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Subject: The Theme Intensity Scale – where do you lie? rss

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Damon Asher
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The Theme Intensity Scale – where do you and the games you play lie?

In The Dicetower #25 podcast (www.thedicetower.com), Tom & Joe had an interesting discussion of what makes a game a simulation, with a focus on Memoir ’44 in particular. This stimulated me to consider the matter, and it struck me that this could be a hook for a system to categorize games. I must admit that my initial thoughts were in line with Tom, who argues that Memoir ’44 is a simulation, but I was ultimately convinced of Joe’s point of view that this game was not realistic enough to be a sim. There's no doubt that Joe means one thing when he says simulation, and Tom means another. What eventually convinced me of Joe's point of view is that I realized that what Tom seems to be calling a sim (and what I was previously inclined to call a sim) is really a *representation* of a real world situation, which is much lower threshold than simulation.

In discussing games, a lot of attention is often paid to the theme of the game, and whether the theme integral to the game or merely there to dress it up a bit. I think that the whole issue of whether a game is a simulation or not is actually one of how true to the theme a game is, with a “simulation” being a game that adheres to its theme so strictly that it can predict real-world outcome. So with this in mind, I propose this 4 point “Theme Intensity Scale” that measures adherence to theme.

1) Simulation
Probably the most important criterion here is that a simulation must model real world events accurately enough that it can predict real-world outcomes. For example, say I have a simulation of a certain battle, and I play it 100 times. Side A won 80% of the time. That should be a true indicator of side A's chance of winning the battle, and the way individual objectives are obtained should be accurately depicted. So while things such as detail and scale are probably important here, more important is the ability to make the same decisions that need to be made in the real situation and have those decisions realistically affect the outcome. This would allow certain elements to be abstracted, but nothing that would sacrifice realism to an appreciable degree. I don't play any games that would meet these criteria. I suppose some wargames would, maybe ASL? Because these games are so strongly tied to the situations they model, there’s no way to change the theme without essentially creating a whole new game.

2) Representation
These games make concessions for gameplay's sake, but the mechanics revolve around their strong theme. Memoir '44, War of the Ring, and most light wargames would definitely fit in this category, as would Formula De and Monopoly (the latter leaning toward the metaphor end of this category). This category would also include games that strive to represent fictional circumstances, such as Starfleet Battles and Runebound. These games will often abstract real-world situations, but not necessarily in a realistic fashion. For example, Attack! represents the advantages of a combined forces approach by making your die rolls more likely to hit. Runebound represents your hero gaining in power through experience and use of mighty weapons by giving you skill check modifiers. Formula De represents the consequences of reckless driving and the need for pit stops, but it certainly doesn't "simulate" either of these. However, the way in which these situations are handled make sense in the context of the games’ themes, and serve to help immerse you in those situations, so it “feels” like you’re involved in the activities the games are representing. The mechanics generally represent these individual activities. Consequently, changing the theme of these games would require altering the mechanics.

3) Metaphor
These games are often accused of being abstract, but actually metaphorically represent their theme. A lot of Knizia's games will fit here. For example, Tigris and Euphrates metaphorically presents the rise and fall of civilizations, the power of the church, the importance of balancing all aspects of society, and strength that comes from successfully combining civilizations (the treasures). Acquire could be another game in this category, as would Ra (with Ra skewing toward the “Abstract” end of the category). In fact, probably most Eurogames would live here. These games put you in the frame of mind of the theme, but don’t really represent any individual aspects of it in any realistic fashion. The Lord of the Rings Boardgame depicts the Fellowship’s travels through Middle Earth in a very abstract manner, but the appropriate overall feeling of desperation and impending doom flows strongly throughout the game. You could apply many different themes to games in this category without altering the mechanics, but some themes clearly are more fitting than others.

4) Abstract
These games are about nothing but their mechanics, and will sink or swim based on the strength of these. Ninja Burger could never survive if it was done as an abstract game, as it would just be “roll 11 or higher, now roll 15 or higher.” However, Yinsh pieces don’t need to be little orcs or renaissance princes for the game to be interesting. The pieces and the boards of these games might look like something familiar, but the form of the components has no effect on the game and could easily be swapped for something else. In my opinion, chess does not reach the level of metaphor, and would be firmly in this category, as would GIPF games obviously. I’d also put Through the Desert here, as it is just about connecting points and surrounding areas, and doesn’t make me at all thirsty. Samurai would probably lie either at the top end of this category or the very bottom of “Metaphor” depending on how much you think about it. Abstract games can have nearly any theme attached to them, as the theme serves mainly to make the components more interesting than bland pawns on a grid board.

These categories might help draw the lines between different types of games. If we reserve the word "simulation" for accurate, predictive "games", and are satisfied to call strongly themed games that fall short of this threshold "representations", I think this will greatly aid this type of categorization. This scale could also give some relief to Knizia lovers who know that there is value to the themes of most of his games but have trouble vocalizing what it is.

In any case, I think it’s a fun exercise to consider where your favorite games fall on this scale, as that might also help define you as a gamer. As for myself, I like a lot of strategy Eurogames but also enjoy light wargames and dungeon crawls. This would probably lodge my mean preference firmly between “Representation” and “Metaphor”. My distance on the scale from “Simulation” and “Abstract” is about right, as I generally don’t have as much desire to play games in either of these categories (with Through the Desert being a notable exception).

I wonder if other people can locate themselves at a point along this scale and find that the distance from games on the scale does give an indication of how well they are likely to choose them. For example, is a die-hard eurogamer (“Metaphor” category) more likely to enjoy an abstract game than someone who lies in the middle of the “Representation” category? I also wonder if this scale wraps around from 1 to 4, making it a circle rather than a line. For example, I can imagine that some gamers who enjoy chess and other abstract games would prefer intense simulations rather that representative games. Does anyone else find this interesting?

 
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Philip Thomas
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From my top 10:1) Bridge- Abstract
2) Twilight Struggle- Representation
3) Junta- Representation (tending to Metaphor)
4)Euphrat & Tigris, Metaphor
5) Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation- Metaphor
6) Amun Re-Metaphor
7) Java- Metaphor
8) Diplomacy- Metaphor
9) Shogun (Samurai Swords), Metaphor
10) Mare Nostrum: Mythology Expansion- Representation (although not of a'real world' theme).

I guess I don't do simulations, and am mainly a eurogamer...
 
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Jamie Vantries
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Quote:
9) Shogun (Samurai Swords), Metaphor

How can you say that Shogun is in the metaphor category? It cleary belongs in the representation category.
 
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Luca Iennaco
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I tend to like more the "Metaphor" category (and its surroundings).

(I don't think that you could easily classify ANY game in one of those categories; the boundary between "2" and "3" seems particuarly blurry, for example.)
 
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Lars Casteen
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In terms of the simulation question -

I didn't hear the program that you were referring to, but my understanding of whether something is a sim or not doesn't have to do with its accuracy at predicting real-world events, but rather to do with the experience that the person has while engaging in a simulation. I think that in order for an activity to be a simulation of another activity, it has to bear a level of resemblence (to some predetermined threshold) to the activity that it's simulating. In other words, if playing Memoir '44 feels like what it really felt like to direct units in WWII combat (which I seriously doubt, unless my understanding of history is worse than I think it is). A lot of the deeper war games, however, like that monster "Campaign for North Africa" or whatever it's called, in which you have to take into account many of the practical concerns of a real general, strike me more as simulations. But in my mind, it's not because they're more accurate to the world, but because they're articulated in an attempt to recreate (or simulate) what it's actually like to be a general, etc.
 
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Philip Thomas
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I guess the categories are fairly fluid, but Samurai Swords does not represent what happened in feudal Japan at any period. For a start, there is no attempt to have players representing historical entities, as territory distribution is random. Then of course the famous 1 province =1/3 Koku system, and the bidding for turn order and the ninja (there was more than one ninja in feudal Japan!). There isn't much flavour here. Its a great game for all that.
 
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Leo Zappa
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I really like this approach. As Luca said, the boundry between Representation and Metaphor (2 and 3) is probably somewhat hazy and fluid (and that's OK), whereas I think the boundries between Simulation and Representation (1 and 2) and Metaphor and Abstract (3 and 4) would be fairly well-drawn.

What I find interesting is that this touches on the old debates in the wargaming community some 20-30 years ago about "games" versus "simulations". Back then it was often argued that SPI games were more truly simulations (to the point at times of being unplayable as games) while Avalon Hill games were viewed as games first, simulations second. What I am amused about is that to most modern gamers, especially Euro gamers, they would struggle to find any difference between these SPI and AH games - to the modern Euro gamer, both sets of games would clearly fall into the "simulation" category. I suppose the point to this comment is that these classifications can be considered somewhat subjective depending upon the perspective of the particular gamer (wargamer vs Euro vs abstract gamer).

In general, I think these classifications are clear and well thought-out and I believe I will look over my top games and see where I would rate them on this scale - I'll post that later!
 
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Hermus
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I think this is an interesting approach. I'm not a serious wargamer, but i'm guessing wargamers would argue for finer divisions of simulation on that end of your continuum. Your definition is pretty strict, and I'm guessing there are many wargames that fall in between your definitions for simulation and representation. In particular, I think many wargames simulate historical situations in detail, but certain game mechanics (such as victory conditions) serve to balance gameplay so both sides have a fairly equal chance of winning, even if that wasn't the case in reality (American Civil War for example). I'd still call those simulations although they aren't so in your strict sense.

For what it's worth, I find myself squarely in the Representation camp.
 
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Jim R
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Good post, I always find these kinds of discussions interesting. Your division of theme categories struck me as very similar to Lewis Pulsipher's divisions of theme he discussed mid-last year:

http://pulsiphergames.com/gamedesign/Sim-Rep-Theme_Abst.htm

He stated the categories as Simulation, Representation, Semblance, and Abstract (and also discusses them more in relation to historical themes).

From what I gathered, his "semblance" category might have a bit more theme-mechanics integration than your "metaphor" category, and so maybe it would fit between "representation" and "metaphor" in your scale. Or maybe they are the same. They are all pretty approximate categories, in any event.

I like the idea of distinguishing between "representation" games as games with a bit more simulative detail, like War of the Ring and his own game Britannia, and other "semblance" games with less theme mechanics, like Memoir 44, which would more likely fit in his "semblance" category with games like Risk, Diplomacy, and History of the World.

Of course, there are fuzzy lines between all the categories, and it can be hard to place some games. But it is fun to think about.









 
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Jim R
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Quote:
my understanding of whether something is a sim or not doesn't have to do with its accuracy at predicting real-world events, but rather to do with the experience that the person has while engaging in a simulation. ...In other words, if playing Memoir '44 feels like what it really felt like to direct units in WWII combat. A lot of the deeper war games, however, like that monster "Campaign for North Africa" or whatever it's called, in which you have to take into account many of the practical concerns of a real general, strike me more as simulations. But in my mind, it's not because they're more accurate to the world, but because they're articulated in an attempt to recreate (or simulate) what it's actually like to be a general, etc.


I've wondered about that, the two ways in which "simulation" is applied to games. In one sense, a simulation simulates the experience of the activity, as if you participated in it at a first-person level. But the term is also used, in games, to describe a different kind of third-person, objective view of events: the modelling of events and actions to achieve similar results to reality, where you have a gods-eye point of view. Maybe they can be thought of as "subjective" and "objective" types of simulations.

Of course, since all board games have to abstract details at some point so that they are playable by humans, they never truly can be complete simulations (which is why computers are much better at simulations). But I think a lot of simulation gamers just like having all that detail: it makes them feel more like they are participating in and/or recreating the event.




 
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J C Lawrence
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drasher25 wrote:
I wonder if other people can locate themselves at a point along this scale and find that the distance from games on the scale does give an indication of how well they are likely to choose them.


I don't fit on your scale.

I like themes, but I don't care about them. I don't particularly care what the theme is, how (in)accurate it is, or even whether it maps well to the game. I enjoy the fact that there is a theme and (most importantly) that it doesn't get in the way of understanding or playing the game. In this way I think of it as spice: an improvement of flavour and thus nice to have, but easy to over do and best in small measured doses (well, outside of curries).
 
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Lewis Pulsipher
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You might want to look at this related article on my Web site:

http://www.pulsipher.net/gamedesign/Sim-Rep-Theme_Abst.htm

Lew Pulsipher
 
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Damon Asher
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lewpuls wrote:
You might want to look at this related article on my Web site:

http://www.pulsipher.net/gamedesign/Sim-Rep-Theme_Abst.htm

Lew Pulsipher


I hadn't seen that, but it's neat that we came up with such similar scales! My definition of simulation is a little stricter than yours. The main determinant on this Theme Intensity Scale is to what degree changing the theme would necessitate altering the mechanics. Yours seems focused on degree of adherence to historical events. Maybe those are actually the same thing. It's definitely another interesting way to approach the issue!
 
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Burnham wrote:
Quote:
9) Shogun (Samurai Swords), Metaphor

How can you say that Shogun is in the metaphor category? It cleary belongs in the representation category.

Only when you play it in an opium den.

 
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Lewis Pulsipher
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A question worth asking is, "when I make a play, can I (or how well can I) associate that with a real-world event or activity". In so many Euros, the plays appear to have nothing to do with reality, they are only actions in a game. In a simulation, at the other extreme, you'd expect every play to be closely analogous to some real-world event. I say "expect", because there are "simulations" that become so cerebral that the individual plays feel rather abstract, even though the game as a whole is supposed to reflect some reality.

Lew Pulsipher
 
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Philip Thomas
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I associate actions in games with the real world activity of playing the game...

In that sense, every gamne is a simulation, and very accurate they are too!
 
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clearclaw wrote:
drasher25 wrote:
I wonder if other people can locate themselves at a point along this scale and find that the distance from games on the scale does give an indication of how well they are likely to choose them.


I don't fit on your scale.

I like themes, but I don't care about them. I don't particularly care what the theme is, how (in)accurate it is, or even whether it maps well to the game. .......


Actually... You fit rather snuggly into the scale. If you'll notice #4 up there is Abstract.

That's you. That's where you are. Up there (#4).

On the scale.

Up there...
 
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Ted Kostek
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This is a really great idea, and I think you've got a pretty nice starting point for analyzing games. Posts like these make me think there should be some kind of degree or certificate for gaming.

However, I wonder if there's a problem in that most all eurogames fit into the same category. It almost makes me think there should be a 5th category, or maybe the categories should be shuffled a bit to give a slightly more even distribution.

But that's for the next guy's research project.

For myself, I think simulations are too much work, but the other 3 categories all interest me. I have wargames that are 'representations,' and I have Eurogames and abstracts.

Again, really great post. You get a gold star:

 
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drasher25 wrote:
what Tom seems to be calling a sim (and what I was previously inclined to call a sim) is really a *representation* of a real world situation, which is much lower threshold than simulation.


So who defines what the threshold is? You, Tom, Joe or someone else?

My position is that it's the designer who says "I constructed the rules to simulate something" or "I constructed these rules to make a fun game, but not to specifically simulate anything".

It's a simulation if the designer says it is. Only if the designer says it's not a simulation can a game be said to not be a simulation. For games that are simulations, whether or not it's a strong or good simulation is subject to the players.

Theme and simulation should be thought of as separate, albeit related, entities. Games are either not simulations, or exist on at some point in a continuum of abstract to concrete simulations, just as games exists on a continuum ranging from abstract to concrete themes.
 
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lewpuls wrote:
A question worth asking is, "when I make a play, can I (or how well can I) associate that with a real-world event or activity". In so many Euros, the plays appear to have nothing to do with reality, they are only actions in a game.


I agree that many Euros are like this on the surface. The question is: are they like this because the action was designed to be just a game mechanism or did the designer have some underlying thematic element that they were trying to model that you as the player just don't get.

Reiner Knizia said in his first GeekSpeak Episode that he designed Tigris and Euphrates to thematically represent the subject matter of the game. The rules were specifically designed to strengthen and uphold a theme about the rise and fall of civilizations and the effects of Trade, Agriculture, Military Might and Religion.

I think the question that should be asked regarding theme should be, "How (if at all) does this game mechanism explore the theme of this game?" I've started doing this since I heard the GeekSpeak episode I mentioned and it's really made the theme much more engaging in many games games whose themes I had discounted.
 
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Jim C
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Interesting. This quote may shed more light on the subject. This is an excerpt of an interview with Alea's Stefan Bruck:

Quote:
Once Bruck finds a game that holds promise, he tinkers with every aspect to make it more appealing to both hardcore gamers and the market at large...Chinatown, for example, was initially about amusement parks, while Knizia's Taj Mahal replayed the Norman invasion of 1066 and Palazzo involved the monuments on Easter Island.

'The theme has to fit the mechanism of the game, but it also has to animate people to look at the game and buy it,...'


I guess it comes down to what subject matter is going to sell. If a designer's "themes" are switched around so easily by the publisher, why would a designer (of cat. 3 or 4) bother with coming up with one in the first place? I mean, Chinatown & amusement parks?? You can't find two subjects farther apart from each other! You're always hearing about how designers were "disappointed" that their theme was switched on them, but the almighty dollar/euro, etc., usually wins out!

 
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