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Subject: Abstract vs. Themed - a false dichotomy rss

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Joe Joyce
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"Abstracts cannot be themed." "If it has a theme, it can't be an abstract." "The definition of abstract means no theme." These are truisms of the gaming world. "If an abstract game is published with a theme, it is always pasted on for marketing purposes, and has no bearing on the actual play." "The theme can be changed to all sorts of different, even contradictory things without there being any difference."

I respectfully submit that the entire thesis is wrong. There is no inherent contradiction or even interaction between the concepts of "theme/context" and "pure combinatorial abstract strategy". I believe they do not interact, therefore to claim that one precludes the other is quite simply absolutely wrong.

It's possible we could get into some semantics here between the first and second paragraphs above, with "abstract" vs. "abstract strategy", but I would point out that "the other side" in this would essentially be claiming abstract strategy games are not abstracts. And that's a different argument entirely, not one to be prosecuted here.

I believe that a large part of the reason abstracts are seen as themeless is that they are essentially small, simple games. And even there, we get correspondences - mancala is seen as a "sowing" (edited for spelling!) game, Hex as a "connection" game... and what theme could tic-tac-toe have, after all? Well, bridge-building, physical, conceptual or emotional, but that is trivial on this level. The "Rail" games have a bit more theme, but still are just a really good form of "bridge it", and the theme doesn't really inform *how* the game is played, it merely adds to the psychological element of fun. So, despite the sowing and bridging elements and other such weak themes/contexts of abstracts, we still claim abstracts are themeless, in a "real" sense.

I maintain that is only because there is a failure of imagination, or, maybe more accurately, a failure to use imagination. Partly this is because we live in a culture that values speed over everything except money, apparently. "If a game isn't over in 15 minutes, it loses X% of its audience!" is not a concept for developing deep games.

Let's look at some generalities of abstracts. They tend to have small boards or conceptual playing spaces, simple rules, few rules (and few exceptions to them), few piece types, few moves per turn... Consider Go for a moment. Today it is a 19 x 19 game using 2 pieces that are mirror images of one another. (Mancala uses only 1 kind of piece, played by both sides.)

But in the past, it was smaller. It has the same properties as tic-tac-toe, (being a very similar game in some basic ways,) including that it gets significantly more complex as it grows larger. (A race game does not have that property, being 1 dimensional.) That increase in complexity with increase in size is something I found key in my consideration of the elements of chess vs, the elements of wargames. But it clearly has broader applicability than merely to chess, as Go has already demonstrated.

Player-turns are another area where designers have possibly limited themselves too much. In most abstracts, a player moves one or a few pieces each turn. It is the rare abstract which allows many, most or even all pieces to move each turn. This limits abstracts to comparatively very simple games, games that can be played one or a few moves per turn. When you can move lots of pieces in the same turn, you have the potential for far more interesting games, and certainly far more complex ones.

But neither increasing the size of the board nor increasing the number of pieces moved per turn in an abstract changes the fact it remains an abstract, does it? However, doing something like that, increasing size and moves/turn, all but necessarily greatly increases the complexity of the game. To play such a game successfully, one needs some sort of organizing principle, something on which to hang the reason(s) pieces move the way they do. The common generic name for such an organizing principle is "theme", isn't it? And the reason for this theme is specifically to inform the player how to decide what moves to make, not for cosmetics or to give more enjoyment playing. And by the black swan principle, there don't have to be a lot of these games, merely 1, to prove my point.

So, assuming abstract strategy games qualify as abstracts, then to demonstrate my argument is correct, I offer an activator game that gives a fair simulation of ~18th century European/American military actions and is a pure combinatorial abstract strategy wargame, The Battle of Macysburg, reviewed elsewhere in these pages by a wargamer: http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1178742/some-impressions-aft...

Now, unless you add "simple, small, and slow-moving" to the definition of abstracts, then you cannot exclude meaningful themes from abstract games. Or, you could restrict "abstract" to games where there is only 1 kind of piece, and "abstract strategy" to games where there are 2 kinds of pieces, distinguished only by "color", and this is already carrying the label of "conflict games", but as a subset. It could, after all, be a cooperative pattern making game.
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Richard Moxham
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joejoyce wrote:
I respectfully submit that the entire thesis is wrong. There is no inherent contradiction or even interaction between the concepts of "theme/context" and "pure combinatorial abstract strategy". I believe they do not interact, therefore to claim that one precludes the other is quite simply absolutely wrong.


If we're going to do this all over again - and it is worth doing, Joe, however many eyes out there may be rolled upwards at the prospect - let's at least do it properly for the first time. By philosophical standards it should actually be a pretty straightforward discussion, but an internet forum is not a natural medium for the purpose, the essence of discussion at its most efficient being dialogue. And before the protests come raining in on that one, I'd better make clear that this isn't an elitist position. "Dialogue" here doesn't imply a club restricted to two members, but rather an approach which is patiently dialectical. Such an approach is indeed possible with any number of people - it's just that the more participants there are the harder it becomes to keep the discussion disciplined enough to stay on the rails.

I'll take the liberty of kicking things off by highlighting two reasons why the endeavour seems to have failed in the past. Each of these reasons is a word.

First, in order to make progress at all, we need an agreed definition of "theme". Not a million different versions of what the word suggests to me or you or him, but a rationally-negotiated working definition for present purposes. This is genuinely hard, and is probably the hinge on which success or failure will turn.

Second: "abstract"(!). This has proved a major stumbling-block for the simple and unaccountable reason that people seem determined to ignore the established meaning of the word. The etymological origin of abstraction lies in the idea of removal from a sphere or domain to which other things belong. This has given rise to various applied meanings, of which most dictionaries list two as being dominant. The exact wording varies, of course, but taking the first available online source, we read, quite typically:

1. existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence.

2. relating to or denoting art that does not attempt to represent external reality, but rather seeks to achieve its effect using shapes, colours, and textures.

As far as boardgames are concerned, the first of these two senses would presumably have to do with the physicality of the playing apparatus itself, which is hardly the point at issue. The second, however, seems more promising. A possible analogy, in other words, between the nature of what is labelled abstract art, and the things that we call abstract games.

I suggest starting from there.
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Russ Williams
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Sure, I agree that an "abstract" game can have a theme. There are some pretty popular examples, e.g. Hive (bugs) and Hey, That's My Fish! (penguins).

You're going further than that, and saying not merely that there is a "theme", but that the game actually simulates something.

In which case I'll still agree, although it's likely that a simulation-oriented game starts to lose the elegant minimalism which seems a characteristic of "abstract strategy games".

E.g. Caylus and Stephenson's Rocket are combinatorial games which I nonetheless hesitate to call "abstract strategy games" - not merely because they have themes (nor because to some degree they simulate building a town & castle, and railroad company investment and development, respectively), but rather because their rules are more complex and fiddly. They don't have the elegant minimalism which (for me) is one of the defining characteristics of an "abstract strategy game".

On the other hand there is the apparently gratuitously complex baroque game Rithmomachy which has no theme or simulationist goal, but seems OK to be called an "abstract strategy game". So who knows. Classification is tricky!


PS: Mancala is about sowing seeds, not about sewing. Now I'm trying to think of any sewing-themed games, and can't think of any... Hmm, maybe the economic euro Prêt-à-Porter which is about the fashion industry!
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joejoyce wrote:
But neither increasing the size of the board nor increasing the number of pieces moved per turn in an abstract changes the fact it remains an abstract, does it? However, doing something like that, increasing size and moves/turn, all but necessarily greatly increases the complexity of the game. To play such a game successfully, one needs some sort of organizing principle, something on which to hang the reason(s) pieces move the way they do. The common generic name for such an organizing principle is "theme", isn't it? And the reason for this theme is specifically to inform the player how to decide what moves to make, not for cosmetics or to give more enjoyment playing. And by the black swan principle, there don't have to be a lot of these games, merely 1, to prove my point.

This quote seems to be the thrust of your argument. You are saying that as abstracts scale up they require a theme as an organising principle, so that a player can infer game concepts from the theme. You then go on to say that the proof, by counterexample ("black swan principle" - falsification of a universal), is that your game has a theme.

There are two faults with this from a logical perspective. First, you haven't stated which universal claim your game is the counterexample to. Second, you make a universal claim yourself ("To play such a game successfully, one needs some sort of [theme]"), which is easily refuted by counterexample. (Rithmomachy being one such, although Chu Shogi might be more pertinent, getting less thematic as pieces and rules are added.)
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Richard Moxham
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russ wrote:
They [Caylus and Stephenson's Rocket] don't have the elegant minimalism which (for me) is one of the defining characteristics of an "abstract strategy game".

I'm sure, Russ, that you and I agree in considering "elegant minimalism" to be desirable in an abstract strategy game, but that's ultimately a matter of taste, and I can't see the basis on which you consider simplicity a defining characteristic. None of the three elements "abstract", "strategy" or "game" is incompatible with a convoluted rule-set.

If it be true (as I think it is, actually) that abstract games tend in practice to be simpler at the design level than non-abstracts, then this is an incidental attribute. Not at all the same thing, as I know you know.
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Russ Williams
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mocko wrote:
russ wrote:
They [Caylus and Stephenson's Rocket] don't have the elegant minimalism which (for me) is one of the defining characteristics of an "abstract strategy game".

I'm sure, Russ, that you and I agree in considering "elegant minimalism" to be desirable in an abstract strategy game, but that's ultimately a matter of taste, and I can't see the basis on which you consider simplicity a defining characteristic. None of the three elements "abstract", "strategy" or "game" is incompatible with a convoluted rule-set.

I'm not a fan of defining a historically established conventional term like "abstract strategy game" as a mere sum of its parts.

Similarly a "wargame" is not merely a "game" about "war" (e.g. additionally a wargame is intended to realistically simulate war to some degree, unlike many war-themed games), a "dice game" is not merely a "game" with "dice" (fans of dice games would consider random dice throws to be part of the genre, as opposed to a combinatorial game like Chase), a "role-playing game" (e.g. in a wargame you might "play the role" of a military leader, but no one would seriously consider a strategic level WW2 wargame to be a "role-playing game"), etc.

Such terms acquire more specific meanings as language evolves (for better or worse). Similarly an "abstract strategy game" is not merely a game which is abstract and has strategy. (E.g. poker and backgammon and bridge seem to be "abstract" and have "strategy", but I suppose we agree that they're not what we mean when we say "abstract strategy game".)

(And if we want to just apply the sum of literal definitions of the words in a phrase to determine the meaning of the whole phrase, then what does "abstract" even mean, exactly? People in gaming contexts equate it with lack of theme, but even that seems more of a historical convention than a strict application of its definition. "Abstract" has multiple, and some abstract art is still representing concrete things, just in an altered way... and "abstract algebra" in mathematics still represents, just at a higher level, specific things, e.g. group and ring theory... groups and rings are not themeless, they are quite explicit specific things. But they represent other more concrete familiar structures (e.g. the set of integers), but in a more general way: i.e. "abstract" often means "with fewer specific details" or "showing only the relevant essence" rather than "themeless"... but I digress...)

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If it be true (as I think it is, actually) that abstract games tend in practice to be simpler at the design level than non-abstracts, then this is an incidental attribute. Not at all the same thing, as I know you know.


Although I agree that elegance and minimalism are certainly subjective, I don't entirely view them as merely incidental; to me, they do seem a fairly essential characteristic of an "archetypal" abstract strategy game.

(Analogously, "realism" is certainly subjective, but it's not merely incidental to what makes a wargame a wargame - it's a defining characteristic. Or perhaps more accurately: it's an evident design goal of the genre, which not all game designs successfully achieve. Just as there are wargames which fail as realistic simulations, there are abstract strategy games which fail to achieve "simple elegant minimalism"...)

But I'm partly thinking out loud now, and I agree that this is murky stuff and that reasonable people disagree.
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christian freeling
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mocko wrote:
[q="joejoyce"]I'll take the liberty of kicking things off by highlighting two reasons why the endeavour seems to have failed in the past. Each of these reasons is a word.

First, in order to make progress at all, we need an agreed definition of "theme". Not a million different versions of what the word suggests to me or you or him, but a rationally-negotiated working definition for present purposes. This is genuinely hard, and is probably the hinge on which success or failure will turn.

Second: "abstract" ...

As Russ remarked: classification is tricky. This doesn't address it's necessity or lack thereof, but in the light of the fact that it never actually works, it's worth noticing.

As for "theme", I've been ridiculed (not by any of the posters at BGG, though that option is still open) for taking a game's object as its "theme": checkmate, elimination, territory, connection and the like. Thus 'Tinkertown Cemetery' would appear to be my only game that has a "theme" in a double sense.

If and when I want to find a new game, I usually start out reflecting on an object: "what does it WANT?". In that light I reflect on possible mechanics. Sometimes it's the other way around and I try to find the right object for an interesting set of mechanics. This 'thematic approach' has a very practical purpose. It turns the target into an abstract 'organism' that I can interact with to have it reveal itself. An additional 'theme' like the resurecting zombies in Tinkertown, or indeed anything, would only blur the process.

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Russ Williams
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christianF wrote:
As for "theme", I've been ridiculed (not by any of the posters at BGG, though that option is still open) for taking a game's object as its "theme": checkmate, elimination, territory, connection and the like. Thus 'Tinkertown Cemetery' would appear to be my only game that has a "theme" in a double sense.

I agree that your notion of theme seems a more sensible way to port the (literary) term "theme" to games. (At least supposing we're thinking analogous to theme in literature, e.g. "man's struggle vs nature", "man's struggle vs someone else", "man's struggle with himself" and other such "themes" which are a separate question from whether the story takes place in 19th century Alaska or 21st century Mars or whatever.) I've sometimes seen "setting" proposed as a more suitable term for what gamers call "theme" (a creative work is "set" in a cemetery, or a World War 2 battleground, or a 19th century railroad construction boom, etc, which is a separate question from what its "theme" is), but this horse seems to have long since left the barn and I can't imagine the gaming community starting to use "theme" to refer to a game's goal (or style of play or similar) instead of to its setting (or subject, to give another alternative term)...
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christian freeling
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russ wrote:
I've sometimes seen "setting" proposed as a more suitable term for what gamers call "theme" (a creative work is "set" in a cemetery, or a World War 2 battleground, or a 19th century railroad construction boom, etc, which is a separate question from what its "theme" is), but this horse seems to have long since left the barn and I can't imagine the gaming community starting to use "theme" to refer to a game's goal (or style of play or similar) instead of to its setting (or subject, to give another alternative term)...

I can't disagree with that, and it isn't my intention to propose a game's object as its 'theme', but in the process of inventing it feels that way to me and, barring chess variants, it always has.

But I fear that doesn't contribute much to the classification issues, so I'll leave it at that.
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Richard Moxham
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russ wrote:
christianF wrote:
As for "theme", I've been ridiculed (not by any of the posters at BGG, though that option is still open) for taking a game's object as its "theme": checkmate, elimination, territory, connection and the like. Thus 'Tinkertown Cemetery' would appear to be my only game that has a "theme" in a double sense.

I agree that your notion of theme seems a more sensible way to port the (literary) term "theme" to games. (At least supposing we're thinking analogous to theme in literature, e.g. "man's struggle vs nature", "man's struggle vs someone else", "man's struggle with himself" and other such "themes" which are a separate question from whether the story takes place in 19th century Alaska or 21st century Mars or whatever.) I've sometimes seen "setting" proposed as a more suitable term for what gamers call "theme" (a creative work is "set" in a cemetery, or a World War 2 battleground, or a 19th century railroad construction boom, etc, which is a separate question from what its "theme" is), but this horse seems to have long since left the barn and I can't imagine the gaming community starting to use "theme" to refer to a game's goal (or style of play or similar) instead of to its setting (or subject, to give another alternative term)...

Well, as I pointed out in a thread some time ago - in support of CF, by the way, against whichever ignorant contributor was busily exposing Christian's ignorance at the time - that sense of theme is not (subjectively) "his", but on the contrary firmly established in relation to games as venerable as, say, Chess or Bridge, where it always refers to a design mechanism or principle of play. So it's already 'out there' in a sub-community whose use of terminology (my impression at least) is a good deal more rigorous than most of what goes on around here.

As for the rest of the debate, the repeated insistence from pretty much all quarters that classification is a tricky business (why, oh why did that never dawn on me before?) seems increasingly suggestive of a reluctance to even try, when the truth is that you can achieve worthwhile progress towards clarity if you go about it systematically. And yes, I do expect games in the grouping "abstract strategy games" to be games which are strategic and in some normal sense abstract, and I consider that label more useful when its meaning admits poker and backgammon and bridge than when I'm supposed to recognise it as a conventional category which means something else entirely and whose range of coverage not even its aficionados seem able to agree about. "Historically-established conventional term" be damned - more like good old-fashioned muddled thinking.
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Russ Williams
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mocko wrote:
Well, as I pointed out in a thread some time ago - in support of CF, by the way, against whichever ignorant contributor was busily exposing Christian's ignorance at the time - that sense of theme is not (subjectively) "his", but on the contrary firmly established in relation to games as venerable as, say, Chess or Bridge, where it always refers to a design mechanism or principle of play. So it's already 'out there' in a sub-community whose use of terminology (my impression at least) is a good deal more rigorous than most of what goes on around here.

To be clear, I agree that this usage of the "theme" of a game is not unique to Christian and has plenty of prior precedent. I just meant "your" in the sense of "the way you used it in your comment to which I'm replying".

Quote:
the repeated insistence from pretty much all quarters that classification is a tricky business (why, oh why did that never dawn on me before?) seems increasingly suggestive of a reluctance to even try, when the truth is that you can achieve worthwhile progress towards clarity if you go about it systematically.

I thought that these kinds of threads show an interest in dealing with it instead of not even trying.

But I do think it's mostly an interesting "philosophical discussion" rather than anything which is going to cause practical change in the way the English language is used. It's hard enough to reform language usage for things which actually matter in terms of things like social justice (e.g. trying to eliminate hurtful sexism and racism and homophobia etc in language), to say nothing of convincing people to change their language usage in the context of a hobby they do for fun, just because the new terminology might be more "logical" according to some people theorizing in a forum thread.

Quote:
"Historically-established conventional term" be damned - more like good old-fashioned muddled thinking.

I'm all for more logical language, but terminology gets formed by consensus and convention and evolution and figures of speech and metaphor and so on. A few decades ago a "computer" was a person who computes as their job. Yet it seems reasonable to go with the established convention of "computer" nowadays as an electronic computing device. And I sure don't want to be "that guy" who keeps correcting people when they talk about "lead" instead of "graphite" in a pencil.

Otherwise I look forward to the updated rules for the nestorgames edition of Morelli, since it mentions a "board", and I found no board in my set, only a flexible "pad" or "mat"!
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Wow, there seems to be a lot of baggage in this thread. For better or worse, I've not been involved in the vast majority of the previous discussions on theme and abstract. That said, one definition of theme that I've been playing with is:

Theme is the image that a game evokes in the absence of pretty pictures.

Let me take three examples: Ra, Lost Cities, and Settlers of Catan.

If you were to take away the pretty pictures from the game and played with a numbered hex board then what image would the game evoke? I'd say that even in the absence of pretty pictures, Catan would still bring to mind the idea of route building and resource claims. That's the theme no? That all of this happens on an island with wood and sheep is a product of the pictures on the box and components.

Lost Cities on the other hand has what's known as a "pasted on" theme. I think that the reason for this classification is that if you remove the pretty pictures entirely you would never get back to the idea of exploration and missions. In fact, the image that might be evoked by the game itself is... 5th grade math class. Maybe that's just me.

Finally, Ra is the most difficult to fit into this classification of theme that I'm working with. Certainly if you remove the pretty pictures then you're not likely to ever get back to the three great Egyptian epochs. However, the evoked image might indeed be that of an auction house. In the case of Ra, the core mechanic itself is highly evocative, so is auctioning therefore both the mechanic and the theme? Where to draw the line? Is there even a line at all? I'm not sure.

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fogus wrote:
Wow, there seems to be a lot of baggage in this thread.

Baggage? Hmm.

I'd just like to say for the record that although I've never met Russ I've always been a great admirer of his contributions to this forum for their thoughtfulness and sanity - and I still am, despite his coming up with some prime flapdoodle in this particular instance.

But now he's sore with me (the smileys, as so often, revealing what they're supposed to conceal) and I'm sore right back at him. That's what internet communication will do to you.

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mocko wrote:
Baggage? Hmm.


That wasn't meant in a disparaging way. My only point was that there is a rich history of these kinds of discussions that I've not been a part of. My apologies for implying otherwise.
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christian freeling
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mocko wrote:
I'd just like to say for the record that although I've never met Russ I've always been a great admirer of his contributions to this forum for their thoughtfulness and sanity - and I still am, despite his coming up with some prime flapdoodle in this particular instance.

But now he's sore with me (the smileys, as so often, revealing what they're supposed to conceal) and I'm sore right back at him. That's what internet communication will do to you.

It certainly seems that attempts to improve the rules of communication tend to distort communication. I'm hesitant about a smiley now.
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christianF wrote:
It certainly seems that attempts to improve the rules of communication tend to distort communication. I'm hesitant about a smiley now.

Communication is tricky business - I'm reluctant to even try!

(Ducks and runs!)
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First, "Mancala is about sowing seeds, not about sewing." Ahahahaha! Thanks, Russ. I noticed that subconsciously last night, but it never rose to the level of "you used the wrong word, dummy!" EDIT: Fixed! blush

Richard/Mocko (which do you prefer?), you make 2 very good points, but they are very hard points to nail down, so I will only rubber cement them in an approximate place for now. I'm not looking to get bogged down at all in semantics.

Definition of "theme" - I will just say that it is an organizing principle by which a person can comprehend a complex situation and which allows that person to act effectively in that situation. Grin, it's sort of an abstract definition.

For "abstract", I'd like to work from the idea of the verb, to pull out an essence or an underlying harmony, to clean an idea of all extraneous trappings, to take out of something a pure concept.

Neither definition is final, is "accurate" in that sense, and we do need to look at these 2 key parts of our endeavor, but I believe both definitions are good enough working definitions that we can get past what has been a quagmire for so many by just running lightly across the surface instead of digging down into the muck.

This is not to say I do not expect or want more on the definitions of our topic, I do. I just don't want to stop there, so for now relegate definitions to a parallel topic. Grin, after all, it's a definition I want to overthrow.

Russ, you say "You're going further than that, and saying not merely that there is a "theme", but that the game actually simulates something.
In which case I'll still agree, although it's likely that a simulation-oriented game starts to lose the elegant minimalism which seems a characteristic of 'abstract strategy games'."

You have stated the exact position I have designed to right now. I crossed a threshold when I introduced terrain - differently colored squares - to what I was then calling the Warlord Games. This is courtesy of konsum24, to whom I owe many thanks and a playtest or two. http://boardgamegeek.com/image/1413785/konsum24?size=large It depicts the original Border War scenario, and as you can see, the terrain does not occupy a large percentage of the board. The game is chess with a couple additions, the requirement for activation, and the need to remember terrain rules, which boil down to everybody stops before moving into terrain, bishop-types can't move onto this color, rook-types can't move onto that color. It's still a simple, elegant rules set, and at the least it simulates wargames.

However, with Macysburg, it gets more complicated. It uses all the rules in Border War, plus a handful of others. The board starts almost empty of pieces. As the game progresses, more pieces are brought in at different times and places. So you need an order of arrival, a list of times and places. Also, to make the game "more realistic", the 36 standard turns are broken up by 2 "night turns" after turns 12 and 24. The 2 sides are required to separate completely from each other and then they receive rallied troops from the previously captured pieces. Once this is done, the game continues "normally".

So, Russ, your 2nd critique is at least somewhat valid, because the game does get a little less streamlined to allow a "good simulation". However, it neither changes the underlying simplicity of the "normal" game, nor does it add anything close to the rules a wargame has. Even being as detailed and complete as I can manage, it's still only a few pages of rules. The simulation arises from the interaction of the rules, pieces, board, and players. There are no zones of control, no combat results tables, no combined arms bonuses, no roads or rivers, no exceptions to the rules, no pages of examples, no stacking, and no paging through the rules while playing. Yet 18th century tactics appeared on the battlefield naturally in Macysburg, and I can tell you that I found out the hard way during initial playtesting that you don't mix unit types in the same formation under the same leader. Combined arms tactics are necessary to have any real combat success. I got beat by a tactic Frederick the Great used to win a battle, oblique order. By my thinking, that means the rules are still effectively simple and elegant, even if a little lumpy here and there.

I could go on, but my point is not just to advertise my design but to change the default thinking about abstracts. So I'll stop here and answer the next post, while noting, Mocko, that you are right about dialogue to effectively nail things down being difficult in these circumstances. But to even attempt to shift a paradigm minimally, you have to face and answer all sorts of objections. I will try to maintain a separate conversation, about good definitions and what is good enough to move forward with, in the general free-for-all that is sure to ensue. So what is wrong with my working definitions?
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sbszine wrote:
joejoyce wrote:
But neither increasing the size of the board nor increasing the number of pieces moved per turn in an abstract changes the fact it remains an abstract, does it? However, doing something like that, increasing size and moves/turn, all but necessarily greatly increases the complexity of the game. To play such a game successfully, one needs some sort of organizing principle, something on which to hang the reason(s) pieces move the way they do. The common generic name for such an organizing principle is "theme", isn't it? And the reason for this theme is specifically to inform the player how to decide what moves to make, not for cosmetics or to give more enjoyment playing. And by the black swan principle, there don't have to be a lot of these games, merely 1, to prove my point.

This quote seems to be the thrust of your argument. You are saying that as abstracts scale up they require a theme as an organising principle, so that a player can infer game concepts from the theme. You then go on to say that the proof, by counterexample ("black swan principle" - falsification of a universal), is that your game has a theme.

There are two faults with this from a logical perspective. First, you haven't stated which universal claim your game is the counterexample to. Second, you make a universal claim yourself ("To play such a game successfully, one needs some sort of [theme]"), which is easily refuted by counterexample. (Rithmomachy being one such, although Chu Shogi might be more pertinent, getting less thematic as pieces and rules are added.)

I will argue that some of what you say is a misinterpretation, but you make objections I expect to face, and have to answer. First, I grant I am not always the most precise in my language, and I might skip a step or two on the way from "here" to "there". Still, here I made a broad but not all-inclusive claim that very complex games almost always need some sort of organizing principle for players to latch onto, so they can effectively plan and prosecute a move or a successful game. I see this as all but a tautology.

This is not to say your point is entirely wrong. I may have been over-broad. There are indeed, many abstracts that are abstract. But they still tend to be small and/or simple games. Yes, even Chu Shogi, though it's grown to a large size for chess variants. If each player moved 30 - 50 pieces/turn, I might like it better. And it would play faster. It might even wear away some of those awkward pieces for running into each other too often. But it would still be a "capture the king" game. Larger board and more pieces, but this hasn't changed the essential nature or play of the game. You don't have more complex decisions to make as much as more of the same decisions, over and over. "Capture the king" is enough theme, and, for the record, I don't think that's much of a theme, certainly not enough to inform the player or designer about how the game should go (except on the most trivial of levels).

But I believe you misunderstand my point. It is that if there are *any* abstract strategy games that have integral themes, even if there is only 1 of them, then either "abstract strategy" is not "abstract", or abstracts can have themes that are integral to the design and play of the game. I claim Macysburg is that example. It was deliberately designed, over roughly 50 iterations and about 8 years of off and on work, to be an abstract strategy wargame. It is, and there is nothing else that it is which I can think of. Possibly you or someone else can, and explode my argument. If so, please do. The game is available in both PnP and Vassal versions - just ask, and see for yourself.
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russ wrote:
mocko wrote:
russ wrote:
They [Caylus and Stephenson's Rocket] don't have the elegant minimalism which (for me) is one of the defining characteristics of an "abstract strategy game".

I'm sure, Russ, that you and I agree in considering "elegant minimalism" to be desirable in an abstract strategy game, but that's ultimately a matter of taste, and I can't see the basis on which you consider simplicity a defining characteristic. None of the three elements "abstract", "strategy" or "game" is incompatible with a convoluted rule-set.

I'm not a fan of defining a historically established conventional term like "abstract strategy game" as a mere sum of its parts.

Similarly a "wargame" is not merely a "game" about "war" (e.g. additionally a wargame is intended to realistically simulate war to some degree, unlike many war-themed games), a "dice game" is not merely a "game" with "dice" (fans of dice games would consider random dice throws to be part of the genre, as opposed to a combinatorial game like Chase), a "role-playing game" (e.g. in a wargame you might "play the role" of a military leader, but no one would seriously consider a strategic level WW2 wargame to be a "role-playing game"), etc...

I pretty much agree with Russ on this one. I see simplicity as one of the defining goals of abstracts. But simplicity in relation to what? And what does a wargame do, besides abstract and quantify various aspects of war and combat so they can be reduced to a game we call more or less "realistic" based on what we think of game outcomes vs. historical results. Generally it's a result of "feel" as much as specific accuracy, which can actually put a serious drag on a wargame.

Russ obliquely raises another objection, that a "wargame" is not merely a war-themed game, which Macysburg is, but a game which will "realistically simulate war to some degree". It says nothing about how simple or complex, detailed or abstract the rules are, but his objection seems to oblige me to defend Macysburg as a wargame. But I will defer to konsum24 and his review, which I asked him to write before I knew his final opinion. If that is not enough, then please ask for the beta test PnP and Vassal module & scenarios, and see for yourself. If you would then briefly write what you think of the game, I would be appreciative.

As a general defense of the game, the above will be my last. All I can do more is break down each element of the design, explain it, and explain why it all works together. But I'll save that for another comment or two, it's almost dinner time, and I've got an errand or two.

 
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joejoyce wrote:
Russ obliquely raises another objection, that a "wargame" is not merely a war-themed game, which Macysburg is, but a game which will "realistically simulate war to some degree". It says nothing about how simple or complex, detailed or abstract the rules are, but his objection seems to oblige me to defend Macysburg as a wargame.

To be clear: my discussion about wargames was merely meant as a similar example of a term having an established conventional meaning other than the mere sum of its parts. I didn't mean anything about whether Macysburg is a wargame and wasn't intending to imply anything about Macysburg. (And FWIW indeed I don't believe that accurate or useful simulation necessarily requires complexity or high detail.)
 
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fogus wrote:
...
Theme is the image that a game evokes in the absence of pretty pictures...
If you were to take away the pretty pictures from the game and played with a (plain) board then what image would the game evoke? I'd say that even in the absence of pretty pictures, Catan would still bring to mind the idea of route building and resource claims. That's the theme no? That all of this happens on an island with wood and sheep is a product of the pictures on the box and components...

Very nice definition, from the player's point of view. I would just add that a theme should inform at least the player about how to play the game, if not also the designer in making it. But does there need to be a better working definition than what was set out above and here?

Theme:

Player perspective: Theme is the image that a game evokes in the absence of pretty pictures...
If you were to take away the pretty pictures from the game and played with a (plain) board then what image would the game evoke?

Designer perspective: Theme is an organizing concept, idea, or set of ideas about the nature of a game that the player can use to inform tactics and strategy, and that the designer may use in deciding the final design.

What is missing from or incorrect about this?
 
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It all depends on how one clusters and creates categories. By BGG standards, abstract and themed are different categories and are different, and opposed. One can cluster different and it doesn't have to be so. If one were to by the purest of definitions, you would see the following for abstract (strategy):
* No luck.
* Perfect information.
* Gameplay that doesn't have much, if any, theming found in the rules.

By BGG standards, the last element is what marks games in this genre.

One strength, from a game design perspective abstract games have, is their rules are lighter, because they don't need to simulate anything and have rules to handle them.
 
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russ wrote:
joejoyce wrote:
Russ obliquely raises another objection, that a "wargame" is not merely a war-themed game, which Macysburg is, but a game which will "realistically simulate war to some degree". It says nothing about how simple or complex, detailed or abstract the rules are, but his objection seems to oblige me to defend Macysburg as a wargame.

To be clear: my discussion about wargames was merely meant as a similar example of a term having an established conventional meaning other than the mere sum of its parts. I didn't mean anything about whether Macysburg is a wargame and wasn't intending to imply anything about Macysburg. (And FWIW indeed I don't believe that accurate or useful simulation necessarily requires complexity or high detail.)

I'm sorry, Russ, that I implied you were making a veiled criticism of the game. It's just that your comment was the segue to addressing another obvious critique of the game, that the theme is merely pasted on and that the game itself is just some muddled oversized shatranj variant, just an abstract with pretty pictures pasted on that have no bearing on the game. I would like to take the time to explain the basics of the design, and its underpinnings. Primarily because no one except konsum24 has given me the least indication they believe I actually have a good abstract strategy wargame, and nothing else. Otherwise, some would have agreed it's been demonstrated that "abstract strategy" and "heavily themed + wargame" are not mutually exclusive.

The piece movements and combat are deliberately unrealistic, stylized, chesslike, totally deterministic. Given the chess nature of the actual moves, piece values can be estimated in a relative way by counting the number of spaces each piece type can reach in a turn. For "infantry" and "skirmishers", who move like kings and knights respectively, it's 8. For "cavalry" and "cannon", it's leaping up to 3 squares in a straight line, orthogonally and diagonally, or rooklike and bishoplike, respectively, for 12 squares. For "leaders", it's a double king move, stepping 1 square in any direction, then again stepping 1 square in any direction, and it reaches 24 squares, making it by a fair margin the strongest. It's essentially like Napoleon, or any other leader, never going anywhere without being in the middle of the best Guard unit, and totally unrealistic. Each of the 4 non-leader types may attack every one of the others without itself being attacked back, again totally unrealistic. And infantry, although the slowest, is also the only one that attacks all 8 squares around itself. The cavalry and cannon only attack 4 adjacent squares, and the skirmisher, none.

So, when you play the game, you find combined arms works. While infantry is queen of the battlefield, cannon naturally line up in a row to cover a battlefield, cavalry are great for breaking up an enemy formation, and skirmishers really can harass the heck out of you, making a rush here, then dancing away to threaten there. Each pasted-on themed piece turns out to actually function in much the same way as the actual unit in action. For formations of units to move together, they effectively must be the same type of unit. Since movement is combat, no need for messy rules like CRTs, ZOCs, attack or defense factors, terrain modifications, supporting fire... everything is stripped down to a bare minimum but the behavior on the organizational level becomes complex and "military behavior" suitable to the period falls out naturally. Get too close and you get eaten, simple, no ZOCs required.

Why? Why does the game work - how can it work when it is totally deterministic? The answer is in who or what has control of the pieces. You do not actually have control of your army, you only have control of your leaders, and they have control of your army. And the leaders have a command range of 2. Now it may not sound like any handicap, having leaders in control of your army - after all, you are "really" moving all the pieces yourself. Grin, ask anyone who experimented with activators of limited range recently, or try it yourself. First you notice units getting left behind, and not worth going after right away. You find what you see as a leader doubles as a logistics/morale unit of a sort. But what you really find out is that combat is very bloody - you can lose the game in a couple of turns with very bad planning that your opponent takes proper advantage of - and it is very easy to get disorganized after a round or two of combat. Holes appear quickly, and can be exploited quickly or as quickly closed. And the victory conditions lead to desperate charges, hand-to-hand combat in town, and fighting withdrawals. At least it did in the playtest game mentioned in the beginning.

I've tried a few times in this thread to be neutral in my language when describing the game. But the theme forces itself into descriptions of game play. If I haven't offered enough evidence to prove my point, tell me what more I might do than play a game with you? But I cannot be the only person who has themed the heck out of some abstract. Does anyone else want to come into the discussion on my side? Grin, have I moved anyone at all? shake
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joejoyce wrote:
But I believe you misunderstand my point. It is that if there are *any* abstract strategy games that have integral themes, even if there is only 1 of them, then either "abstract strategy" is not "abstract", or abstracts can have themes that are integral to the design and play of the game. I claim Macysburg is that example.

Oh, sure, agreed. Hive is another one. The question of what is abstract vs themed is really tough. It's an "I know it when I see it" thing for me. If I had to articulate it I'd say that (broadly), a game feels like abstract strategy if it does most of these things:

- low or no randomness
- two player only
- symmetrical (both sides have the same pieces and moves)
- no theme or very stylised theme with weak relationship to the game (e.g. icons / symbols instead of painted art)
- no cards
 
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joejoyce wrote:
If I haven't offered enough evidence to prove my point, tell me what more I might do that play a game with you? But I cannot be the only person who has themed the heck out of some abstract. Does anyone else want to come into the discussion on my side? Grin, have I moved anyone at all? shake


Psst: in my first comment in this thread I agreed with you that an "abstract strategy game" can have a "theme". I'm not sure why you seem to be feeling like everyone disagrees strongly with you...
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