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Subject: What does theme mean to you? rss

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Moe45673
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A lot. Take a game like Dawn of the Zeds (first edition). The gaming components are not the greatest and are pretty laughable next to a beautiful game like Stone Age. Look at the chits in this game:



The dice that come with the game are these microscopic things



The fate deck shown in that pic is very small sized, much smaller than a typical deck of cards. Honestly, you've never seen such small dice in your life.

It's extremely difficult to win. There are a lot of rules to keep track of. It's solo. It plays on a paper board. Heck, while I was a huge zombie fan in my early 20s, I grew tired of it.

Yet I can't stop playing it. When I do, I fall into the board and am watching people move and zombies appear. I'm not watching chits painstakingly slowly wait their turns to do an action, I'm watching frantic villagers put up barricades against the inevitable zombie horde while some respected village figure tries to achieve some semblance of order and stubborn refugees from outlying villages are finally fleeing the zombie menace to my town, bringing infection with them. And I have no idea what will happen next.

Don't get me wrong, some games are great regardless of theme, like Cosmic Encounter. But this game's many mechanics are heavily tied into making the theme work and it pulls it off brilliantly. Yes you'll usually lose but if you find this irksome, you don't know anything about the zombie genre.

I haven't played Last Night on Earth but after reading up on it, it looks like a game with meh mechanics but they greatly support the theme. Space Hulk: Death Angel – The Card Game is another game where the theme makes it rise above what the gameplay is. These are the games where you look at the exciting box and say "I want to fight off zombies/space mutants like the badasses on the box are!" and actually DO it. There are plenty of games that have exciting box art, good abstract mechanics, and terrible in-game theme.

And then, of course, there are the games that have great theme and great gameplay, but the two don't tie together and this really annoys me to the point where I can't enjoy the game because of this! In this case, I'm referring to Nightfall
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Enrico Viglino
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Generally, it means I'm in the wrong conversation -
talking with a bunch of people who see the subject matter
of a game to be largely unimportant.

Themes are something applied to Monopoly expansions
and eurogames where the mechanics are all that matter.
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Mark Bird
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I see "theme" in two different lights. Please bare in mind this is my personal view on how I interpret theme, not how I believe everyone should understand the term/s...


#1) "Pasted on" Theme
This game has a space pirate theme. You push this cube around the board, a grid map with little detail, drawing cards which have basic text which could be encounters or derelict vessels to loot (loot is an alternatively coloured cube). Player with the most loot cubes at the end of the game, played over a predetermined amount of turns, wins.


#2) "Dripping" with Theme
This game has a space pirate theme. The board is a meticulous, wide open galaxy of star systems, planets, moons and space vessels. Your playing piece is a ramshackle space craft, as is each players, being unique to themselves. The draw deck has beautiful artwork & flavour text, amongst the desired effect of the card, and is printed on beautiful card stock. Each player has it's own ship "vault" which is where you can place your loot tokens (little plastic cargo crates) or prisoners (small Han Solo-esque cryo tubes). The game allows expansion of ships by adding extra vault space - this is done by adding extra small board to your ships vault. And the list goes on...*

So to me "theme" really just means the genre that the game is (attempting) to fit into. Some games do it well, others just slap it on as a way to market a game *cough*Cthulhu Rising*cough*.

Personally, as may be no surprise, I am a mb. And proudly so. I use board gaming as a bit of an escapism in my life, so when it comes time to dedicate a few hours of my non-working life to a game I like to feel immersed in it - components, game experience & story all play a major part in this - and forget the world around me.

* Wow, that pirate game I described sounds cool enough that I might actually start working on said game.
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Moe45673
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Mohrlock wrote:

* Wow, that pirate game I described sounds cool enough that I might actually start working on said game.


Wouldn't that be a re-themed Merchants and Marauders? whistle
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Mark Bird
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Moe45673 wrote:
Mohrlock wrote:

* Wow, that pirate game I described sounds cool enough that I might actually start working on said game.


Wouldn't that be a re-themed Merchants and Marauders? whistle


Wouldn't know honestly, never played it But if it sounds similar to you perhaps I should check it out!
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Alessandro Maggi
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I appreciate the whole discussion and the well thought interpretations.

If I have to think rationally about what "theme" means to me, I'd say it's just what's the setting/story of the game plus the visual (and eventually "auditory" and "tactile" when they apply) assets of the game components.

Then again, while I'm playing I often don't care about the theme... that is, rationally. However, there are games that I play that draw me in, that without noticing make me think and act like the character I'm playing would, creating the so called suspension of disbelief.
After finishing the game, sometimes hours passed and I just notice how everything was an intense experience.

To me a game is successful when results in a similar experience, and during a game I cannot really tell where the theme ends and where the game starts. That's not exactly #3, even though it's often a requirement. Problem is, it's not all game merits/faults: it's also a matter of players' attitude and overall mood.
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Freddy Dekker
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CM Randall wrote:
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





So to you theme is a dirty old sock hidden somewhere in the games box.gulp
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EnderWizard
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veemonroe wrote:
3. [b]'Theme' means 'mechanics and components are consistent with game topic'.


I think it's mostly number 3 for me, but here's the thing: it really depends upon each game. To me every game has certain levels of Mechanics and Theme. Here are examples of what I mean:

Pandemic's theme could very easily be changed for a zombie apocalypse scenario but whatever the theme is, the game would still evoke a "holy crap we're going to lose now" feeling because the mechanics are actually what give that sense, not the theme.

Based purely on Mechanics, War of the Ring could easily be an interstellar conquest game but I doubt it would sell nearly as well. The theme in this is important to the enjoyment of the game.

The theme in Dominion is 100% unimportant to the enjoyment of the game. This is proven by the variants presented on BGG (Battletech and the wood disk version without art, etc).

If Fortune and Glory were actually about traveling the world to remote fishing locations to compete with professional fisherman to win Fame and Money, I would have absolutely zero interest in it (replace Nazis with Bass Pro fishermen and instead of the Golden Amulet of Atlantis you can fish for Sturgeon of Lake Titicaca in Peru). The strength is that the game balances Theme and Mechanics well.

Think about Zombies! for a moment. This game is focused way more on Theme than on Mechanics. The game's score suffers because of it. A game can't hold its own simply based on Theme - it needs a solid mechanic to go with it, hand in hand.

Last Night on Earth's theme can be changed out to be about aliens invading a circus... oh, wait... it's been done with Invasion from Outer Space.

Lords of Waterdeep is a strange bird. If there were little minis of fighters and wizards instead of cubes *MY* personal enjoyment of the game wouldn't be increased but for others it may.

Through the Desert could be spaceships and asteroids. Or it could just be cubes and disks. This is one where Mechanic overrides Theme and my enjoyment of the game isn't influenced by the delicious, candy looking pieces.

Ahh, crap. I don't know what the hell I was saying anymore. I can't remember my point. I was going to say something clever about Theme being the toppings and Mechanics being the cheese, sauce, and bread and then something, something, something else.

I need more coffee.
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Theme means: "Less QQ, more Pew Pew."

(95% of thematic games have that in common.)
 
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Simon Lundström
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For me, I think it's a 3 if you leave out the "component" part. In your example, I think Finca has a horrible theme, because the way you gain fruit doesn't at all relate to a fruit market. In that case, I can't care less if the meeples are fruit-shaped or not, if the game mechanisms reflect the game's topic, that's much more effective than if the components do.

Take Space Hulk as an example. Play that with meeples and it will still be a game that's greatly themed – the confinement of the corridors, the dice rolling, the overwatch, all that would still be very much felt in the game, which goes as the topic (aliens vs men in space ship) says. The fabulous components add even MORE of that feeling of course, they're not unimportant. But if the game mechanisms don't reflect the topic, then the game fails thematically, no matter the components.

Radical School Hours is just a deck of cards, yet I've rarely seen something that is so thematic. Every single thing you do in that game has some sort of thematic logic in it – the more events you get, the more likely you are to get disturbance in what you do.
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1&3 mostly. For me theme is the topic of the game, but I prefer games where the topic works well with the mechanics and components. When the topic is well integrated with the mechanics, I can deal with bland components. Even amazing components can feel like a pasted on theme when there's no connection between the topic/story of the game and the mechanics/gameplay.

Somehow Arkham Horror hasn't felt very thematic to me, it's too fiddly, too much upkeep, to many rules and doing things in the right order. It's a great game, but I never felt like I was fighting against the old ones, I felt busy moving markers around on the board and on my player board. Witch of Salem always felt more tense to me, because I had a sense that it was possible to win among all the ways we could lose (with AH I didn't even care about the endgame because it seemed so far away). The topic isn't as well integrated as it is in AH, but it gives me more opportunities to get a sense of the story instead of keeping me busy with upkeep.
Some games just seem to work for me regarding their theme while others don't and it doesn't necessarily fit a rational explanation of what I think is a well implemented theme.

I think Dominion's theme could be almost anything. With 90% of the cards I don't even see the connection between the card name and the card powers. However, I like that it has a theme and each card has a unique name and image that makes it easier to tell them apart. In that way a theme can be useful even if it feels pasted on.
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J C Lawrence
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calandale wrote:
Generally, it means I'm in the wrong conversation -
talking with a bunch of people who see the subject matter
of a game to be largely unimportant.


Oh, it gets worse. I think of the subject matter of games as the abstract problem/question they express. It takes an effort to pull back and think about theme or mechanisms.
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P. Mihalarias
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pete belli wrote:



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I have to know. Was this microbadge designed to be intentionally ironic?
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CJ
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If theme weren't important then even the most hackneyed of eurogame designers wouldn't 'paste' one on.
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Sam Phillips Beckerman
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Tamburlain wrote:
pete belli wrote:



mb

I have to know. Was this microbadge designed to be intentionally ironic?


reminds me of "Waterworks" with the bathtub & wrenches
 
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Samo Gosaric
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veemonroe wrote:
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.


I always suspected I liked heavily themed games better, though I'm also fond of some themeless heavy on interaction genres (trading, stock market games). Then I played some Knizias and other counter-intuitive euros and came to realisation I can't stand games that are not intuitive. I can't be bothered wrapping my head around VPs awarded by some arbitrary spreadsheet.

Now it's not solely a question of theme helping you understand the mechanics easier, as I find abstracted games intuitive as well if the objectives are clear and easy to discern. There's also a way for heavily themed games to be contra-intuitive. Usually expressed by some of these: bloated, kitchen-sink, mechanics in the way of theme. And universal criteria is: does the game make you feel that you do what the theme suggests you should do?

One of the best anecdotes on this topic is that once an eurogamer came to look our game of Cyclades and asked where the victory point track is. "You must get 2 metropolises" counts as clear objectives in my book.

P.S.: the question of theme and intuitiveness might be related, but I wouldn't consider them to be the same issue.
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Vivienne Raper
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sgosaric wrote:

I always suspected I liked heavily themed games better, though I'm also fond of some themeless heavy on interaction genres (trading, stock market games). Then I played some Knizias and other counter-intuitive euros and came to realisation I can't stand games that are not intuitive. I can't be bothered wrapping my head around VPs awarded by some arbitrary spreadsheet.


I'm the same as you. I need the theme and mechanics to be intuitive.

Oddly though, I've loved the Knizias I've played: Priests of Ra, Through the Desert, Tigris, and Blue Moon. I think it's because they're so elegant. They have about three rules, but tonnes of depth - like Go and the best abstracts. Most of the depth is spatial/tactical and not spreadsheet-diving (except possibly Priests of Ra, which isn't my favourite of our Knizias).

sgosaric wrote:

P.S.: the question of theme and intuitiveness might be related, but I wouldn't consider them to be the same issue.


I think you're right here. Games need a theme (unless they're abstracts). The theme can help or hinder gameplay - this is part of how the game is intuitive.
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