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Subject: What does theme mean to you? rss

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Vivienne Raper
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This thread is inspired by discussion of whether the adventurer 'cubes' in new euro Lords of Waterdeep make it unthematic. I wondered what 'theme' meant to you... There seem to be three definitions:

1.'Theme' simply means 'topic'. The question 'does it have a good theme?' becomes 'I like zombies. Is this game about zombies?' So Agricola might have an unexciting 'theme' compared to Arkham Horror because farming isn't as 'exciting' as battling tentacled monsters.
2. 'Theme' means 'game couldn't be about any other topic'. So some people think Through the Desert has a 'pasted-on' theme because it doesn't have to be about camels.
3. 'Theme' means 'mechanics and components are consistent with game topic'. This is my preferred definition of 'theme'. For example, I think Finca has good 'theme' because the fruit meeples are fruit-shaped. Lords of Waterdeep has a less good 'theme' because rogues and wizards only differ by colour. Likewise Mage Knight has a better 'theme' than Dominion or Stone Age because, in Mage Knight, it's obvious why forest hexes are harder to cross at night. It's not obvious in Dominion why you could trash a Pirate Ship in a Chapel. Or how the civilisation cards in Stone Age relate to buying wood.


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Pete Belli
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For me it's a mixture of 1) and 3). 2) doesn't fit for me, because even if it could be about anything else, the game can still carry the theme very well.
I think three is more important to nongamers, because they probably aren't that good at honoring nice mechanics. My non gaming family loves Agricola right now, after just playing settlers, Elfenland, bit of El Grande and some other lightish stuff. So here point 3) showed its weight for non gamers.
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Vivienne Raper
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pete belli wrote:



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All of the above, then?
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Richard Irving
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Theme is one of the most misunderstood ideas in gaming. Occasionally it is of vital importance, others it has no relevance whatsoever. Most times it is of minor importance.

A great theme can't save a bad game. As long as the theme reasonably fits well with the the topic, the game will be enhanced. Even if it doesn't, the game could still be well worth playing.
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TS S. Fulk
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rri1 wrote:
Theme is one of the most misunderstood ideas in gaming. Occasionally it is of vital importance, others it has no relevance whatsoever. Most times it is of minor importance.

A great theme can't save a bad game. As long as the theme reasonably fits well with the the topic, the game will be enhanced. Even if it doesn't, the game could still be well worth playing.


Depends on who you talk to. A game without a theme had better be a very fun abstract game. Otherwise it ain't hittin' my gamin' table. It's ALL about theme.
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Dale Moore
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Theme is just the topic. no more or less.

With that said the importance of the theme of a game depends on the game designer and what came first.

If the designer says I have an Idea for a game that plays like this. He develops it then adds a theme at the end to make it more approachable and to help explain the rules, you end up with a game that might be outstanding but you'll ask yourself why is this game about river flow and not about churning butter. The theme is kind of weak.


Then you have the designer that approaches their game design completely different. First thought would be I'd really enjoy a game about Churning butter. They start thinking about all the steps it takes to churn said butter. Then they start to develop the game mechanics that make the most of the butter churning experience. These games would fall apart without the theme. Often the mechanics are a little weaker but it's forgiven because of all that butter churning tension.


side note - My daughter is dating a boy that the Dad used to be Amish. Name is Yoder and we have been teasing her with Amish Paradise a lot.

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TS S. Fulk
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Dale-not-Chip wrote:



side note - My daughter is dating a boy that the Dad used to be Amish. Name is Yoder and we have been teasing her with Amish Paradise a lot.



I agree with all you said. That's why I like Wallace and Chvatíl games.

side note — my sister's first husband was a Yoder and there were many Amish relatives at the wedding. I successfully converted her first born (also a Yoder) into a gamer, before I fled across the pond.
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Jonathan Tullsen
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Theme means: game couldn't be about any other topic

Abstract means: game could be any other topic
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RJD
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tssfulk wrote:
rri1 wrote:
Theme is one of the most misunderstood ideas in gaming. Occasionally it is of vital importance, others it has no relevance whatsoever. Most times it is of minor importance.

A great theme can't save a bad game. As long as the theme reasonably fits well with the the topic, the game will be enhanced. Even if it doesn't, the game could still be well worth playing.


Depends on who you talk to. A game without a theme had better be a very fun abstract game. Otherwise it ain't hittin' my gamin' table. It's ALL about theme.


Yep, I'm with Tssfulk: a good theme is vital. Rril is right in that if the gameplay sucks, not even an incredible theme can save it, but a great game with an awesome theme that's well matched to its game mechanics is what really knocks it out of the park for me. Without a cool, well integrated theme, other games just can't compare.
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Ronnie
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#1 then #3 then #2 (sometimes).

A game's theme is essentially it's topic but if a theme is well implemented than that topic will fit the mechanics well and what one does throughout the game will make sense within the context of that theme. It is also a benefit if one feels like they are "doing" whatever the theme implies they are supposed to be "doing" while they are playing the game.

As to the cubes in LoW, to implement the theme more effectively they should have been meeples with shape/art that fit's their character types. That said, I got the game for $30 and if they had made that improvement then the price might have increased enough that I would not have bought the game on a whim as I did. I wouldn't mind an upgrade kit that had that feature but based on my research buying enough meeples to replace them myself would be far too expensive for em.

SIDE NOTE: If I was comparing 2 games that both have high quality art and components mechanics will definetaly trump theme in how I rank them. Why? Because great mechanics can easily rescue a pasted on theme but an awesome theme will never rescue a game that has poor mechanics.
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Victoria Osborne
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Theme is the flavor of the game. And the look, feel, tension,etc. the game mechanic might be transferable to several kinds of games. I think mansions of madness and descent, i see very similar game mechanics, HOWEVER, i see very different themes.

Some themes are not as obvious. Yea we all know agricola is about farming, but, it does not really feel like farming or even look like farming, (i know i grew up on a ranch and i do not smell chicken and animal feces, nor do i get massive blisters on my hands after playing the game) it still feels like a euro game of resource management.

HOwever, last night on earth feels like i am in a cheesy zombie movie, and arkham horror feels like ia m fighting against the ancient ones. the pictures, flavor text, miniatures, etc all give that feel. Theme is more than just the setting the game is in but the look and the end run feel.
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Scott M.
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THEME:


NOT THEME



Got it!...
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Vivienne Raper
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Redward wrote:
It is also a benefit if one feels like they are "doing" whatever the theme implies they are supposed to be "doing" while they are playing the game.


I started this thread partly because I've realised lately that I can't learn a game unless I can create a "story" explaining the rules and mechanics. This is much easier if the game is intuitive because the theme connects to the underlying mechanics.

This creates a weird situation where I can play Mage Knight and Agricola just fine. But I just can't understand Stone Age or Dominion. I'm slowly learning Dominion by creating an "story" explanation for every card: it's taking a long time. If I stop playing Dominion for a few weeks, I forget the rules again. There's no "story" for my mind to hang onto.

I wonder how many 'non-gamers' have my learning style and whether this explains some of the introduction-to-board-game-fails or why certain games bomb. For example, my mum shares my thinking style and I managed to teach her Magic the Gathering. I'd be happy to teach her family Agricola, but suspect she'd struggle with Stone Age. Yet Stone Age is seen as the lighter gateway game.
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Scott M.
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veemonroe wrote:

I wonder how many 'non-gamers' have my learning style and whether this explains some of the introduction-to-board-game-fails or why certain games bomb. For example, my mum shares my thinking style and I managed to teach her Magic the Gathering. I'd be happy to teach her family Agricola, but suspect she'd struggle with Stone Age. Yet Stone Age is seen as the lighter gateway game.


This is my issue 100%,

I am looking for a game that is not about how optimal my next cube placement is to score me the most points because that is the best move...no...

I want a game where I drive my battle fleet i spent 3 turns building perfectly and drive it right down the throat of the Enemy and watch them cower in their chair before my mighty pile plastic might!! I toss blood soaked dice with the names of their children engraved upon them and ..well because.. hrmm, i might be off topic but ...that's theme to me.
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Sam Phillips Beckerman
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#3 for me.
I totally agree about LoW. Played it twice this weekend, love the game, but those damn cubes are the weak point of the game. When I get a copy, they will be pimped out.

I also agree that a good theme, well implemented, is a great teaching/playing tool. Played Phoenicia last night and was reminded how poorly designed boards and bits can make a game confusing.

I'm totally a slut for games with high production values, which entails both good physical quality components and well designed/themed ones.
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David Boeren
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Mostly 3, some 1.

Taking your Through the Desert example. It could be an abstract game. But the plastic camels really elevate the game for me and the way the game plays does feel like it could be caravans so that box gets a check also. It's not a heavily themed game but it has enough and the theme is enough of a fit to the mechanics that it "works" for me. However, it could easily have had a different theme and still been fine. Very few games are so tightly integrated that you couldn't retheme them to something else that works just as well. For instance, instead of camels we could be placing body/leg parts and building centipedes. Or little trains. Are there any euro games about trains yet?

Agricola is a little more invested in #3. It's about farming, and you actually build a little farm. They didn't go as far as they could on the components, but the mechanics match up fairly well. And if you want more of a component fit there are all sorts of aftermarket upgrades you can get.

As an example of a game that CAN'T be about anything else, look at War of the Ring. You could potentially try to retheme it to some other fantasy wargame, change all the names and artwork, etc... but it's no good. There's still a small party of mixed-race guys traveling across the world to destroy an evil artifact trying to corrupt the one carrying it that if they can do it will win the war instantly. No amount of cosmetic alternation will fool anyone for a second that this isn't about the Lord of the Rings setting. But this sort of game is rare IMHO.


Topic alone isn't generally enough to really feel like a good theme. Say you take a game about fighting ninjas and re-theme it to fighting zombies. That doesn't make it feel like a zombie game. These "zombies" aren't going to be infecting anyone and turning them into more zombies. They don't ACT like zombies. They're agile and quick. I don't buy your zombie theme when the zombies are flipping through windows and can parry my attacks. You've got to change the mechanics too or it won't fit. They have to be slower and more predictable. They need to incorporate at least some common zombie traits like infection, needing head shots to kill them, dismembered limbs continuing to fight, dead teammates rising to fight for the other side, etc... You don't need ALL of these ideas, but you'd better have at least some.
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J C Lawrence
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Theme is a source of convenient nouns and verbs used in the rules for aspects of the game.
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Brook Gentlestream
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I think you're list should actually be like this:

1) Theme is the "topic" of the game (subject)
2) Theme refers to how well the mechanics match the topic of the game (integration)
3) Theme refers to how well the components match the topic of the game (immersion)


Your #2 (whether the theme is exclusive to that game) comes from the mechanics matching the subject. Its a little bit harder for your "armies" to be "schools of fish" if there are mechanics that allow them to shoot each other and throw grenades.
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Bob Thayer
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Theme is equal to setting, in my mind.

It dictates what the game is about and what will (or will not) be encountered or expected.

A game with a theme of Lord of the Rings will not have Smurfs, but can take place in areas of that world that were only mentioned or never explored in the books. LOTR games should have men, dwarves, hobbits and elves, and they should stick to the general laws of that universe. Wizards are rare. From the books, there are only 3 at most (Gandalf, Sauroman and Radagast the Brown) so you can't have a dozen of them - UNLESS that is what the game is about (The Council).
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Monica Elida Forssell
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I mainly play games with historical themes, but mechanics may varie. But I also try out other themes, I like exploring. Co-op games have been a hit for me!
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veemonroe wrote:
There seem to be three definitions:

1.'Theme' simply means 'topic'. The question 'does it have a good theme?' becomes 'I like zombies. Is this game about zombies?' So Agricola might have an unexciting 'theme' compared to Arkham Horror because farming isn't as 'exciting' as battling tentacled monsters.

2. 'Theme' means 'game couldn't be about any other topic'. So some people think Through the Desert has a 'pasted-on' theme because it doesn't have to be about camels.

3. 'Theme' means 'mechanics and components are consistent with game topic'. This is my preferred definition of 'theme'.

For example, I think Finca has good 'theme' because the fruit meeples are fruit-shaped. Lords of Waterdeep has a less good 'theme' because rogues and wizards only differ by colour.

Likewise Mage Knight has a better 'theme' than Dominion or Stone Age because, in Mage Knight, it's obvious why forest hexes are harder to cross at night. It's not obvious in Dominion why you could trash a Pirate Ship in a Chapel. Or how the civilisation cards in Stone Age relate to buying wood.


Thanks for your thoughtful analysis, the best I've seen on this topic.

To me (and I suspect most Thematic Gamers), 'Theme' is 'The game's ability to tell a grand, dramatic story, like in an adventure book or movie'.





Dramatic narrative has two important components:

A. It is goal-driven.

The Fellowship needs to reach Mount Doom to save the world from Sauron's domination.

B. It is heightened by conflict between opposing goals

Sauron throws his armies and minions in the way, creating battles and sometimes impossible-seeming obstacles for the Fellowship to overcome.

Thematic Game design starts from the dramatic conflict which it wishes to portray (your #1), works out the bits and mechanics to best tell that story (your #3), ending with a game which clearly portrays that topic, and no other (your #2).





One good post in the Lords of Waterdeep discussion suggested that Agricola is more thematic than Waterdeep, because sheep act like sheep in the game, needing fences, etc (your #3, portrayal of theme by mechanics).

While that's true, #1 (dramatic topic) is still important to Thematic gamers because it drives the story (A & B above).

They couldn't care less how thematic the mechanics are (#3), because the story's still about an ordinary, nameless peasant family growing carrots and raising pigs.

No-one would make a Peter Jackson movie out of it. It's not very dramatic (though the family does have the goal of surviving, feeding itself and thriving).

There's also little conflict, except with the 'forces of nature' which threaten the family's survival.

Whereas in most Thematic games, the goals of the actors in the narrative (represented by the players) are in direct opposition to one another. In Twilight Imperium, whoever controls Mercatol Rex, wins.





So #3 alone is inadequate to make a game 'Thematic'.

Of course, #1 and #2 alone don't make a game good, any more than a poorly crafted book about a great topic is a good read.

The greatest Thematic games - War of the Ring (first edition), Battlestar Galactica - have all 3:

A dramatic topic, parts and mechanics which fit and help tell the story of clashing goals, and p.s. there's no way this game could be about anything else.
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Carl Garber
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Mister Sugar: For me it's less a question about theme and more about a narrative. I think all games can be given a narrative to help explain it, but some lend themselves more naturally to this style of explanation given their mechanics. I started a thread similar to this awhile back about theme but discovered that what most people call "theme" is not really what I was interested in.

I think it would be interesting to do a series of reviews in which games were explained in terms of narrative. While I am waiting for my plays to get high enough before I review Strasbourg and The Castles of Burgundy, maybe I will try my hand at this. Puerto Rico is one that I had thought to do in the past(I always teach this game narrative style to new players) as well as Macao(which takes waaay more imagination to pull off.

I am interested, has anyone come across this type of narrative explanation of games here on BGG? (Not just this discussion but actually explained a game in narrative terms)
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It means 'category' and belongs to the 'language of science' and not the language of art or the language of philosophy/religion. It's kind of an imprecise term that I would like to avoid.
 
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Patiently waiting for the zombie apocalypse...
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If one can smell the zombie's putrid stench while playing.... that is theme.

Ohh wait those were just some of the gamers I gamed with... shake



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