Mechanics and Analysis

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Exploring Explicit vs Implicit Themes

Ava Jarvis
United States
Bainbridge Island
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Tom Vasel is my favorite board game reviewer. I don’t always agree with him (I’d say that’s about 25% of the time), but he’s always fun to watch and highly opinionated. Most of the time I can understand why he likes or dislikes a particular mechanic, theme, or mechanic/theme blend. But there is one point of contention that I didn’t understand until I broke it down.

To illustrate, consider Blue Moon. I disagree with Tom on the amount of theme that’s there; he says there’s no theme, that Blue Moon is basically a glorified bidding game. Meanwhile I can’t tell why he can’t see the theme that’s threaded throughout the game, glorified bidding or not.

A recent example of “no theme” dooming a game in Tom’s eyes, and the BGG ruckus the followed in the game’s forums, is Lagoon: Land of Druids. At BGG.CON I decided to see if a lack of theme would be my impression as well. And to my surprise: I felt the theme as I played the game.

So I took a step back and considered: what is the difference between how theme is expressed in Descent: Journeys in the Dark versus how theme is expressed in Lagoon? And then I realized: in Descent, the theme is explicit; in Lagoon (and likewise Blue Moon), the theme is implicit.

Let me explain.

Explicit theme expression can be thought of as an abstraction of a real-world object or action that has a concrete representation, in the form of a mechanic, in a game. Consider Agricola (and indeed, this particular family of Rosenberg games): while the theme can be considered thin, there are many who regard the game as thematic because of its representations of, say, sowing fields or breeding animals or building equipment. These representations are highly abstracted, to be sure, but they can be related to the real world in an almost one-to-one correspondence. This is the easiest way to bring theme into a game, and perhaps the most relatable.

Of course, “real world” is relative. Consider a typical fantasy world of the D&D variety. You’ve got magic spells, weapons, and health/energy reserves that can be expended. Spells cost energy, weapons can be hefted if you’re strong enough or pure (or the opposite) enough. These sorts of mechanics build upon our experiences as physical human beings who tire, bleed, hunger, and so on. As such, these are also concrete representations in the form of mechanics.

But implicit theme expression does not have a concrete representation in the form of a mechanic. Or rather, the theme is only expressed through the interleaving of multiple mechanics and game play. Let us consider the case of Magic: the Gathering versus Blue Moon. MtG holds close to its heart the idea of energy expenditure to bring about spells and creatures into play. Every color has its strength and weaknesses, expressed in the kind of things they can do (white heals/pacifies, black decays/dark rituals, green grows/tramples, blue is mindful and tricksy, red destroys chaotically) and the kinds of creatures they create. This is explicit theme expression.

Yet Blue Moon also does the same thing over different factions. The Hoax are tricksy, the Vulca are extremely strong and destructive, the Aqua hold their own and are defensive, the Terra are a mirror reflection of both the Vulca, etc. But note: throughout the game, there is no strong sense that they casting spells or summoning creatures. It’s a numbers game, it is indeed a bidding game. Where is the theme? The theme comes out through how each faction plays and interacts with all the others. The theme is embedded in the number distributions and the special powers of each faction. This is implicit theme expression.

So let’s address the mentioned kerfuffle about Lagoon. Does Lagoon have theme? I argue that it does not have explicit theme expression, but instead implicit theme expression. The claim that Lagoon makes is that it’s about determining the fate of the world. There are special powers galore, but note that from Blue Moon’s example, “I have special powers” is not enough to claim “I have explicit theme representation.” But. What kinds of special powers are these? The longer you play the game, the more you notice that certain powers are Red-themed, certain powers are Yellow-themed, others Blue-themed. They are nothing so explicit as the MtG color wheel, but the differences are there, subtle though they might be. And as people struggle over the colors, the world changes. It becomes more destructive, or more healing, or more tricksy. Once a balance shifts too far in one direction, it is more and more difficult to bring it back the other way.

So in Lagoon, the claim is true: the world does start out balanced, and the actions of the players, as druid groups, determine what that world can do. It’s almost a meta-game inside the game itself; a kind of single-game Legacy-style mechanic.

Lagoon has theme. That theme is implicit, however.

Now, bringing things about in a circle, let us consider the question: is explicit theme better than implicit theme? Or is implicit theme better than explicit theme?

And like many things in gaming, I argue that neither is better than the other; they are simply different and appeal to different groups. Some adherents of one side or the other will often feel betrayed, I think, when confronted with a game that is the opposite of their preference. And this can indeed negatively affect one’s enjoyment of the game, almost to the exclusion of the mechanics themselves. But no one is simple just because they don’t like implicit themes, and no one is snobby just because they don’t like explicit themes. It’s just a different preference.

Ah. This brings to mind another question: can you mix explicit and implicit theme representation? I’m pretty certain that you can. It’s arguable that almost none of my examples are purely one form of expression or the other, that instead there is a spectrum along which different parts of games slide among at different degrees. But it is most interesting to contrast extremes. What can we say about Knizia’s Lord of the Rings versus Middle Earth Quest, for instance? How about games that seem to mix both explicit and implicit theme expression, such as Defenders of the Realm or Fantastiqa?

What about practical considerations for such a theory of theme expressions? Should one have different marketing for games that have implicit theme versus explicit theme? Is there anything sensible that the creators of Lagoon could have done differently that might have warned reviewers/backers and attracted other reviewers/backers?

It’s something to be careful about, lest one err on the side of being too technical in marketing. In essence, both kinds of games are making true claims as to whether they have theme or not. It’s how they express that theme that’s different. Such a concept can be difficult to get across in an information byte. I don’t have a clear answer, unfortunately; but perhaps you do.

One final note: commercially, is it better to have explicit or implicit theme? And I'd have to say: perhaps make at least some things explicit.
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