aside from Tom's dice tower, i listen to your podcast more than any other, and I generally enjoy them. I had to, though, for the first time, fast forward through this episode... your conversations about narrative arc just killed me.
I appreciated that you brought up Geoff's example of Splendor's arc: a distinct beginning phase, middle phase, and end game. I think it is a great illustration that a game can have a narrative arc without having a theme.
your conversation about Love Letter was confusing - no, it doesn't have one. NA isn't about theme, story, or narration. It is if you, as the player, do the same thing at the beginning of the game as you do at the end of the game. For example, Dixit, a very "narrative" game - doesn't have a narrative arc. You do the same thing over and over, never deviating. Contrastingly, chess, with no theme, has a narrative arc where you do different things/execute different strategy at different phases of the game.
I find that those games that can get away from that are the ones that have a puzzle mechanic that causes variety or are simple/fast games. Sherriff of Nottingham, Love letter, ultimate werewolf, coup, all don't have NA. Some games have a little: Eminent Domain, for example, or Dominion both have a little natural NA, as you move from building your deck to begin into trying to score points by the end. Games like Hansa Teutonica also are like this - while you could do the same thing for the entire game, you likely won't win. What you have to do is know when that moment is to switch from phase 1 to phase 2 (to phase 3, or 4, if they exist). This is one way that you can see experienced gamers pull away in these games - they know when to make that transition. Think Caverna, as you spoke about. There is that moment when you have to step away from building your location into building up the points or other scoring criteria (do you have the different animals, etc.).
Finally, some games are just full of NA: the aforementioned chess, and yes, even splendor. Other ones include most games that have a story - and this is why it could be confusing, not just because of the vocabulary, but because the story itself forces you to act differently. I think of Dead of Winter for this - while the game may not require different actions because it is the 'end of the game,' it may require them because of the crossroad mechanic.
Ok. last little nit-pick. when you guys were talking about the sandbox games, there are a few like this out there, but you have to think differently - it isn't that you can do "anything" like in some of the open role/video games (bioshock, GTA, skyrim, etc.) - they are the ones in which you get to choose your path to victory. Not point salad, so to say, but ones where you can dictate your action. for example, 5 tribes and Istanbul are both good examples. Sure, you are scoring points in both cases, but you are determining /how/ you score them. For example with 5 tribes - are you going for a djinn strategy? a Card collection strategy? a tile capture strategy? Your strategy will dictate how and where you go. You might pass up a 'great' turn because while it would be worth some points, you would get more points taking an 'average' turn that adds to your dominance in a certain area. That makes it more compelling to have to decide whether to screw your neighbor by denying him the better for him path, even though something else would be better for you. With Istanbul, that literal path and choice of victory/objective makes it a good open sandbox game.
Anyway guys, don't mean to dig on you - I do like the podcast, but this one made me feel like you hadn't actually researched the topic prior to talking about it, so you spent too much time talking about an incorrect interpretation of what you felt the topic was. And instead of changing tactics or moving on, I felt you kept hammering things that didn't make sense...
Keep up the good work and look forward to more (better) conversation topics next time.