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Deep theme, emergent theme
Thi Nguyen
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I used to think I didn't care about theme. I guess, in some ways, I still don't - if I game is themeless, I can just tune it out and play the damn system. But I've been noticing, lately, that there's a certain kind of theming that I am in completely love with, and which seems relatively rare: a kind of deep, emergent theme, that comes out of the core mechanics and emerges in play.

I mean: a lot of games have some kind of familiar core mechanic that wouldn't be that thematic in an of itself, and then the designers sprinkle all kinds of theme-dust over the top. Flavor text, special powers on a character, a special move, something like that. (Fantasy Flight seems to be ground zero for sprinkling theme fairy-dust all the hell over the place.) Call this surface-theme, skin-deep theme. Call it chrome.

But in some games, the thematic-ness seems baked into the very essence of the core mechanics. Best of all, sometimes I'll have no hint of how thematic it will be in reading through the rules. But in play, it'll suddenly rise up and smack me in the face.

I'm particularly in love with when it's done elegantly, when one or two simple mechanics suddenly interlock and come alive and suddenly the thing FEELS LIKE A REAL THING, even though it just seemed so dead on the page. This is why this list is going to be mostly sort-of Euro-esque games. Deep, baked-in thematic mechanics does happen all the time in wargaming and miniatures gaming, but there, it usually seems to happen because of a fine-grained simulation, because of the accumulation of a thousand precise representational details. That stuff is great too, of course, but the thing that I want to totally swoon over here is when it's just a handful of rules, a simple mechanic, and in play, it becomes something evocative.

I only know of a few. Please show me more.
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1. Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates [Average Rating:7.71 Overall Rank:71]
Thi Nguyen
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Here's my Ground Zero for this sense of deep, emergent mechanics. And I know that here, like, a billion people will think I'm wrong.

Tigris & Euphrates is the second-most thematic game I know.

It's not in the flavor text, because there is none. It's not in the pieces, that's for damn sure. The rules just make some bare suggestions, and I know that, for most people, this is the ultimate example of Knizia's tendency to just paste any old theme onto a bone-dry abstract.

But think about what happens in a game of Tigris. Slowly, little civilizations start to grow, expand, in an open terrain. At first, they all follow sort of similar, predictable patterns. And they encounter each other and... chaos. Civilizations crumble. Vast empires fall into dust, leaving behind their shattered remnants to start again.

But then something else happens. Permanent things emerge - those damn monuments. They can't fall apart, they stay valuable. These are the lasting centers, the Istanbuls and the Cairos, that somehow rise up of the chaos and last. And then suddenly everything else shifts around them. All shifting chaos suddenly orients around those centers, trying to take them over, succeeding, falling apart, but still, these centers last, through different civilizations, different ruling dynasties.

It's so natural. It's so alive. It changes every game - you're not locked into a particular version of that theme. And it all comes from a few simple rules - about how civilizations get points, about the external conflicts and shattering, and those unshatterable monuments.

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2. Board Game: Amun-Re [Average Rating:7.34 Overall Rank:271]
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Knizia loves to do this: have parts of civilization last, while everything else crumbles around it and needs to be built anew, around the ruins of the old. It's why he loves him his Egyptian theme - think of the long-term monument scoring in Ra. It happens in Amun-Re too - the simple fact that the pyramids and stuff last between the rounds, while everything else falls apart, gives the later round the feel of new civilizations playing in the ruins of the old. But I still think nothing pulls this off as well as Tigris.

And I don't think I'm just making this up. There are tons of Knizia games that *are*, I think, pure exercises in abstraction and with entirely arbitrary theming. But no other civilization type game gives me the feel of civilizations falling and new ones rising in their remnants, like Knizia's do.
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3. Board Game: Greed Incorporated [Average Rating:7.01 Overall Rank:1681]
Thi Nguyen
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Greed Incorporated is, I think, single most deliriously, gorgeously, delightfully thematic game I have ever played.

First of all, it's not in the pieces. I mean, look at this mess. Little plaques, little weird market calculators, cubes on endless little tracks.

But the precision of the feel - of amoral, selfish CEOs building and tanking their corporations through the boom and bust of the 80s and 90s - is extraordinary. And it happens through just a few slender mechanisms. First of all, there's the accounting rule. You have to book each corporation's yearly income, and if this year's income is less than last year's, you get fired. Of course, you want to get fired - since you, the player, only get money from your fat severance package. But you also want to pump up your company's accounts to a monstrous size before you loot and run. So the same thing always happens: after running your company sort-of-well, you need to float it just a little bit longer than should, strictly, be possible. So you start to do all sorts of utterly skeezy, morally sickening deals with your similarly motivated fellow players, to cook the books just right, just to make it look, for a second, like you're still a legit CEO. "Oh, how about I sell you this sand for... $200? And you sell me a sand for... $200?" You can almost smell the cigar smoke and over-peated scotch in the sickening gentleman's club where the deal's going down.

But that's not even the best part. Oh no. The best part, the subtlest part, is that the event deck is subtly stacked so that in the early part of the game, stuff like Land and Houses and Sand soars in value, and then in the later part of the game, that stuff plummets in value and Computer Chips and infotech soars. And then, even later, Computer Chips drop and suddenly it's all Mortgages and Advertising. And, because of one more simple rule - companies are limited to operating four resources at once, and they can't get rid of one - a company that was really good in the early part of the game is suddenly stuck making crap. Horrible, hideous, worthless crap. So the only way to adapt, the only way to keep up with the new economy, is to dump that horrible old dinosaur of a company and make something fresh and new. You know, like, for instance, a neat new company that repackages Credit into Mortgages.

So you've got to make a *start-up*. But it's very important that the game rules don't name this explicitly. There is no special move called "Silicon Valley start-up". It just emerges from the mechanics, this need to make something fleet and young and new.

It's insane. It's delicious. It's hysterical. And it all emerges from a few mechanics about corporate operation. It's SO INSANELY TASTY. Also, it helps to, as my wife insisted, Pandora up a selection of terrible 80's music and crank it. Starting a station with "Huey Lewis" is about right.
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4. Board Game: Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game [Average Rating:7.79 Overall Rank:69] [Average Rating:7.79 Unranked]
Thi Nguyen
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And then there's X-Wing. Look, I have a complicated relationship with X-Wing. It's like a few moments of utter rapturous deliciousness, wrapped in a layer of crap. And there's a lot of chrome. But right at the core, beneath all that, is something amazing.

I've been trying to figure out why I like X-Wing more than Wings of War, despite the greater mechanical cleanliness of the original Wings of War system. I mean, a lot of the slow crud I object to in X-Wing isn't there in Wings of War. But it just feels, in my gut, more like my eight year old self imagined dogfighting would be like. At first, I thought it was just the greater simplicity of X-Wing's maneuver dials. Or the greater zippiness of the ships. And all this is surely part of it.

But the center of my preference, I think, is in two central mechanics that X-Wing adds: the Barrel Roll, and the Boost. These, for those uninitiated into this particular terrible glorious money-suck of a thing, are special abilities that some ships have. Most movements in the game have to be programmed ahead of time, simultaneously. But Barrel Rolls and Boosts can be added on top of your programmed move, after you've seen how your opponent has moved. They also let you move twice in a turn, which allows for some excellent mid-asteroid-field twisty-twistiness.

And the way these two simple mechanics capture the sense of some ships being more *maneuverable* than others - the way it captures, in a deep, profound, bone-deep, *mechanical* way the way in which TIE fighters zip around those slower, clunkier Y-wings - is totally incredible. The clunky heavy ships feel so unbearably clunky, and the twisty-turny ships feel so crazy twisty.

The most infantile, gut-deep, childish raw, imagination-soaked joy I've had in gaming of late is maneuvering that huge Buick of a Millennium Falcon, with Boost ability, through razor-sharp tolerances, through an asteroid field, just out of anybody's shooting arc. For a game that clunks along through a thousand annoying steps and die rolls, for brief moments, it inhabits precisely my childhood dreams of dogfighting.
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5. Board Game: Greenland [Average Rating:7.12 Overall Rank:1514] [Average Rating:7.12 Unranked]
Thi Nguyen
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Eklund games are on the edge for me - they are obviously fabulously rich in theme and detail, but I'm not sure if they're quite *emergent*. The theme emerges from a thousand bits of exact detail. Maybe I'm splitting hairs here, but see what you think. Take, for instance, Pax Porfiriana. The very central mechanics - the sliding market, the dropping prices, the reservations - don't, I think, lead to that evocative theme. Instead, Porfiriana seems to build its thematic energy from all those lovely details - the territorial limits, the ways each particular regime changes the economy, the gun store, etc. They feel more like the detailed, pointillist theming of wargaming, instead of this other thing I'm chasing here.

But Greenland is different for me. Greenland has a pair of core mechanics that seem to create that weird sense of desperation and sorrow and historicity. The first is trophy-taking: the fact that you when you hunt awesomely, when you get that huge victory point bonus for taking that trophy, you wipe out that species, and diminish the economy for everybody. This, by itself, generates the natural drive of the game, to push you towards some sad wasteland where your peoples are wandering a drained, formerly fertile land. But then you add the second: second is the changing victory points - the fact that polytheists count these hunting trophies for victory points, but monotheists don't - they only care about acquiring certain technological goods. (Oh, and of course, you don't have fixed factions - you all start polytheist, you can convert to monotheism voluntarily, but you can also, once you convert, try to send missionaries to those annoyingly decadent, trophy-rich polytheists and convert them by force to the monotheist victory track, where they'll probably lose.)

These mechanics give rise to all the central tensions in the game. The rich land desolates. Food gets scarcer and scarcer. And if your people transition to monotheism - god, do you HATE the polytheists. They and their insane, unthinking ways, which are destroying your land. And if you're still monotheistic, and doing quite well with your hunting and your trophies, then you will DESPISE those conniving polytheists, and their attempts to convert you. Because you're doing great, eh? You're going to win the game, just as long as nobody changes your value system on you.
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6. Board Game: Imperial [Average Rating:7.62 Overall Rank:147]
Thi Nguyen
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I suppose this kind of deep, baked-in theme is easiest to find in financial games - you can just build a market system into your game. We could probably list quite a few market-manipulation and stock games here. But I have to give a delightful nod to the astonishing thematic unity of Imperial, that ingenious, globally epic investing game. Possibly the most cynical moment happens when, entirely via emergent mechanics, a player figures out that, if they kill off all their soldiers before payday, they might be eventually be able to milk a little more money out of that treasury.
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7. Board Game: King Chocolate [Average Rating:6.69 Overall Rank:3826]
Thi Nguyen
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Logistics games, too, might have a bit of an easier time of getting that core-mechanic to theme match. But I want to shine a very particular light on the fabulous and vastly underappreciated King Chocolate. Partially because I think it's been ignored for its sort of drab (though utterly functional) components. (I can just hear, in the back of my head, the Shut Up and Sit Down guys bemoaning the look of the pieces, talking about how they'd rather shoot themselves in the head than play such a dry and horrible looking thing). And also ignored because it's rule-set is so tiny, that it flies underneath the reigning view that Heavy Games Need Lots of Rules.

This game has a very small rule-set. Can we call it a Knizia of rules? Is that a term we can make up? It has, like, nine rules. You could write the rules on an index card. The key idea, just like it says (adorably) on the back of the box, is this: chocolate moves through 6 stages in processing. You can only control 4 of those stages! Better cooperate!

Add to that a simple mechanic about how you grow your processing facility size (with a little hexamino tile laying, natch) and suddenly you've got this insane beast going - this living, wriggling, python of a supply-chain. And out of these nine-something rules suddenly a whole living economy comes to life - complete with supply shortages, bottlenecks, bloats, saturated economies. And you suddenly start thinking like some MBA or something. Look! There's a choke-point coming up - all this stuff is in Stage I (farms) right now, but there's just not enough roasters at stage IV, there's a choke point, and can you build up in time to take advantage of it? Maybe, oh maybe, oh glorious maybe.

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8. Board Game: Spyfall [Average Rating:7.02 Overall Rank:454] [Average Rating:7.02 Unranked]
Thi Nguyen
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And then there's Spyfall, which is the most mechanically thematic party game I've ever experienced.

The rules are elemental: all but one of you knows your location (a Post Office. An Amusement Park. The Opera). One of you, secretly, is the spy. If everybody else figures out who the spy is, they win. If they spy figures the location, they win. (There are more rules, but you can basically ditch them).

And what emerges from this elemental mechanic is so fabulously and precisely thematic. If you're not a spy, you're paranoid. You're careful. You're surfing this careful informational edge, you're trying to suss out the spy, without leaking too much information. And if you're the spy, you're trying for this magic level of plausible-sounding content-free BS. And it is exactly the experience of BS and BS catching, of posing and poser-hunting. It is fakery and its enemy bottled down.

This game is so good at capturing this experience, at modeling the BS-hunt, that I actually used it in a class I was teaching on social epistemology and the design of the legal system. (Question: how do you best design the court procedures to get real expert witnesses, and sort out fake ones?) I ended up having students try to write procedures to break the game and catch the spy every time. Turns out: every procedure makes it easier for the spy.
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9. Board Game: A Few Acres of Snow [Average Rating:7.42 Overall Rank:255]
Thi Nguyen
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Some Martin Wallace have this sort of deep theme, some don't. But for my money, the most astonishing movement from a few core mechanics to an evocative theme is in A Few Acres of Snow. This connection has been made many times - hell, Wallace says it in the rulebook. But it's such a good example here.

First, the fact that it's basically an anti-deckbuilder - that your deck bloats horribly - does, indeed, capture the miserable sense of an expanding bureaucracy, of being mired down in the horrors of management. And second, very elegantly, that familiar fact when you conquer something, it goes in your discard pile, and you have to wait, wait, wait to get it back - combined with the need to have that one *very particular new card* to move off of your newly established base - does, like Wallace says, capture the slowness of getting supplies, of getting established.

It's deliciously horrible.
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10. Board Game: Battle Line [Average Rating:7.42 Overall Rank:186]
 
Thi Nguyen
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Only one more Knizia, I promise.

Battle Line. The theme is Greek warfare. The play is ultra-simple: allocating cards into poker-like hands in nine columns. But the feel is perfect, because the point of the game is about holding things in reserve, about trying to figure out where your opponent is going to make their breakthrough, trying to suss out where you can beat them and where you should just give up and send your dregs because you're going to lose anyway. It's about holding and then waiting, waiting, waiting even more, for god's sake, until that sweaty, terrifying, angstful moment when you finally **commit** your forces. And that's the center of this game: from it's nine simple columns, you get a full sense of the drama and horror of committing your troops.

(A proviso: this only works when you play without the tactics cards. The sense of almost being able to know what your opponent's doing, of a claustrophobic, narrowing choice space, only happens when things are more predictable. And I offer, as an argument for the thematic rightness here, how much weirdly less enjoyable this game as Schotten Totten, with its awkward highland games theming.)
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11. Board Game: Rommel in the Desert [Average Rating:7.54 Overall Rank:1105]
Thi Nguyen
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And I'm barely going to touch wargames - I'm sure people who are far better versed than me can come up with a thousand examples. Wargames are probably the sector that has the most consistently baked-in theme - though often with less elegance than those rare, deeply thematic Euros.

But it's still worth celebrating a few of the more exceptionally elegant bits of mechanical theme-through-mechanism. I've always loved, for example, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage and some of its CDG brethren for really giving a sense of having to decide between political and military uses. (I always imagined having a few over-worked consuls, and having to decide where to allocate them.) But the wargame I admire the most on this front has to be Rommel in the Desert. Take the familiar base Columbia block system, and add a few very simple rules about supply chains and gasoline, and a random hidden deal of movement-enabling gasoline, and suddenly the drama of desperate tanks mired without gas in the desert, stretched supply lines, and desperately hoping your opponent doesn't realize how little gas you actually have, praying for enough in the next shipment...
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12. Board Game: Food Chain Magnate [Average Rating:8.19 Overall Rank:28]
Thi Nguyen
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And Food Chain Magnate. Dear God, Food Chain Magnate.

This is a late addition. FCM almost didn't make this list, because FCM has so many interlocking mechanics, and because I was distracted by how much I enjoyed the chrome. I mean, those adorable pizza pieces make my day.

But the more I think about, the more I think that feel of riding a wild, bucking marketplace, of being locked into a death-grip duel with another food chain manager, of trying to abuse the market for your own gain, comes from three core mechanics:

First: you create demand.
Second: customers are lazy and don't want to walk far.
Three: customers will travel for a cheaper price.

And with that, you suddenly have all this dazzling insanity - that desperate price slashing, the attempt to corner markets, all the stress and horror of eking out a business existence in a competitive market - it just rises out of what is, in the end, a surprisingly elegant rule-set.

There's more of course. Each mechanical detail adds something to the interlock. Luxury apartments which pay more. The fact that customers require that their demands get filled entirely. All this contributes to that dense, interweaved sense of an living market, and the desperation of being locked into a cutthroat market war.
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13. Board Game: Daytona 500 [Average Rating:7.14 Overall Rank:1454]
Thi Nguyen
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A comment Ray just made unlocked something in my brain:

Ray was talking about Kramer's deep theme, and I said: I love me some Kramer, hard-core, but I've never found in Kramer the deep mechanical thematism that I found in Knizia. Maybe I'm just a weirdo - but Kramer, though always wild, juicy, and fun, always felt to me like pure game systems. El Grande, Merchants of the Middle Ages, Mexica, Cavum - I love them all, they don't feel deeply thematic. Maybe one way to put it is - the various parts seem thematic at first, but as I play it more, any sense of place or real-world event falls away - the mechanisms don't track precisely, the more you get into the game. Where with Greenland and X-Wing and, god help me, Tigris, the harder you play, the more the system becomes evocative.

BUT: and this is a huge BUT - then there's Kramer's Daytona 500, an old favorite of mine, and one of the most perfect examples of deep theme I've ever seen.

In Daytona 500, you've each got your own cars that you're trying to win with. But your cards - your cards are drawn from the same deck, and they all move everybody's car. One of your cards might only move your opponents' cars, or a mixture of your own and your opponents. And if you play a card that moves your opponent, you have to actually move them forward, if possible. And you have to play all your cards, eventually. How the hell do you win, then?

Two mechanics. First: the drafting rule. If, when Car A moves, Car B is directly behind it, Car B gets sucked forward a space for free. So, of course, if you have to move your opponent, you want to time it so you can get a little something out of it too.

Second: the bottlenecks. The track narrows up at key moments, and cars can get stuck behind other cars. If you choose the right moment, you can waste a card that moves your opponent a ton.

On the face of it, this doesn't seem deeply thematic. What, in reality, matches with moving your opponent around on the track? But what it evokes, beautifully, is a sense of how *narrow the margins* are in racing, how close everybody is, how the cars are so similar in speed and power and maneuverability, and how any victory has to be wrested from tiny nuances of positioning.
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14. Board Game: Modern Art [Average Rating:7.36 Overall Rank:212]
Martin G
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If I can take the liberty of quoting myself, from an old geeklist about Knizia:

Quote:
Knizia is often criticised for churning out abstract mathematical games that have a theme pasted-on by the publisher to make them palatable to the public. In the case of some of his simpler games this is justified. But in general this criticism results from applying a different definition of theme to the one Knizia works with. Knizia seems uninterested in theme as simulation (one might even argue that simulation is inherently incompatible with elegance); but he excels at theme as suggestion. By which I mean that Knizia uses theme as a framework to give the game mechanics sense, and the game players a language to converse in. Beowulf: the Legend was derided for turning an epic poem into a series of auctions, but just stop for a minute and imagine what it would be like as a true abstract. Not much fun, huh.

But in the very best of Knizia's games, he goes even further. He actually expresses the theme directly in the mechanics. Again, look at Modern Art. It's a game about cynical dealers speculating in art of questionable worth. Does Knizia have to tell us that with awkward flavour text? No, he wrote it right into the scoring system. And as if by magic, the players start embodying the theme; talking up their shoddy painting, knowing full well that they intend to undercut the artist as soon as they've got it off their books.
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15. Board Game: Container [Average Rating:7.14 Overall Rank:591]
Dan
New Zealand
Auckland
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The economic themes developed in this game are fantastic!

Inflation or deflation
Government subsidies
Supply/Demand
Opportunity Cost
etc.

For an excellent review, read: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/299037/container-review

Here are some excerpts:

cfarrell wrote:
The endless run of economic games where it's impossible to lose money does become tiresome at some point; how can it be a real economic game if you always come out ahead no matter how badly you play?


cfarrell wrote:
...the capacity for the occasional train wreck is a side-effect of Container being as interesting and authentic as it is.


cfarrell wrote:
So, Container is pretty unforgiving of uncomprehending play. Fair enough. But for players who can grasp the fairly straightforward but subtly textured economics here, Container is tremendously rewarding. With wall-to-wall tough choices, an economy that evolves and grows in interesting ways that require the players to constantly adapt, relentless pacing, tough money management choices, and a great deal of freedom for players to develop their own economic models along fundamentally different lines, Container is a great game.
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16. Board Game: Chinatown [Average Rating:7.25 Overall Rank:372]
Zack Stackurski
United States
Mankato
Minnesota
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I'd say much like economic and supply chain games, trading games have a lot of emergent theme simply because its hard to wheel and deal without getting into the theme of the game.

The first and strongest time I noticed this was my first play of Chinatown. The rules explanation was barely more than "Here's how cards give you properties. Here's how tiles on properties make you money. And you like... trade stuff with people." It was so short we were all apprehensive that we were wasting our time with the game or perhaps missed something really important. Of course, we went on to have a blast putting together blockbuster deals (and trying to undercut other's deals when possible) in real time where sometimes the best trader is simply the most vocal. Chinatown has become my favorite trading game even with the mathy, anti-climactic last turn or two and its all thanks to that emergent theme.
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17. Board Game: Innovation [Average Rating:7.24 Overall Rank:286]
Pete Martyn
United States
Guilford
VT
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First thing that came to mind for me upon reading this list.

Innovation is a civilization game that doesn't have maps, much conflict, any sense of national identity, or, for that matter, a lot of control over what the heck happens. And it plays in an hour.

It's basically a Civ game's tech tree that achieved some semblance of sentience...and I think it's brilliant.

In most civilization games, things are pretty straightforward. "Oh look, I'm the Romans...guess I'll go do some stuff. I think we'll build a library so we can start researching, I dunno, masonry." Which is fun! But how often did those kind of things happen in real life?

The emergent thematic genius of Innovation is the way that it captures the way that technological development more often occurs (and for the sake of argument I'm going to suggest that technological development is basically the biggest defining factor of "civilization" as we know it.)

Instead of going out to research a particular thing, players draw blindly from a deck of age-appropriate techs. Seems to me like this is how it goes in the real world -- sometimes a government might say, "Hey, we need to find a way to do this thing better!" but more often it seems like some lone scholar comes up with an idea and then everyone who can scrambles to adapt it. This is strongly reflected in the way that "Dogmas" (techs) are shared -- it doesn't matter if your people invented Sailing -- if another player is equally or more proficient than you at exploiting it, then every time you use it they will too.

Furthermore, I love the fast pace of this game. It's full of brutal combos but it's rare to get a chance to exploit them for more than a couple of turns. The time you spend using them is time your opponents are using to come up with new and better ideas.

And the end-game scoring? I love it. You can win by getting a certain number of achievements, which basically represent the dominance of a particular era (or at least, writing the history books to make your culture seem like it was dominant then.) But if the game runs through all ten ages, the achievements don't matter at all -- what counts is your score, which seems to reflect one's more immediate position. When the Singularity hits, no one cares what you accomplished in 1200 AD!

I could go on. Suffice to say, I love love love games with a lot of narrative and Innovation delivers a lot of it with no flavor text, minimal art, and a pile of cards.
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18. Board Game: Space Alert [Average Rating:7.48 Overall Rank:163]
Ben Kyo
Japan
Osaka
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Forward 1, Forward 2, Forward 3... siege attack 5?
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Controlled chaos. The closest I will ever come to feeling like I'm panicking in a poorly-designed ship in hostile territory.
The time pressure, the limits on what you can achieve, the puzzle dynamics of how much to commit where and when, and then the reveal, when everything goes wrong because two of you try and cram into the one-man lift at the same time.
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19. Board Game: Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization [Average Rating:8.57 Overall Rank:3]
Ben Kyo
Japan
Osaka
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The only game that has ever evoked that civilization feeling for me (and I've played a few).
The events go a long way to achieving this. Decisions made hundreds of years ago have impacts on the present day. Balancing all the different needs of your burgeoning empire, while not appearing like an easy target to your neighbours. Military arms races going out of control for no good reason other than that the strongest *might* just be able to eke out some concession or advantage.
All this tasty detail comes out through play, and not through some awkward manoeuvring of "units" on a map.
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20. Board Game: Tesla vs. Edison: War of Currents [Average Rating:6.72 Overall Rank:1780]
Purple Penguin
United States
Sault Ste. Marie
Michigan
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So, I am not 100% sure if this fits into the exact thing you are try to say here but as a thematic game build on its mechanics this game Oozes Theme.

There is certainly some flavor text as the events and popularity decks tell the actual history of the time period.

The player also all have there own set of abilities based off the historical persons.

But outside of these things that are common in pasted on themes.

-It has a very intuitive and cut throat stock mechanism
-It has a map of growing enterprises.
-It deals with the popularity of each current

All which ended up playing huge roles in the current war.

The reviews I have seen of the new Expansion seem to solidify the theme even further by adding HQ and other elements of important in the real life struggle for current supremacy.
 
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21. Board Game: Twilight Struggle [Average Rating:8.33 Overall Rank:5]
David P
Canada
Vancouver
BC
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If Tigris & Euphrates and Modern Art hadn't been added, I would have added them. Instead, I'll add Twilight Struggle. To me, no game captures the tension of the Cold War better than TS. I am always paranoid about my opponent's motives when I play, and I feel like I have to mirror his moves because... well, just because. Countries fall like dominos, just like the respective sides worried during the actual Cold War. Though 1989 gives it a run for its money, Twilight Struggle is still, to me, the best 2p game there is.
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22. Board Game: Kolejka [Average Rating:6.77 Overall Rank:1291]
Brian S.
United States
Minneapolis
Minnesota
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Kolejka's theme and mechanics are virtually one. It's a game published by Institute of Polish Remembrance as a remembrance of communist-era shopping. A game about standing in a variety of lines to fulfill your shopping list with random shortages and line jumping. The player who completes their list first wins.

P.S. - Also recently banned in Russia. Odd seeing as the game has been out for years now and the original included Russian rules.
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23. Board Game: Java [Average Rating:7.03 Overall Rank:769]
Marc Hawkins
Canada
Edmonton
Alberta
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Java for me really evokes for me the theme (that was 'published over' when it was decided by publishers that this mask game shouldn't also be in South America) of Incan relation with its anthropogenic (i.e., human-shaped) landscapes.



The festivals (i.e., card-play) fit here too as the Inca had a spiritual relation to place through ritualized action (e.g., offerings).

Yet, little to no chrome to have to make it hum!
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24. Board Game: Acquire [Average Rating:7.35 Overall Rank:215]
Erik Boyko
Canada
Toronto
Ontario
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I admire how the simple board play in Acquire -- the way hotel chains grow spatially -- evokes the "rich get richer" quality of capitalism. I also enjoy how tiles in each players' possession offer unique perspectives on the future growth potential of each company, while tiles that are capable of causing mergers effectively simulate insider information.
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25. Board Game: Manhattan [Average Rating:6.71 Overall Rank:1003]
Justus
United States
Las Vegas
Nevada
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I think this game, while essentially a light abstract with a healthy dose of randomness, also has an emergent theme. It really captures the constant male-appendage waving and competition between cities and within each city. And to me the randomness actually adds to the theme - as an architect, I am well aware about how the vagaries in the market (on both a micro and macro scale) play into how things get built.

Its really beautiful to see the city scapes emerge out of the game play, a physical memento of the history that just happened.
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