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Subject: Are professional editors destroying creative use of theme? rss

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Nico Solitander
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I have been reading Spielbox magazine for a long time and immensely enjoy interviews with board game designers, insights about the industry and the rise of professionalism within the industry - or rather perhaps the birth of an industry - vis a vis the great articles on the history of board games and particular genres of games. Recently, when reading another historic piece I was actually gobsmacked by Demono and its thematic integration - and even more impressed when by luck having a rare possibility of playing it. Yes, it has it's flaws in gameplay, but the use of theme - my first reaction was "Christ, with the amount of boardgames released why don't we see thematic integration like this anymore?"

Perhaps, it is the juxtaposition of these two types of articles, history versus professionalisation - seeing them side by side, that has got me wondering if we are seeing the steady decline of great use of theme that is downright due to the influx of a fairly small group of professional board game editors?

It seems to me that while doing great things for sorting out kinks in rules and gameplay are also much to blame for a terrible age for thematic games? The professional board game editors seem very much in the same mold, fairly detail fixated, pedantic - "engineer"-type (I'm terribly sorry for this expression, my grasp of English leaves something to be desired when it comes to nuances) professionals. Overall while clearly meaning better gameplay (if compared to previous quality) it seems to lead to less creative use of theme or God forbid, stories within gameplay. I have read several interviews where fairly interesting themes being at play in the first phases of development but then changed on the behest of editors once approved into the publishing line of a major publisher.

Also, I think we are partly to blame, nowadays we are seemingly satisfied with thematic integration and story as long as it involves generic scifi-elements or generic fantasy elements - the irony that almost all scifi- and fantasy themed games are classified as "thematic" is really a testament of how normalised a lack of thematic integration and interesting story has become, stick a lightsabre into the artwork or a kilo of plastic miniatures into the box and we are satisfied - as we so rarely exposed to thematic integration and creative use of theme. More worryingly, Kickstarter, who should be some kind of thematic Messiah is turning into a false, plastic and generic God.

Sadly it seems to me that we are recreating Demono's storyline... and we are playing as Grey.

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You gotta watch out for those gods...they'll smack you every time!

Interesting point of view...
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Nico Solitander
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Neil Thomson wrote:
You gotta watch out for those gods...they'll smack you every time!


actually you gotta look out for automatic conservative spellcheck - keeps suggesting "godsmacked"
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I think in any industry you usually see this battle between creativity and marketability. It's easy for publishers to settle into a niche that they know sells well and is popular amongst gamers, and try to guide their designers towards this 'model'. I'm not saying it's desirable, just that it's understandable.

However, I still think the outstanding games break through. Whether it's because they're recognised by the larger publishers as offering something unique with potential, or because they're supported by the community (eg Kickstarter).

I don't think the conformity (if and where it occurs) can be blamed exclusively on the publisher or designer.
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Hah - I wish there was even a small group of professional editors working in this industry...

I think that "editor" in the context of the article you mention is more "developer" - in other words, the people employed by the publisher that the designer hands his base ideas over to for development into a fully-fledged game. And I will venture the guess that your article, being in Spielbox, is primarily focussed on the European games industry, which tends to avoid theme except as a superficial layer for marketing and/or differentiation (as opposed to being something tied into and driving the way the game works); this isn't some trend coming in over the last few years, that's how the culture has been for decades.

In fact, given the increasing number of hybrids (mixes of Euro and Ameritrash elements) which are also heavily thematic, I would suggest that what change there is is in the other direction

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Nico Solitander
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MissJekyll wrote:


However, I still think the outstanding games break through. Whether it's because they're recognised by the larger publishers as offering something unique with potential, or because they're supported by the community (eg Kickstarter).

.


I stay by my position that, for perfectly understandable, good reasons publishers weigh the potential of games and what constitutes "outstanding" in terms of mechanics and balance, and for our part, at Kickstarter we evaluate "outstanding" use of theme in the amount of plastic figurines included.

Cream will rise to the top is an old adage, but for most part it'll be sour when it comes to creative use of theme.

JasonJ0 wrote:

In fact, given the increasing number of hybrids (mixes of Euro and Ameritrash elements) which are also heavily thematic, I would suggest that what change there is is in the other direction


These hybrids - something like Eclipse's wafer-thin thematic crust simply switches "Rennaissance" for "Space", the estoc for the light sabre, the wood cube for the plastic ship - and somehow that is more "thematic" and celebrated. I'm sick and tired of the generic fantasy art, the share amount of plastic that we are content with equaling with creative use of theme.

Modern ameritrash refuses to rise beyond the amount of molded figurines included and that is it's only lasting legacy on these much celebrated hybrids - it's trapped by its source material - generic zombies, bad scifi and lackluster fantasy. At it's worst, the plausible future of theme lies in what we see in the worst of computer gaming, where creative theme is measured in how gravity defying a penciled or molded cleavage can be.
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Christopher Dearlove
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JasonJ0 wrote:
I think that "editor" in the context of the article you mention is more "developer" - in other words, the people employed by the publisher that the designer hands his base ideas over to for development into a fully-fledged game. And I will venture the guess that your article, being in Spielbox, is primarily focussed on the European games industry, which tends to avoid theme except as a superficial layer for marketing and/or differentiation (as opposed to being something tied into and driving the way the game works); this isn't some trend coming in over the last few years, that's how the culture has been for decades.


I think (and I have seen some of the process happening on several cases) that misunderstands both the nature of the publisher/developer/designer relationship in many cases, and the role of theme.
 
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I believe I'm broadly in agreement with your point, Nico; I certainly look upon the dearth of imagination in the endless torrent of generic fantasy and space opera games flowing from Kickstarter (and FFG) with disappointment.

Given that I (like, I suspect, most of BGG) had never previously heard of Demono, let alone played it, would you care to give some more examples of games in which you see thematic elements well (or even adequately) integrated?
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Ed G.
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I don't understand what disorganized, incomplete, or poorly-written rules contribute to theme. If editing detracts from theme, then based on posts that I've seen lately asking for help with rules writing, we are in for some terribly thematic games.

Or, you may have touched a nerve with your assertion as one facet of my profession is editing, and I'm keen on it.
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The Great Sun Jester wrote:
Given that I (like, I suspect, most of BGG) had never previously heard of Demono, let alone played it, would you care to give some more examples of games in which you see thematic elements well (or even adequately) integrated?

I looked at the BGG entry briefly and was turned off by the theme.
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Nico Solitander
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The Great Sun Jester wrote:
I believe I'm broadly in agreement with your point, Nico; I certainly look upon the dearth of imagination in the endless torrent of generic fantasy and space opera games flowing from Kickstarter (and FFG) with disappointment.

Given that I (like, I suspect, most of BGG) had never previously heard of Demono, let alone played it, would you care to give some more examples of games in which you see thematic elements well (or even adequately) integrated?


Warning lamps are buzzing, danger Will Robinson! But I'll venture down this dark path for your bemusement there's a number of games that I personally feel integrate theme very well that many would never call thematic as the theme is in the nonfantastic realm, such as sailing or logistics, there is also a few games that simply use uncommon theme settings and if even remotely satisfying in gameplay feel refreshing and satisfying both thematically and gameplay. Both are more uncommon than they should be...This does not of course necessarily equal creative use of theme, as that is even rarer, examples that come to mind on top of Demono, are Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases, High Frontier, Nuns on the Run (or perhaps Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan if you are so inclined) and perhaps Galaxy Trucker.
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Martin Larouche
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Boardgames are the wrong target for lack of thematic creativity.

If you talked about Hollywood, TV or books, i might agree, but boardgames aree just about the most creative theme-wise.

Medics curing a global epidemic,
Building a farm,
Making merchant routes in medieval Europe,
Just about every war ever made, including those never even touched by any other medium,
A game about making pizza,
A game about managing a rock band,
A game about designing clothes,
A game about fireworks,
Nuns running around,
Hundreds more examples of unusual theme...

Sure there are the sci-fi and fantasy cliche games. I'd say they do not even make half the games out there... even combined. And that's taking into account that "sci-fi" is a pretty large "theme" as a definition that merge together Android: Netrunner, X-Wing miniatures and Planet Steam in one big melting pot. I wouldn't say Netrunner have anything close to Star Wars theme-wise, but "sci-fi" merge them all.

As an example, take FFG. Sure, their most talked about games are sci-fi and fantasy-themed. Yet they still publish:
A la carte,
Black gold,
Black sheep,
Citadel,
Hey that's my fish,
Condotiere,
Constantinopolis,
Civilization,
Deadwood,
Isla dorada,
Letter of Marque,
Letters from Whitechapel,
Masque,
Olympus,
Rock band manager,
Smiley face,
Through the desert,
The adventurers,
Ugh-tech,
Ventura,
Tribune,
And that's not counting games that are technically fantasy or sci-fi, but make no real use of it or are nothing but "generic" like Red November (fantasy gnomes) or Winter Tales (fantasy fairy tales). As i said, sci-fi and fantasy are too large a definition for a theme.
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Nico Solitander
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Ursus_Major wrote:
I don't understand what disorganized, incomplete, or poorly-written rules contribute to theme. If editing detracts from theme, then based on posts that I've seen lately asking for help with rules writing, we are in for some terribly thematic games.

Or, you may have touched a nerve with your assertion as one facet of my profession is editing, and I'm keen on it.


Yeah, you know in Spielbox, which has it's problems because of lost in translation issues (German original articles to English) and perhaps poor editing, they use the word "editor" to describe people who in my understanding do more than edit rules, for example the above mentioned rethemings.
 
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Nico Solitander
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deedob wrote:


Sure there are the sci-fi and fantasy cliche games. I'd say they do not even make half the games out there... even combined. And that's taking into account that "sci-fi" is a pretty large "theme" as a definition that merge together Android: Netrunner, X-Wing miniatures and Planet Steam in one big melting pot. I wouldn't say Netrunner have anything close to Star Wars theme-wise, but "sci-fi" merge them all.


Yes, you are right. On a related note, three years ago I did a fairly comprehensive theme analysis of the top 250 thematic games which included a probably poor attempt at subcathegorizing the theme of thematic games, and the conclusion was heavy bias towards certain clusters. Mind you to be fair I think there would be more variety if I did the same analysis today. For example there were no ninja themed games there in in the top 250 thematic games in 2010 and now there's three I think...

I'm also, again in the spirit of disclosure, in the midst of a now 5 month endeavor to finish a similar analysis for the top 500 eurogames...perhaps contributing to my frustration.
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I could be wrong but I think what Nico is seeing as a lack of creativity in the use of theme is actually more of a dilution of the creativity within an expanding ocean of small publisher and Kickstarter games. I think there are just as many creatively themed games out there now as there were years ago, if not more, but there are fewer publishing filters to keep lackluster games off the market. So poorly themed games and "rip offs" that may never have seen the light of day before the Kickstarter boom and modern boardgame Reinesance because a publisher wouldn't have picked them up are now more easily available to the public.

So no, I'm not convinced that there is an editing "tunnel vision" stifling creativity. I think the creativity is still out there, it's just more drowned out by the noise of a larger more competitive game catalog.
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Martin Larouche
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nsolitander wrote:
deedob wrote:


Sure there are the sci-fi and fantasy cliche games. I'd say they do not even make half the games out there... even combined. And that's taking into account that "sci-fi" is a pretty large "theme" as a definition that merge together Android: Netrunner, X-Wing miniatures and Planet Steam in one big melting pot. I wouldn't say Netrunner have anything close to Star Wars theme-wise, but "sci-fi" merge them all.


Yes, you are right. On a related note, three years ago I did a fairly comprehensive theme analysis of the top 250 thematic games which included a probably poor attempt at subcathegorizing the theme of thematic games, and the conclusion was heavy bias towards certain clusters. Mind you to be fair I think there would be more variety if I did the same analysis today. For example there were no ninja themed games there in in the top 250 thematic games in 2010 and now there's three I think...

I'm also, again in the spirit of disclosure, in the midst of a now 5 month endeavor to finish a similar analysis for the top 500 eurogames...perhaps contributing to my frustration.


If you go only by the most popular games on bgg, you are bound to get more sci-fi and fantasy and generic themes than what is actually out there. Sci-fi and fantasy sell more on average than the weirder theme. As i mentionned, FFG's most talked about games are generic sci-fi and fantasy.
BGG's rankings are mostly a popularity contest. You'll get themes people are familiar with in the top 200... mostly.

Bear in mind dtbat the top 200 games only represent around 0,2% of games out there. Such analysis is nothing but representative of the whole. It's only representative of the most popular themes in "perceived" good games.
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Nico Solitander
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deedob wrote:


If you go only by the most popular games on bgg, you are bound to get more sci-fi and fantasy and generic themes than what is actually out there. Sci-fi and fantasy sell more on average than the weirder theme. As i mentionned, FFG's most talked about games are generic sci-fi and fantasy.
BGG's rankings are mostly a popularity contest. You'll get themes people are familiar with in the top 200... mostly.

Bear in mind dtbat the top 200 games only represent around 0,2% of games out there. Such analysis is nothing but representative of the whole. It's only representative of the most popular themes in "perceived" good games.


To be fair to myself there were only about 450 thematic games ranked at the time, going by the community's own device. Still today there's only about 550 games with a rank in the thematic subdomain, so a top 250 was pretty comprehensive.

With the first part i don't disagree, but are popular games really devoid of creative theme because gamers shy away from uncommon themes or because the best game mechanics get slapped with the most generic theme by the publishers? I also think it's something of a myth that truly truly outstanding games are hidden en masse below the top 1000 mark.
 
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nsolitander wrote:
Warning lamps are buzzing, danger Will Robinson! But I'll venture down this dark path for your bemusement there's a number of games that I personally feel integrate theme very well that many would never call thematic as the theme is in the nonfantastic realm, such as sailing or logistics, there is also a few games that simply use uncommon theme settings and if even remotely satisfying in gameplay feel refreshing and satisfying both thematically and gameplay. Both are more uncommon than they should be...This does not of course necessarily equal creative use of theme, as that is even rarer, examples that come to mind on top of Demono, are Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases, High Frontier, Nuns on the Run (or perhaps Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan if you are so inclined) and perhaps Galaxy Trucker.

That's another very sensible point; regrettably "thematic" has come in the gaming world to be a shorthand for "a game about goblins and wizards with terrible rules", which makes it very difficult to have a useful discussion about theme in games. You're entirely right to point out that if "thematic gaming" were really about realisation of a theme through gameplay, rather than a euphemism for Ameritrash, one should expect a wider variety of subject matter than endless iterations of the same old rubbish of wizards fighting goblins in medieval Mitteleuropa. I also definitely agree on Sherlock Holmes as a fine example of integrating theme with gameplay (sadly I haven't played any of your other examples).

deedob wrote:
Boardgames are the wrong target for lack of thematic creativity. If you talked about Hollywood, TV or books, i might agree, but boardgames aree just about the most creative theme-wise.

If you believe board games cover a wider thematic spectrum than literature, then I think you need to read more widely.

deedob wrote:
Sure there are the sci-fi and fantasy cliche games. I'd say they do not even make half the games out there... even combined.

A quick count through BGG's thematic top 100 reveals 36 fantasy, 24 SF and 5 fantasy horror games. Given the breadth of human creativity down the centuries, this is hilariously disproportionate.

Even within the SF&F genres the focus in disappointingly narrow; Netrunner, which stays pretty true to its Gibson-esque source material, is a notable exception, but "sci-fi" in this context overwhelmingly means space opera (i.e. not really SF at all, just pulp action adventure with spaceships and lasers), while "fantasy" means generic high fantasy with the aforementioned wizards and goblins. (And fantasy horror, unsurprisingly, equates to either Cthulhu or zombies.)
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The Great Sun Jester wrote:
nsolitander wrote:
Warning lamps are buzzing, danger Will Robinson! But I'll venture down this dark path for your bemusement there's a number of games that I personally feel integrate theme very well that many would never call thematic as the theme is in the nonfantastic realm, such as sailing or logistics, there is also a few games that simply use uncommon theme settings and if even remotely satisfying in gameplay feel refreshing and satisfying both thematically and gameplay. Both are more uncommon than they should be...This does not of course necessarily equal creative use of theme, as that is even rarer, examples that come to mind on top of Demono, are Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases, High Frontier, Nuns on the Run (or perhaps Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan if you are so inclined) and perhaps Galaxy Trucker.

That's another very sensible point; regrettably "thematic" has come in the gaming world to be a shorthand for "a game about goblins and wizards with terrible rules", which makes it very difficult to have a useful discussion about theme in games. You're entirely right to point out that if "thematic gaming" were really about realisation of a theme through gameplay, rather than a euphemism for Ameritrash, one should expect a wider variety of subject matter than endless iterations of the same old rubbish of wizards fighting goblins in medieval Mitteleuropa. I also definitely agree on Sherlock Holmes as a fine example of integrating theme with gameplay (sadly I haven't played any of your other examples).

deedob wrote:
Boardgames are the wrong target for lack of thematic creativity. If you talked about Hollywood, TV or books, i might agree, but boardgames aree just about the most creative theme-wise.

If you believe board games cover a wider thematic spectrum than literature, then I think you need to read more widely.

deedob wrote:
Sure there are the sci-fi and fantasy cliche games. I'd say they do not even make half the games out there... even combined.

A quick count through BGG's thematic top 100 reveals 36 fantasy, 24 SF and 5 fantasy horror games. Given the breadth of human creativity down the centuries, this is hilariously disproportionate.

Even within the SF&F genres the focus in disappointingly narrow; Netrunner, which stays pretty true to its Gibson-esque source material, is a notable exception, but "sci-fi" in this context overwhelmingly means space opera (i.e. not really SF at all, just pulp action adventure with spaceships and lasers), while "fantasy" means generic high fantasy with the aforementioned wizards and goblins. (And fantasy horror, unsurprisingly, equates to either Cthulhu or zombies.)


It's a mistake to only take the thematic subgenre as an analysis of all game's themes. Agricola has a clear theme, yet it isn't in the thematic subgenre because on bgg, the thematic subgenre mostly mean "ameritrash" to users. The definition of ameritrash or thematic games is often defined by the generic sci-fi or fantasy themes by many people, hence the really skewed numbers you mentionned.

If you look at themes foro all boardgames in the top 100 (and removing those games with no theme at all like crokignole), you'll see there are 59 by my count games that have a theme that is NOT scifi or fantasy.
You'll get german politics, us politics, farming, medieval trading, the cold war, medieval japanese wars and even island survival. Tons of veriety in themes.

Just because a game is classified as a strategy game does not mean it doesn't have an interesting theme.

Analysing the top 100 bgg thematic games and saying there's a problem with themes in all games is a very wrong analysis because the thematic category is, curiously, not really about the game's theme.
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I see what you're saying, Nico, but as far as I'm concerned, this is the GOLDEN AGE of boardgames. Whatever type of game, whatever type of theme you want, you can find a GREAT game that seems like it was made just for you. There's never been a greater variety than right now. The mere fact that you can make an analysis of 500 current games and not have 300 of them be versions of Monopoly is another indicator.

I don't have enough time in a month to play all the games I own, much less am drooling over.

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I agree that for a lot of people 'thematic' means sci-fi or fantasy.

Why weren't these people who love theme all over Prêt-à-Porter, Drum Roll, or CO₂?
There are interesting themes in euro games.

It seems that some times, Euros are taking more of a chance on theme than 'thematic' games are.
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deedob wrote:
Sci-fi and fantasy sell more on average than the weirder theme. only representative of the most popular themes in "perceived" good games.


That depends where you are. I have it from more than one impeccable source that SF (not fantasy) games sell badly in Germany. (I think there is a positive feedback effect here, in that therefore designers don't offer such games, but that's me, not the sources.)
 
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The Great Sun Jester wrote:
"thematic" has come in the gaming world to be a shorthand for "a game about goblins and wizards with terrible rules"


Not in the gaming world I live in.
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Jester Wales wrote:
Why weren't these people who love theme all over Prêt-à-Porter, Drum Roll, or CO₂?
There are interesting themes in euro games.

I love the theme of Agricola, Pret-a-Porter and CO2. I don't understand in the slightest how anyone criticizes the theme of Agricola, in particular. It's different that most games out there, and the theme is well integrated with the mechanics. (And yes there are some logical inconsistencies, but it's not the only game to have that flaw).
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I don't have nearly enough knowledge about the editing and production of board games to comment about what publishers do.

I do, however, see what happens here on BGG.

Several posts here seem to have confused "interesting theme" with "thematic." They're not the same. Unfortunately, I might be in the minority.

Someone posted earlier that the thematic ratings on BGG were heavily influenced by the Ameritrash fans who are interested more in chrome and dice than thematic mechanics/rules. I agree. However, Eurogamers are also part of the problem. IOW, it's the majority of BGGers, not just Ameritrashers.

One of the most thematic games for me in the top 100 is Lords of Vegas which captures the essence of Vegas and its history: Gambling, take your chances with the odds, power struggles. It's one of the few games where luck is an inherent part of the theme. But the percentages are always known, just like with gambling (minus the slots).

LoV creates the energy of its theme. Now, some might not like that energy. And that's fine. They shouldn't play a game about Vegas. But not liking the theme is not really why some people dislike the game. I've played it with Eurogamer snots who acted as if I'd just served them rotted cabbage after we finished the game. "Too much luck" they said. One stated how Vegas Showdown was superior. Yeah, a superior Euro, maybe, but VS is not more thematic. And that's not up for debate.

At the other extreme are Ameritrashers who don't seem to be happy unless there's a ton of chrome and a ruleset that makes my eyes roll back in my head. I have tried repeatedly to get into highly rated "thematic" games and I have repeatedly given up after reading the rulebooks. It's as if the lack of puzzle solving (what you typically find in Euros it seems as a definition) has been replaced by complex rules that don't actually increase depth. They're just complicated!

So two extremes. Arkham Horror vs. a top rated Stefan Feld. LoV to these two extremes isn't flashy enough, not pretty enough for the former and too luck driven, too random for the latter. I know, LoV is in the top 100 for thematic games. However, it's a small blip (along with a few other titles) amidst a sea of games that have a ton more bling and are more complicated without being, IME, more thematic.

There are two things I'm looking for when looking for theme. They don't have to exist in the same game. With some themes it would be impossible for the two to exist in the same game.

One, does the action taken in the game make logical sense in terms of what it is depicting? I've used this example often: In Takenoko you move the Panda and it eats bamboo, move the gardener and the bamboo grows. It's not deep, but it follows. It's a simple example of how to connect theme to rules and how that theme makes remembering how to play the games easier when it's done right. This is the lowest bar to reach of the two.

Much harder to reach is creating the feel or essence of a theme. Fear, anxiety, paranoia, jubilation, aggression, and serenity are all things that I've experienced with a few games. It's rare IME. It's probably the hardest thing to achieve and is frequently subject to the people you play with almost as much as the quality of the game. So that's not the game's fault. However, with many (most) games the group doesn't matter. You ain't gonna feel anything that connects to the theme regardless of what the group does.

Rolling tons of dice to determine the outcome of a battle with a monster . . . point salad. I have no idea what game publishers are doing to "thematic" games before they come to market. I just know for me that they're rare. And that rarity is caused in part by a BGG community that doesn't seem to share my view on what makes a thematic game. I'm on my own to discover what is thematic for me.
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