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Subject: Why I like playing games with a solid theme... rss

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CARL SKUTSCH
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One of things I like about games with a theme that I can get into is that they allow me and my friends/family to tell stories as we play. We don't do this constantly--or even for every game--but there are usually little made up stories throughout most games that we play. They add a dollop of humor, help make game moments more memorable, just make the whole thing even more fun, more social. I don't have to do this. There are plenty of games--abstracts, war games--where this rarely happens, but storytelling is one reason I like my more theme heavy games.

Take these slightly exaggerated examples:

Agricola, with theme embracing players...

"Jeeze, dude, just look at that slaughterhouse. How can you face yourself in the mirror after killing all those poor cute little sheepsies?"
"Back off buddy! First of all, this is the frickin' Middle Ages so we don't have no stinkin' mirrors! Second, I haven't chosen to kill a single sheep. It's you guys who are bringing all the meat to my slaughterhouse; I'm just doing my job, making an honest pfennig."
"Baaaaaa. Murderer."

Agricola with unthemed players...

"I remove 2 sheep cubes so that gets me 4 food tokens."
"Right, and I take 1 food token because of my slaughterhouse."


Euphoria, with theme embracing players...

"Ok, I call my 3 guys back to the salt mines, lowering their morale by 1. Damn, that means I have to toss my extra book artifact. I hadn't even finished reading the darn thing! I roll...aiiii! 13, plus 3 knowledge, I gotta lose my six!"
"I guess he finished that book. Learned more than was good for him. That's why I keep MY workers dumb and happy."
"Shut up."
"Oooo, Mr. Smarty Pants is all upset."
"Next turn I'm electroshocking a new clone into action! Dumb is my new middle name. D U H M, dumb!"

Euphoria with unthemed players...

"I pull my dice back. Morale goes down 1. I discard a card. I roll a 13. Ok, I remove my biggest die. Your turn."
"Ok."


Now I know there are some people who see my dry themeless examples of play as the best ones. There's nothing wrong with that. It's not usually my style, I think it's a little strange, but that's ok. (I also think liking beets is kinda strange, obviously many folks, including my wife, disagree.) However, when people decry theme on the pages of BGG I think they are often failing to make the leap of imagination that would allow them to understand why theme fans like theme. It's not just for the glitzy boards and plastic miniatures (PLASTIC MINIATURES!!!), it's also for the way it enhances the storytelling feeling of games.

And yes, I can enjoy a pure grinding game of mind against mind. Years ago I had a long period of playing match after match of EastFront with a buddy (who has since moved away, ). Those were pretty intense without much goofy story telling. We may have cracked a joke here and there but it was mostly just move, roll, stare, move, roll some more.

I like my games themed, I like my games themeless. However, if I had to give up one category, I'd give up the themeless ones.
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My knight goes in the side door, beds your queen, and gets caught, destroying her career. Good luck winning our little war of attrition without her influence at court.

(knight to E3)
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Josh
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I prefer games with a gaseous theme.

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James Lautermilch
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I prefer games with a plasma theme.
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Francisco Gutierrez
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Who the heck are these "themeless players?" Are they aliens? Robots?

It would be so strange trying to avoid the game's theme, "I move the cardboard piece representing my fictional character to the space on the board labeled Arkham Asylum. Pass me the corresponding deck of cards so I can read one and gain or lose resources, as required."
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Absolutely!

One of my favorites (and my family often humors me enough to play) is Heroes of Feonora. Since it's an RPG boardgame, it's heavy on the theme, but doesn't have to be played that way.

With theme:
I raise my blowpipe to my lips, and blow out a stream of purple particles toward the goblins. The particles coalesce into a giant slingshot... [roll die: 2-backfire] which scoops me up and flings me against a tree. Oomph! I take 2 damage.

Without theme:
The goblins need a purple spell. I use my Slingshot. [roll die: 2] I take 2 damage.

When we start playing without the theme, we know we've played too long and people are getting tired, so we need to resume the next day.
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American in Chile
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joetaco wrote:
Who the heck are these "themeless players?" Are they aliens? Robots?

It would be so strange trying to avoid the game's theme, "I move the cardboard piece representing my fictional character to the space on the board labeled Arkham Asylum. Pass me the corresponding deck of cards so I can read one and gain or lose resources, as required."

Yet I read a thread earlier today, where some people were saying they ignore the theme while they play, and some even find it a distraction.
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CARL SKUTSCH
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Schoolmarm5 wrote:
joetaco wrote:
Who the heck are these "themeless players?" Are they aliens? Robots?

It would be so strange trying to avoid the game's theme, "I move the cardboard piece representing my fictional character to the space on the board labeled Arkham Asylum. Pass me the corresponding deck of cards so I can read one and gain or lose resources, as required."

Yet I read a thread earlier today, where some people were saying they ignore the theme while they play, and some even find it a distraction.

Yah, they are a vocal minority. Most people on BGG seem to find theme at least moderately important.
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J C Lawrence
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joetaco wrote:
It would be so strange trying to avoid the game's theme...


I generally avoid themes during play as they readily interfere or affect the decision-making process.

On a related note, I also avoid immersion and generally consider that a given game session has failed if the players become thematically immersed. Much like lipstick on a pig, it serves no use other than to annoy the pig. Somewhat likewise, I don't mind narrative but do not look to the game for narrative. Games that insist on creating a narrative and then dragging the players through it annoy me. I see narrative as a personal and internal thing, not a public thing and not a thing that's created or driven by anything external. Ideally the narrative occurs entirely in the players heads, enabled but not fed or required by the game.

Quote:
..."I move the cardboard piece representing my fictional character to the space on the board labeled Arkham Asylum. Pass me the corresponding deck of cards so I can read one and gain or lose resources, as required."


Nahh. I move here, draw this card from that deck, pay a gray cube and get a +1 to FOO. Next player! Nice and crisp.
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Cris Whetstone
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For most game players the 'story' comes from the gameplay and interactions with the other players within that game. The theme may or may not help make that more fun. But if the game by itself separate from it's theme doesn't give you some sort of narrative from which you can find the story of the game you are playing overall then it would be plenty boring to many players. You can dress everyone up in football uniforms but if you have them in parallel moving boxes into piles on the yard marker numbers would you expect them to be making football jokes after its over?

Theme can be a nice enhancement for a game but if all of your enjoyment comes from the theme you may not be playing a very good game. You might be imagining something closer to LARPing in your head while simply pushing stuff around on a board with aimless mechanics.
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CARL SKUTSCH
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WetRock wrote:

Theme can be a nice enhancement for a game but if all of your enjoyment comes from the theme you may not be playing a very good game. You might be imagining something closer to LARPing in your head while simply pushing stuff around on a board with aimless mechanics.

Yeah, that would be a bit strange, finding all your enjoyment coming from the theme. I don't remember reading anyone recently say that all their enjoyment came from the theme.
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Cris Whetstone
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skutsch wrote:
WetRock wrote:

Theme can be a nice enhancement for a game but if all of your enjoyment comes from the theme you may not be playing a very good game. You might be imagining something closer to LARPing in your head while simply pushing stuff around on a board with aimless mechanics.

Yeah, that would be a bit strange, finding all your enjoyment coming from the theme. I don't remember reading anyone recently say that all their enjoyment came from the theme.


Your admittedly exaggerated examples above lead in that direction. You are trying to divide the issue into strict categories without nuance while questioning my use of hyperbole to illustrate the same.
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clearclaw wrote:
I generally avoid themes during play as they readily interfere or affect the decision-making process.


If the theme is interfering with the decision making process, I would argue you are not really playing a themed game.

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TedW wrote:
clearclaw wrote:
I generally avoid themes during play as they readily interfere or affect the decision-making process.


If the theme is interfering with the decision making process, I would argue you are not really playing a themed game.


My general view is that if the theme participates in the decision-making process to any degree at all, then it is interfering.
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CARL SKUTSCH
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WetRock wrote:
skutsch wrote:
WetRock wrote:

Theme can be a nice enhancement for a game but if all of your enjoyment comes from the theme you may not be playing a very good game. You might be imagining something closer to LARPing in your head while simply pushing stuff around on a board with aimless mechanics.

Yeah, that would be a bit strange, finding all your enjoyment coming from the theme. I don't remember reading anyone recently say that all their enjoyment came from the theme.


Your admittedly exaggerated examples above lead in that direction. You are trying to divide the issue into strict categories without nuance while questioning when I my use of hyperbole to illustrate the same.

Well, I thought I was clear enough, but to be more clear:

I can't think of any game where all of my enjoyment came from the theme. There are some games I've played where a delightful theme temporarily disguised a problematic game, but those games soon fade from my play rotation. A great theme can't cover up a game which is mechanically unsound. However, a great theme, or even a decent theme, can enhance a game which already has a sound foundation of effective mechanics. Which sorta seemed to be what you were saying, so maybe we have no point of disagreement.
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Don Lynch
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Maybe I misinterpreted this, but the OP, Skutsch, mentioned playing Eastfront and implied that the game was so intense that he wasn't thinking of theme, just mechanics. I find that when you play an intense game, you are only thinking about what the other player(s) can do in response to your advances or defenses. And in spades if you play a block game. But if the game is about war on the Russian Front, you can't avoid theme given all the place names and the fact that you are gaming the Russian Front. It just doesn't consciously register, except that maybe you are attacking Kharkov. In the post-mortem, you will remember the ebb and flow just like it was real history. Because it was for a while.

And in most games, even those that are likely to be treated as pushing components, any conversations will be about the pigs and the cows, not about the pink and brown cubes. Agree that it would be better with miniatures in stead of cubes. Just because.

And good mechanics should reward real world logical choices with appropriate consequences (rewards) thus reinforcing the theme. Even if it's just slop the hogs and milk the cows, not milk the hogs and slop the cows.
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This game is broken because of too much theme!
 
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I totally related to the OP, as we like to do narratives explaining the dice results or to laugh at the visuals created by our actions.

E.g. In Dungeon!, the evil halfling thief whose card makes it look like a wallcrawler counterattacks with a 2. Clearly that was a pounce attck that missed horribly, causing it to slap the floor or go rolling down the dungeon floor.

Or when we were playing Flash Point: Fire Rescue, my daughter's turns would've shown on TV as something like this...

Lady: "O great you're here, get me out of this burning house!"

Firefighter leads the Lady thru the smoky living room then says "Please wait here, ma'am, I've got take care of something". Firefighter hacks a hole through the wall and disappears for a long while.

Lady: "Um, excuse me, the smoke's gettin kinda thick in here, and the corner just burst into flame. Are you coming back to get me?"

Firefighter returns with a cat.

Lady: "WHAT?! You left me here to go get a CAT?!"

Firefighter: "Come with me, ma'am" and leads the Lady and Cat out.

Then a blip shows up in the living room. What the..? Was Billy hiding under the sofa?
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CARL SKUTSCH
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donlyn wrote:
Maybe I misinterpreted this, but the OP, Skutsch, mentioned playing Eastfront and implied that the game was so intense that he wasn't thinking of theme, just mechanics. I find that when you play an intense game, you are only thinking about what the other player(s) can do in response to your advances or defenses. And in spades if you play a block game. But if the game is about war on the Russian Front, you can't avoid theme given all the place names and the fact that you are gaming the Russian Front. It just doesn't consciously register, except that maybe you are attacking Kharkov. In the post-mortem, you will remember the ebb and flow just like it was real history. Because it was for a while.

I think you were interpreting me just fine. Because EastFront is very mechanically intense game, the theme fades. And then again it doesn't, because you are still somewhat aware that you are a general marshalling your forces to defend/defeat Russia. If the game's mechanics have me do stupid things, things that I think are completely unrealistic given what I know about World War 2, I might be annoyed, it would be jarring. For example, I also own HoldFast: Russia 1941-1942. I think it's a pretty cool block game, nice, simple, quick. However, the simple ruleset means that it sometimes seems historically questionable. It's not a major thing, but it feels more "gamey" to me than EastFront, even though EastFront is actually the one with far more game rules.

donlyn wrote:
And in most games, even those that are likely to be treated as pushing components, any conversations will be about the pigs and the cows, not about the pink and brown cubes. Agree that it would be better with miniatures in stead of cubes. Just because.

And good mechanics should reward real world logical choices with appropriate consequences (rewards) thus reinforcing the theme. Even if it's just slop the hogs and milk the cows, not milk the hogs and slop the cows.

Agreed.
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Holdfast series is a different perspective in units, map scale, and rules. Doesn't necessarily make it historically worse or questionable in itself, just another take on the subject.

Recently got "Holdfast: North Afrika". Will be interested to see how it compares with "Rommel in the Desert", a longtime favourite of mine.
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clearclaw wrote:
joetaco wrote:
It would be so strange trying to avoid the game's theme...


I generally avoid themes during play as they readily interfere or affect the decision-making process.

On a related note, I also avoid immersion and generally consider that a given game session has failed if the players become thematically immersed. Much like lipstick on a pig, it serves no use other than to annoy the pig. Somewhat likewise, I don't mind narrative but do not look to the game for narrative. Games that insist on creating a narrative and then dragging the players through it annoy me. I see narrative as a personal and internal thing, not a public thing and not a thing that's created or driven by anything external. Ideally the narrative occurs entirely in the players heads, enabled but not fed or required by the game.

Quote:
..."I move the cardboard piece representing my fictional character to the space on the board labeled Arkham Asylum. Pass me the corresponding deck of cards so I can read one and gain or lose resources, as required."


Nahh. I move here, draw this card from that deck, pay a gray cube and get a +1 to FOO. Next player! Nice and crisp.


Clearclaw, meet Poe's law.

Can you provide an example of theme interfereing with a game?
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Shadrach wrote:
Can you provide an example of theme interfereing with a game?


Sure: A player play-acting a role during a game.
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clearclaw wrote:
Shadrach wrote:
Can you provide an example of theme interfereing with a game?


Sure: A player play-acting a role during a game.


What if, on further analysis, we find that the player who was play-acting a role during a game was, at the same time, making optimal moves? She completely comprehended the board state, kept track of what her fellow Food Chain Magnates were doing, and then made the best move (or one of the best of a range of moves) that she could. Simultaneously she wore a white chef's cap and insisted on referring to herself as the "Burger Babe" and saying things like "got a few more belly bombers coming yer way" as she undercut your prices on burgers to each neighborhood's customers. Could you still say that theme had interfered with her game?
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skutsch wrote:
Could you still say that theme had interfered with her game?


In so far as it was likely to interfere with other's.
 
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chris thatcher
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Quote:
Sure: A player play-acting a role during a game.


When does that happen though really outside of rpg's. I have very rarely see this and i play a lot of thematic type games. Or were they, i dont know, just having a bit of fun?. Do you allow talking at the table or is that also distracting?

I notice on your game 'Ohana Proa you actually applied a theme. Why bother if its such a distraction and not important?
 
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