Theme vs Mechanics, Form vs Function: Games where one supports the other, and those that don't
Michael Noakes
United Kingdom
Redhill
Surrey
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As the number of games I’ve played and as my collection has grown, my tastes have also evolved. Increasingly, I find myself reaching for that perfect blend of theme and mechanics: a game where the rules and the mechanisms simmering beneath the surface not only promote the theme, but seem an integral part of it. Far too often theme seems added as an afterthought; at times, the mechanics undercut the theme; at worst, the tension between the two can ruin an otherwise brilliant design.

Here are the games (that I’ve played, I’m sure there are plenty I’ve missed) that I feel best blend form and function—and those that don’t. This is my first Geeklist, 100% personal opinion, probably wrong and highly debatable.

Enjoy!
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1. Board Game: A Few Acres of Snow [Average Rating:7.43 Overall Rank:240]
Michael Noakes
United Kingdom
Redhill
Surrey
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First there was Dominion, and deck building was fun. The tenuous, medieval-generic theme was largely irrelevant—it was about building that streamlined, gold-busting, VP-buying super-deck faster than your opponents. Deck-building proliferated across genres and crept (and still creeps) into a host of other games, but rarely “made-sense”... see examples below.

Then came A Few Acres of Snow. Deck-building suddenly made sense. The delay in receiving new resources from across the Atlantic was perfectly represented by the time it takes to reshuffle your deck and receive those new acquisitions. Even better, the deck-bloat that hampers growth as your colonial holdings expand effectively captured the strain of running a distant colony. Wars in the game are prolonged and logistically difficult affairs, slow-moving and laborious, siphoning away cards that aren’t available again until the conflict is resolved.

Yes, there are complaints that the game is “broken”—I haven’t played enough for the Halifax Hammer to be an issue—but for that perfect blend of theme and mechanism, A Few Acres of Snow may be unrivalled.
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2. Board Game: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords – Base Set [Average Rating:7.31 Overall Rank:286]
Michael Noakes
United Kingdom
Redhill
Surrey
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This recent hyped release is an excellent example of the deck-building mechanism gone thematically wrong. It’s a fun exercise in card-flipping and dice-rolling, and a valiant attempt at thematic soundness, but ultimately it doesn’t really work.

The many ways of manipulating cards is a strong attempt at being thematically coherent: discarding cards as damage, getting them back through healing, burying a card for the rest of the game, tossing them as a permanent loss: all of this is excellent stuff. But it doesn’t overcome the ridiculousness of a hero burdened with four weapons being forced to punch a goblin in the head because of a bad draw. And it strains credulity when that same warrior fails to acquire a new weapon due to a failed roll: how to justify that that short sword was too heavy to pick up?

Abstraction can lead players to brilliantly fill in the narrative gaps with imaginative solutions. The balance of detail to abstraction needs to be carefully set by the designer. Pathfinder doesn’t get it right: too much precision in a game—in this case, detailed items and enemies, locations and traps—actively works against the theme as players struggle to explain stumbling across the Innkeeper’s Daughter in a dungeon, a wall trap triggering in the woods, or the sudden arrival (and departure) of your previously-silent Troubadour.

(Any number of otherwise fine games suffer from similar problems. I love Mage Knight—but what thematic explanation explains being forced to travel when you really just want to twat a goblin across the head with a mana-fuelled Rage?)
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3. Board Game: The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game [Average Rating:7.63 Overall Rank:105]
Michael Noakes
United Kingdom
Redhill
Surrey
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Don’t get me wrong: this is in many ways a great game. Tolkien’s theme is (mostly) conveyed through fantastic artwork and a clear love for the subject—although I imagine it won’t be much longer before they’ve copied-and-pasted every word of the novels as tenuously-related flavour text for new cards. Mechanically, the game cleverly ramps up the tension through threat; some individual scenarios introduce brilliantly nuanced conceits that deepen the game (the burning buildings of Amon Din are a personal favourite); and despite the occasional slip into ridiculousness (ie, Archery X party kills on the first turn of the Druadan forest) the game conveys a real sense of adventuring across Middle Earth.

It’s unfortunate then that, mechanically, the game is utter nonsense, making Pathfinder seem like a finely-honed work. The cycle of prep-quest-travel-combat works for driving the game forward, but thematically makes little sense. Crawling through the depth of Moria, how do I explain the sudden arrival of a Citadel Guard? Why on earth would Gimli ever be named Steward of Gondor? How does that eagle attack underground? How did Beregond fit into those two suits of Citadel Plate?

Questing makes even less sense, as it’s rather nebulous what committing to it actually means. Did I just physically dispatch Aragorn to check out the Brown Lands? How’d he get back in time to defend Eowyn who is, presumably, checking out the opposite bank of the Anduin? Middle Earth suffers beneath some kind of weird time dilation that allows characters to be here, there, and everywhere as needed.

Worse, only a passing knowledge of The Lord of the Rings reveals well-constructed decks as thematically ridiculously. What is Denethor doing adventuring about when he’s meant to be tending to Gondor? Clearly Gimli and Legolas shouldn’t be running about together, and what’s up with Leadership Aragorn before he’s reluctantly taken on his legacy? The proliferation of non-canonical characters eases this tension, but disappoints, as it’s Tolkien’s world that we’re here to play with and not FFG’s version of it.

With thematically-coherent decks often being easily weaker than those mechanically designed to win, and with scenario-specific limitations often making them impossible to play, The Lord of the Rings: LCG is perhaps the best example of a good game that is thematically at odds with its own mechanics.
 
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4. Board Game: Android: Netrunner [Average Rating:7.93 Overall Rank:39]
Michael Noakes
United Kingdom
Redhill
Surrey
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Perhaps by being set in FFG’s own and rather bland Cyberpunk-generic Gibsonesque rip-off universe, it avoids the pitfall of thematic geekery that occasionally undermines Lord of the Rings. More importantly, the mechanical design of the game beautifully encapsulates in abstract form the battle between Cyberspace Cowboys/Deckers/Runner and Corporation.

The interplay between the asymmetrical sides is elegantly rendered on the tabletop through the play of cards. The ice-blue coldness of enigmatic ice, the mystery of remote servers, the ever-growing rig of the runner and the resources he or she gathers: all this is set at a perfect conceptual distance for players to immerse themselves into the game. This is unfortunately easily shattered by tedious discussion of the “meta”, but in the best games both players are drawn into the narratives of their IDs, decks and the cards played to table.

It’s not perfect, however. How to explain the randomness of the resources available to a corp? What is the ratio of value for money between corp and runner, because surely a Sure Gamble pays out less than the Hedge Fund, and wage-slave Armitage Codebusting Runners are earning less than corporate Private Contracts.

But… who cares? Imaginative and willing suspension of disbelief trumps the few quirks in this brilliant match-up of theme and mechanics.
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5. Board Game: Mage Wars Arena [Average Rating:7.75 Overall Rank:136] [Average Rating:7.75 Unranked]
Michael Noakes
United Kingdom
Redhill
Surrey
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Mage Wars solves the thematically-difficult issue of decks (that resources or actions are inexplicably random) by having everything in the deck available, via the thematically-brilliant inclusion of the spellbook. Sure, it’s a gimmick: but it’s a brilliant one! Leafing through pages of conjurations and incantations brilliantly situates the player in the position of a Mage on the battlefield in a way many other tactical wargames don’t.

Of course, no game can be completely immersive: a game is defined by its rules, and the limitations of cardboard, time and place impose certain abstractions that are largely taken for granted: play order, randomizing methods, and the abstraction of points are necessities that in the best games fade in the tense battle for victory. Besides, who really wants to stand in some bloodied arena of death, flesh flayed by a Warlock’s lash or a Steelclaw Grizzly’s claws, facing down certain death with nothing but a bobcat at your side and wearing a diaphanous gown, suspenders and a push-up bra?

(I mean, seriously, what is the Priestess wearing?)
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6. Board Game: Twilight Imperium (Third Edition) [Average Rating:7.90 Overall Rank:47]
Michael Noakes
United Kingdom
Redhill
Surrey
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… but could just as well be Eclipse(or any number of otherwise brilliant games.) These are fantastic works: both the tight efficiency of Eclipse and the thematic juggernaut that is TI3 create epic tales of space-faring races or factions battling across the stars. How, then, to explain the sudden disbanding of your war fleet, ships bristling with horrible nuclear and laser death and a multitude of guns that go “pew pew pew” with every roll of the dice—just because that other player snuck in an extra VP? Why does the eternal conflict for the stars end on the advancement of a turn counter?

Nothing decimates the thematic joy of epic immersion like an utterly arbitrary ending.
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7. Board Game: The Castles of Burgundy [Average Rating:8.12 Overall Rank:11]
Michael Noakes
United Kingdom
Redhill
Surrey
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Which is why, maybe, if it’s not really going to make sense, why even try?

I like Castles of Burgundy. It’s fun enough, and even my wife likes it. There’s clever bits to it, with the ability to spend workers to modify die rolls, mitigating what might be an otherwise problematic randomizing factor. There’s multiple paths to victory, a sense of building something, and a delightful pace that rushes the game to an ending before it’s overstayed its welcome.

But what the hell am I actually doing? Why castles? Why Burgundy? What are these skills I'm learning and where are they coming from? What do these VPs I’m earning actually mean? It’s all a lot of thinly-disguised nonsense. Which, if you glorify in the joys of clever mechanics over any semblance of believable theme, isn’t really a problem.

(Do any of Feld’s designs have a believable theme?)
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8. Board Game: Dungeon Lords [Average Rating:7.44 Overall Rank:180]
Michael Noakes
United Kingdom
Redhill
Surrey
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Dungeon Lords is a fantastic game that disappoints if you’re expecting a cardboard version of beloved PC game Dungeon Keeper. It a fairly standard worker—placement game with some absolutely brilliant twists and a fantastically bonkers puzzle to solve between years as lunatic adventurers invade your newly minted dungeon.

So many elements of the game seem thematically nonsensical: heroes who only adventure for four rounds, Paladins dashing between dungeons mid-quest, and the increasing rewards for later-arriving workers….

… except that the exceptionally well-written rule book text helps justify the cognitive gaps for the players. Dungeon Lords is perfect evidence that effort and good flavour text can make all the difference. Typical worker-placement elements are enhanced by humorous descriptions explaining why being third in line for food nets a greater reward—and a step on the evil-o-meter—that otherwise might’ve seemed a purely mechanical device to add tension to the secret selection of worker roles. Between Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert and Dungeon Lords, Chvatil must have some of the funniest and best-written rulebooks in the hobby.
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9. Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates [Average Rating:7.71 Overall Rank:70]
Michael Noakes
United Kingdom
Redhill
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Abstraction is often a game’s best thematic ally: by distancing itself so distantly from the nitty-gritty of ideological expansion and conflict, Knizia’s masterpiece renders a believable model of cultural clashes in antiquity. But this review justifies the thematic and mechanical soundness of the game far better than I could:

(... hmm, I can't seem to find it anymore. The review gave a detailed and compelling argument as to why T&E was a thematically coherent and clever game, rather than being as thinly applied as with many other Knizia games.)

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10. Board Game: Arkham Horror [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:237] [Average Rating:7.32 Unranked]
Michael Noakes
United Kingdom
Redhill
Surrey
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The pinnacle in the coming together of form and function, theme and mechanics: Arkham Horror, as a game, is the ultimate expression of intent. From its mind-twistingly inept rulebook, to its utterly mad narrative; from prose so purple as to make Barney blush to the insanity of game mechanics that can end a six-hour game with “devour 1d6 investigators”; to the sanity-crushing turns lost in Time and Space to the absolute isolation of each and every player as they face down the horrors stalking the streets of Arkham: this game perfectly encapsulates the ineffability of Lovecraft’s (and the other authors’) mythos by slowly inflicting his fiction’s creeping madness on its players.

Forget the refined gameplay of Eldritch Horror. That game can’t (yet) cough up a deputized, insane and wounded Nun with a machete and bottle of whiskey hacking her way through zombies and maniacs to reach a portal to the Abyss. You won’t bump into Cthulhu during a random jaunt across an Other World, or feel an ominous shiver as an old man walk by; and though your games may end in a reasonable length of time you can’t (yet) stumble across the wildly improbable, wholly hilarious and extraordinarily fun stories that Arkham Horror, at its best, secretes.
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11. Board Game: Thebes [Average Rating:7.17 Overall Rank:376]
suPUR DUEper
United States
Villa Hills
Kentucky
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I think Thebes has some pretty tight theme/mechanic integration.

Pursuing different activities takes time
The more research you do, the more likely your dig will succeed
But best of all, when you dig, you really dig. An excavation of a game site is handled by reaching into a bag and either pulling out valuable artifacts or worthless send. Very nice!
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12. Board Game: Village [Average Rating:7.55 Overall Rank:111]
Michael Noakes
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Redhill
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After my first few plays of Village I sold off Caylus, thinking it was a better fit for worker-placement game of choice: shorter play, less vicious, pleasant theme.

Mistake! A few more plays in, Village completely lost its charm. Not only did it increasingly begin to feel like just-another worker placement game (multiple paths to victory, cube conversion, abstracted VPs) but the thematic elements increasingly began to grate and ultimately undermined my enjoyment of the game mechanics.

What initially seemed a neato-mechanism--worker-placement, but with death!--ultimately ruined the game for me. Why did time run at different speeds for different families? Was this some strange commune of TARDIS-dwelling Time Lords? And choosing who died, and actively trying to kill off Uncle Bob, the farmyard dwelling old-timer who never did anything in his life yet somehow earned top billing in the village chronicles... well, it didn't ring true. Death became just another mechanism to efficiently manipulate to earn VPs.

Though certain elements were fun (I enjoyed the cynical portrayal of the Church and the Judiciary) there wasn't enough to elevate the game above, well, anything else. What were the cubes I was collecting for each action? Faith, intelligence, and so on, yes, but why were they randomly scattered across the village? Why did the wagon I built that got me from village A to village B crumble on arrival? Increasingly, as the painted theme thinned and the efficient Germanic engine was revealed, the game died; I sold it.

I've just bought Keyflower. Will it fill that meeple-shaped Worker Placement hole in my collection?
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13. Board Game: Mage Knight Board Game [Average Rating:8.13 Overall Rank:18]
United States
Bloomington
Indiana
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Mage Knight Board Game is more a strategy game than a thematic one, and a play session doesn't offer much in the way of a narrative. There is no quest with its backstory you are trying to accomplish (as in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game or Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island), there are no events that add to the story.

Even then, the mechanics of the game are thematic. The different rules for day and night, or for different adventure sites; the way reputation affects your actions; the whole scenario structure around this exceptionally powerful hero who is able to accomplish great feats in 3 days and nights; all these combine to make this a very thematic game despite the lack of a narrative.
 
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14. Board Game: Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island [Average Rating:7.96 Overall Rank:35]
United States
Bloomington
Indiana
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Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island is an incredibly thematic game in almost all areas that matter. In every play session a unique and memorable story develops, and most of the gameplay elements have good thematic justification. This is an excellent example that a Euro-ish, worker placement game doesn't have to be a spreadsheet simulator with sloppily pasted on theme.
 
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