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Subject: Definitive analysis of theme in the top 100 (+) games rss

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CARL SKUTSCH
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That's right, definitive!

One thing is pretty clear is that there is no BGG consensus as to what makes a game thematic. Here are two recent and very different BGG definitions of theme:

Quote:
To me (and I suspect most Thematic Gamers), 'Theme' is 'The game's ability to tell a grand, dramatic story, like in an adventure book or movie'.
Quote:
Theme is a source of convenient nouns and verbs used in the rules for aspects of the game.

Another way of describing theme (stolen from another post) is "the topic of the game." Then one could say that a game is thematic a) to the extent that its mechanics reflect and describe that topic, and b) to the extent that its components reflect and describe that topic. The Lords of Waterdeep has kinda thematic mechanics (sending adventurers off on quests) but those cubes?!? Isle of Skye has thematic components (pretty hills and mountains and whiskey!) but some strange mechanics (so you're a Scottish laird and you bid on and mold the land as you see fit with your godlike powers?!?). Twilight Struggle has both thematic mechanics (using your military and political power to gain influence over countries around the world) and thematic components (a real world map, cards that have actual historical events).

People will disagree on pretty much every point I've made. Where I see theme, they see nothing, and vice versa.

One phenom I've noticed is that people who don't seem to care much for theme can argue passionately about which games are thematic or what makes them thematic. It makes me think of a color blind person arguing about the nature of red and green, or a tone deaf person trying to compare Beethoven and Led Zeppelin. Or a humorless person trying to analyze what makes a joke funny. (Of course, humorless people don't usually know that they're humorless. In the same way, the theme deaf may not know that they're theme deaf.)

To sidestep debate, I've expanded an old poll idea of mine on rating games' level of theme. Whatever you think theme is, please rate the following top 100+ games on their level of theme. When the poll is done we can take any game and come up with a 1-5 "thematic" rating much like the 1-5 "weight" rating. Might be useful, at the very least I think some folks will find it interesting (I know I will).

Poll
How thematic are these games? (Please don't rate if you haven't played the game.)
  Dripping with theme Fairly thematic Mildly thematic Pasted on theme No theme that I can see
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization
Twilight Struggle
Terra Mystica
Caverna
Puerto Rico
Agricola
The Castles of Burgundy
7 Wonders Duel
Star Wars Rebellion
Mage Knight
Star Wars Imperial Assault
War of the Ring (2nd ed)
Eclipse
Blood Rage
Power Grid
Android Netrunner
Scythe
Codenames
Robinson Crusoe
Brass
Le Havre
Tzolk'in
Dead of Winter
TIME Stories
Keyflower
7 Wonders
Caylus
The Voyages of Marco Polo
Eldritch Horror
Dominant Species
Twilight Imperium (3rd ed)
Roll for the Galaxy
El Grande
Dominion (all)
Race for the Galaxy
Patchwork
Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures
Orleans
Lords of Waterdeep
Five Tribes
Concordia
Battlestar Galactica
Food Chain Magnate
Tigris and Euphrates
Castles of Mad King Ludwig
Trajan
Russian Railroads
The Resistance: Avalon
Fields of Arle
Pandemic
Descent (2nd ed)
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective
Crokinole
A Game of Thrones: The Board Game (2nd ed)
Troyes
Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game
Ore et Labora
Stone Age
Alchemists
Nations
Commands & Colors: Ancients
Suburbia
Kemet
Paths of Glory
Star Realms
Combat Commander: Europe
Arcadia Quest
Railways of the World
Mage Wars Arena
Viticulture (all)
Chaos in the Old World
Ticket to Ride (all)
Steam
Goa
Mombasa
Cosmic Encounter
Age of Steam
The Prince of Florence
Splendor
The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game
Go
Hansa Teutonica
La Granja
Village
Tichu
Istanbul
Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage
Summoner Wars (all)
Imperial Settlers
Jaipur
Shogun (all)
Age of Empires III
Runewars
Dungeon Petz
Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game
Imperial
Space Alert
Memoir '44
Forbidden Stars
The Gallerist
Galaxy Trucker
Battlelore (2nd ed)
Here I Stand
Bora Bora
      416 answers
Poll created by skutsch


EDIT: The post with the calculated 1-5 ratings can be found here: Theme ratings of top 112 BGG games (1-5 scale)
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April W
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This poll has opened my eyes to how many of the top 100 games I haven't played. I was only able to vote on a few. shake
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CARL SKUTSCH
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Ok, fess up, which monster said that Android:Netrunner has "no theme that I can see"?!?
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Jimmy Smith
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Go is dripping with theme
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Randall COBB
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WOW! AWESOME poll,skutsch!! Still early but VERY interesting how some games elicit a broad spectrum of opinions and some are very black or white! wow
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skutsch wrote:
Ok, fess up, which monster said that Android:Netrunner has "no theme that I can see"?!?


Someone also null-themed TI3, Eldritch, BSG and Dead of Winter. Not altogether serious, methinks.

jmsmith2434 wrote:
Go is dripping with theme


I know of no greater expression and embodiment of the theme "oblate spheroids on a grid".
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Cris Whetstone
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Crokinole needs a 'N/A' category.
 
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Great poll! I'm happy to see the wargames getting high ratings for theme -- they are traditionally not placed within thematic games, but apart from the lighter ones like C&C which perhaps are only fairly thematic, all the other ones immerse me in a theme/history much more so than most traditionally considered thematic games.

But by far Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective takes the cake above all others on this list for me. You are (almost) literally doing what Sherlock and Watson are doing in the books (ok, you're not choosing what questions to ask each person, responding to what they say with follow up questions, manipulating suspects to reveal information, etc.). No artificial mechanics, like dice, cards, tokens, quantifying things that don't have numbers in reality, in games like in Twilight Struggle, Imperial Assault, and BSG, that take me away from the theme and turn them ultimately into abstracts where you are just using strategy/tactics around the mechanisms to maximize your score. These games, and the wargames, while still fairly to dripping thematic IMO, encourage you to immerse yourself in the theme but don't require you to do so.
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Adam Kazimierczak
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jmsmith2434 wrote:
Go is dripping with theme


You need to get some wipes and clean off your Go pieces...whistle
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I'm more interested in the binding between theme (i.e., setting) and gameplay. Of those on this list there are very few that could not be rethemed easily. Twilight Struggle has an underlying story, but the game's setting could be rehosted pretty easily. Of those on the list I think Battlestar Galactica may be the title with the tightest binding. War of the Ring is pretty, but you could issue 12 versions in a month, one for each author in the high fantasy genre.

Oddly enough I think Here I Stand is right up there, but apparently the rest of you don't think so? That one was a surprise.
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Sagrilarus wrote:
I'm more interested in the binding between theme (i.e., setting) and gameplay. Of those on this list there are very few that could not be rethemed easily. Twilight Struggle has an underlying story, but the game's setting could be rehosted pretty easily. Of those on the list I think Battlestar Galactica may be the title with the tightest binding. War of the Ring is pretty, but you could issue 12 versions in a month, one for each author in the high fantasy genre.

Oddly enough I think Here I Stand is right up there, but apparently the rest of you don't think so? That one was a surprise.


I felt the same way. Voted BSG and HIS as dripping, but TS and WotR as fairly thematic. The latter two are definitely not pasted on, but could pretty easily be rethemed, so they don't get my drip vote. As far as card-driven wargames where the events immerse me in the theme, Twilight Struggle is pretty low on my list.
 
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Sagrilarus wrote:
I'm more interested in the binding between theme (i.e., setting) and gameplay. Of those on this list there are very few that could not be rethemed easily. Twilight Struggle has an underlying story, but the game's setting could be rehosted pretty easily. Of those on the list I think Battlestar Galactica may be the title with the tightest binding. War of the Ring is pretty, but you could issue 12 versions in a month, one for each author in the high fantasy genre.

Oddly enough I think Here I Stand is right up there, but apparently the rest of you don't think so? That one was a surprise.


I understand what you are talking about. That's why I feel Game of Thrones has a pasted on theme. I started playing and still play GoT first edition, very few people even knew what GoT was since there was no HBO series. So for the most part we talked about orange or yellow, or squid guys, or white Russian north. But, it was a decent game, so the unknown theme didn't matter to us, to us it was a redesign of Diplomacy. Instead of writing orders down, you got to put tokens down for those orders. Instead of one for one combat, you had cards to modify combat. It could just as easily be pre WWI Europe.

I diverge a bit with you though on things like twilight struggle and here I stand. The componentsts (cards) all carry on the theme. In GoT, all you have to do is change the art work and names used and will have the exact same game. For TS you have to rewrite the entire deck, sure it would still have the same underlying mechanisms, but would be much more different of a game then GoT changing.
 
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CARL SKUTSCH
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Sagrilarus wrote:
I'm more interested in the binding between theme (i.e., setting) and gameplay. Of those on this list there are very few that could not be rethemed easily. Twilight Struggle has an underlying story, but the game's setting could be rehosted pretty easily. Of those on the list I think Battlestar Galactica may be the title with the tightest binding. War of the Ring is pretty, but you could issue 12 versions in a month, one for each author in the high fantasy genre.

Oddly enough I think Here I Stand is right up there, but apparently the rest of you don't think so? That one was a surprise.

I think one could make a comparison between the differing ways of seeing theme and the differing ways of seeing weight. Is weight how hard a game is to learn or how it is to learn to play it well? Clearly not the same thing yet we have only one measure of game weight. An imperfect measurement in an imperfect world.
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Guantanamo wrote:
Sagrilarus wrote:
I'm more interested in the binding between theme (i.e., setting) and gameplay. Of those on this list there are very few that could not be rethemed easily. Twilight Struggle has an underlying story, but the game's setting could be rehosted pretty easily. Of those on the list I think Battlestar Galactica may be the title with the tightest binding. War of the Ring is pretty, but you could issue 12 versions in a month, one for each author in the high fantasy genre.

Oddly enough I think Here I Stand is right up there, but apparently the rest of you don't think so? That one was a surprise.


I understand what you are talking about. That's why I feel Game of Thrones has a pasted on theme. I started playing and still play GoT first edition, very few people even knew what GoT was since there was no HBO series. So for the most part we talked about orange or yellow, or squid guys, or white Russian north. But, it was a decent game, so the unknown theme didn't matter to us, to us it was a redesign of Diplomacy. Instead of writing orders down, you got to put tokens down for those orders. Instead of one for one combat, you had cards to modify combat. It could just as easily be pre WWI Europe.

I diverge a bit with you though on things like twilight struggle and here I stand. The componentsts (cards) all carry on the theme. In GoT, all you have to do is change the art work and names used and will have the exact same game. For TS you have to rewrite the entire deck, sure it would still have the same underlying mechanisms, but would be much more different of a game then GoT changing.


I think Sagrilarus agreed with you that Here I Stand is very thematic, as do I. But the event deck in Twilight Struggle just feels like they had mechanics and went through history to attach names/pictures to the events - it's still fairly thematic, I was just looking for events to drive my decisions more than just using them for my area control plans and timing with the upcoming scoring cards.

I consider AGoT about the same theme-level as Twilight Struggle (fairly thematic), but we become much more immersed by the former. We played 1st edition before the HBO series, but had all read the books, so perhaps we're more prepared to immerse ourselves in the theme. The characters on the combat cards are pretty pasted on to the card effects, and the Wildlings mechanic is very artificial. At its heart is just a pretty standard dudes on a map game, but we really enjoy comparing how each of our games play out to the story - e.g. if Greyjoy takes Winterfell or Baratheon lays siege to Casterly Rock. 2nd edition with Feast of Crows 4p expansion is my favorite way to play, primarily because it significantly shortens game length, but 1st edition with Storm of Swords 4p expansion makes it the most thematic.
 
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If any of the several people who said Crokinole is mildly thematic care to comment what they're thinking, I'm curious.
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CARL SKUTSCH
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russ wrote:
If any of the several people who said Crokinole is mildly thematic care to comment what they're thinking, I'm curious.

I'm assuming a mild stroke and wondering if we should dial 911.
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russ wrote:
If any of the several people who said Crokinole is mildly thematic care to comment what they're thinking, I'm curious.


"Let's troll Skutsch" I suspect.
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Triboluminous wrote:
skutsch wrote:
Ok, fess up, which monster said that Android:Netrunner has "no theme that I can see"?!?


Someone also null-themed TI3, Eldritch, BSG and Dead of Winter. Not altogether serious, methinks.


While I've not voted, I'd give the three of them other than BSG "pasted on theme" and BSG no more than "mildly thematic" as it at least implements the decision processes of its theme. The rest are at best mockeries of their trappings without substance.

Of the list, I'd give the nod to either Eufrat & Tigris or Dominant Species as the most thematic.

Quote:
jmsmith2434 wrote:
Go is dripping with theme


I know of no greater expression and embodiment of the theme "oblate spheroids on a grid".


Conquest by annexation, an age-old tactic of empire.
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Ryan Keane wrote:
Guantanamo wrote:
Sagrilarus wrote:
I'm more interested in the binding between theme (i.e., setting) and gameplay. Of those on this list there are very few that could not be rethemed easily. Twilight Struggle has an underlying story, but the game's setting could be rehosted pretty easily. Of those on the list I think Battlestar Galactica may be the title with the tightest binding. War of the Ring is pretty, but you could issue 12 versions in a month, one for each author in the high fantasy genre.

Oddly enough I think Here I Stand is right up there, but apparently the rest of you don't think so? That one was a surprise.


I understand what you are talking about. That's why I feel Game of Thrones has a pasted on theme. I started playing and still play GoT first edition, very few people even knew what GoT was since there was no HBO series. So for the most part we talked about orange or yellow, or squid guys, or white Russian north. But, it was a decent game, so the unknown theme didn't matter to us, to us it was a redesign of Diplomacy. Instead of writing orders down, you got to put tokens down for those orders. Instead of one for one combat, you had cards to modify combat. It could just as easily be pre WWI Europe.

I diverge a bit with you though on things like twilight struggle and here I stand. The componentsts (cards) all carry on the theme. In GoT, all you have to do is change the art work and names used and will have the exact same game. For TS you have to rewrite the entire deck, sure it would still have the same underlying mechanisms, but would be much more different of a game then GoT changing.


I think Sagrilarus agreed with you that Here I Stand is very thematic, as do I. But the event deck in Twilight Struggle just feels like they had mechanics and went through history to attach names/pictures to the events - it's still fairly thematic, I was just looking for events to drive my decisions more than just using them for my area control plans and timing with the upcoming scoring cards.

I consider AGoT about the same theme-level as Twilight Struggle (fairly thematic), but we become much more immersed by the former. We played 1st edition before the HBO series, but had all read the books, so perhaps we're more prepared to immerse ourselves in the theme. The characters on the combat cards are pretty pasted on to the card effects, and the Wildlings mechanic is very artificial. At its heart is just a pretty standard dudes on a map game, but we really enjoy comparing how each of our games play out to the story - e.g. if Greyjoy takes Winterfell or Baratheon lays siege to Casterly Rock. 2nd edition with Feast of Crows 4p expansion is my favorite way to play, primarily because it significantly shortens game length, but 1st edition with Storm of Swords 4p expansion makes it the most thematic.


What colors are those that you speak of? One of my favorite games, but have no idea which color grey not, winterfall, or batonthan are. There is no feeling of 'theme' within the game
 
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skutsch wrote:
Sagrilarus wrote:
I'm more interested in the binding between theme (i.e., setting) and gameplay. Of those on this list there are very few that could not be rethemed easily. Twilight Struggle has an underlying story, but the game's setting could be rehosted pretty easily. Of those on the list I think Battlestar Galactica may be the title with the tightest binding. War of the Ring is pretty, but you could issue 12 versions in a month, one for each author in the high fantasy genre.

Oddly enough I think Here I Stand is right up there, but apparently the rest of you don't think so? That one was a surprise.

I think one could make a comparison between the differing ways of seeing theme and the differing ways of seeing weight. Is weight how hard a game is to learn or how it is to learn to play it well? Clearly not the same thing yet we have only one measure of game weight. An imperfect measurement in an imperfect world.


Indeed. For example - I can certainly see where the people voting that Time Stories is dripping with theme are coming from, but for me the mechanics are (by necessity, on account that the mechanics are deliberately generic so you can plug any theming of scenario in there) too abstracted from the thematic content of the game for the game to drip with theme for me, no matter how strongly themed the scenarios are (So a Fairly Thematic vote from me on that). At least in the Asylum case, with the exception of some character special abilities, all of the mechanics could be used to represent something else, because... Most of them will be used for that in other scenarios.
 
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clearclaw wrote:
Triboluminous wrote:
skutsch wrote:
Ok, fess up, which monster said that Android:Netrunner has "no theme that I can see"?!?


Someone also null-themed TI3, Eldritch, BSG and Dead of Winter. Not altogether serious, methinks.


While I've not voted, I'd give the three of them other than BSG "pasted on theme" and BSG no more than "mildly thematic" as it at least implements the decision processes of its theme. The rest are at best mockeries of their trappings without substance.


I think that Alchemists does a better-than-average job of hewing to its theme. Employ of the Scientific Method, and decision on whether and when to publish or perish.
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Most BGG games are Euros, so I found I first selected "Pasted on Theme" for all the games. Then I did a relative comparison, with less thematic games, namely Crokinole and Go as "No Theme", and raising the more thematic games as "Mildly Thematic". And so on.

The "problem" about the poll is that everything's relative. An Ameritrasher will demand more from a game to make it "Dripping with Theme" than a Eurogamer. Roleplayers will demand more from a game to make it "Dripping with Theme" than boardgamers. As someone who entered boardgames through roleplaying games, I don't find boardgames as thematic as roleplaying games. Mostly, the rules get in the way of the experience.

With the discussions about rulebooks, I've been using the term "immersion" lately. It's similar to theme, but is based more on distraction:
* How often do you have to look up something in the rulebook?
* How well do the components support the theme of the game?
* How distracting are the components from the game?
* How well do the mechanics support the theme of the game?
* How much of the game is a thematic experience?
 
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I prefer the simple metric of How well do the game's decision processes replicate the actual decision processes of the theme?
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Sam and Max wrote:
The "problem" about the poll is that everything's relative. An Ameritrasher will demand more from a game to make it "Dripping with Theme" than a Eurogamer. Roleplayers will demand more from a game to make it "Dripping with Theme" than boardgamers. As someone who entered boardgames through roleplaying games, I don't find boardgames as thematic as roleplaying games. Mostly, the rules get in the way of the experience.


I think it depends on the type of game. An Ameritrasher is probably more likely to say Eldrich Horror and War of the Rings are dripping with theme, whereas as Eurogamer might be more critical of these and say they're just fairly or mildly thematic. But for some Eurogames like Power Grid and Agricola, a Eurogamer might call these fairly thematic, while an Ameritrasher would probably say these are mildly thematic or pasted on. I agree RPGers will probably be more critical of all board games.
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Ryan Keane wrote:
Sam and Max wrote:
The "problem" about the poll is that everything's relative. An Ameritrasher will demand more from a game to make it "Dripping with Theme" than a Eurogamer. Roleplayers will demand more from a game to make it "Dripping with Theme" than boardgamers. As someone who entered boardgames through roleplaying games, I don't find boardgames as thematic as roleplaying games. Mostly, the rules get in the way of the experience.


I think it depends on the type of game. An Ameritrasher is probably more likely to say Eldrich Horror and War of the Rings are dripping with theme, whereas as Eurogamer might be more critical of these and say they're just fairly or mildly thematic.


...Eldrich Horror removes the incredibly anti-thematic "Eh, it's just Cthulhu, we're unlikely to win by other means, lets just stock up on weapons so we can take him down in combat, that'll give us a better than even shot..." thing from Arkham Horror, right? (That that's a viable strategy for all but one of the Elder Gods makes it very hard for me to consider Arkham Horror to be more than mildly thematic...)
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