my mother-in-law will play, and a large deal of the reason she’ll play is because of the theme.