as a fan of ►thematic games, I always like to take a closer look at how well a game's theme is actually integrated and represented by the rules and mechanisms. Theme is certainly not the most important aspect for making a game "good", but it helps people with learning the rules and remembering them, as things are making much more sense. But theme in board games can be much more than mental glue.
I absolutely enjoy seeing something in a board game happen by the rules which is also backed up by a thematic reason, offering the players a subtle narrative and a logical explanation of what is actually happening on the table and why. Theme stimulates the imagination, provokes emotion and makes the game's fiction come alive.
I can genuinely smile every time in these situations, as these are the moments which are elevating the experience of playing a board game into something more: the game has become a medium of real immersion across the table and the best thing about this is, that the players won't even notice that they crossed over this line of getting immersed and absorbed into the game and atmosphere. It is not just you playing the game anymore, but now also the game playing you.
If this sounds all too abstract and theoretically to you, let me give you two examples. Warning, minor spoilers to Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island and Eldritch Horror follow, as I will be using 3 cards from these games in my examples.
Example #1 - Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island
As the name implies, Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island is a cooperative game about surviving as a group stranded on a desolate island, trying to overcome its countless challenges and dangers as a group.
Without getting too much into rules details, I think this event card is an excellent example for an elegant integration of theme into board games. The upper part of the card shows the card's title "Body on the beach" and describes in italic letters the event card's thematic background. The arrow to the left indicates that the group morale of the surivors is decreased by 1, as everybody is shocked by this horrible discovery.
The next part, "Burial", shows the players how they can deal with this situation: one player has to invest 1 of his/her 2 action markers on this event card with the shovel item being already built and available. As a result, this bad event then gets discarded and the player who took care of it gets 2 Determination tokens as a reward -- while not being really pleasant, it still feels good to do the right thing and maintain your humanity even under these harsh conditions.
If the group ignores this event, it will eventually trigger the lowest part of the card, showing the penalty: group morale decreases by 2, as we let our friend's body rot on the beach.
As macabre as this example may be, everything about it makes perfect sense: somebody has to invest some time into this, he/she needs to have a shovel available and if we don't take care of this, we will blame ourselves for not paying our last respect to our passed-away friend. Furthermore, the game makes a good point that morale and working as a team is of upmost importance in this depicted scenario.
Example #2 - Eldritch Horror
Eldritch Horror is a cooperative horror adventure game, based on the writings of famous author Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Players take on the roles of investigators, working together to prevent the upcoming end of our world by ancient unspeakable horrors. To accomplish this, players will be travelling across the world, refining their skills, aquiring helpful items, going on adventures, gathering clues and solving mysteries.
My example here is purposely very basic to show that theme can work even in a very basic frame. The upper part of the picture shows a random encounter a player can have. Please take a moment to read this short text passage with with blue background now.
The lower part of this example picture shows one of the many different items in this game, and it is in comparison to other items indeed a rather trivial one: a pocket watch. Still, the thematic background logic works perfectly here. If the investigator would have had this pocket watch available while searching, he/she would have been able to keep better track of time without actually wasting any.
Again, this 2nd example may be an arguably "boring" example about wasting time and a watch, but as I said before, I deliberately chose this one to show that the correct use of theme in board games does not have to be over the top exciting or super fantastical every time, but clever and elegant in its core in order to work.
There is obviously always a certain grey area for filling these gaps with your own imagination, which is not a bad thing at all in my opinion, as it challenges your mind to some degree and plays on your own fantasy. It is the fun happening between the lines and gears of the rules for you to discover with your own interpretation.
Theme can be exciting, funny, relaxing, horrifying, thought-provoking, educational or anything else you want it to be, depending on which game you pick for you and your friends. It creates unique stories you will remember and laugh about with your friends even years later. It's magic in a box, waiting to get unleashed once you open up that box and set up the game.
Having said all this, here comes the tricky part: theme is a double-edged sword which can cut both ways. Theme can be accurately implemented into a board game, yet at the same time miss opportunities, do questionable or even outright terrible things to players.
So after this rather long and passionate open love letter to theme, I think it's time to talk about the potential bad aspects that can follow with it.
To be continued in my next blog entry "Theme in board games: The importance of doing it WRONG"...
►What are the games that work similarly for you and your groups ?
►What are the most memorable thematic moments you ever had ?
Let me know in the comments !
My irregular blog of me pondering about game design, all the art in and behind board games, the social aspect of playing games, the community of board games itself and everything between and beyond that.
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