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Subject: How important is theme? rss

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john m
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Take the game Lost Cities. It's fun. My wife loves it. But I wonder if the game would be as fun without the expedition theme. The game could almost be played with a regular deck of cards, you'd just have to figure out what cards are modifiers (investment cards.)

The game is simple and it just made me wonder how much theme had to do with things. Maybe it's the artwork and theme together. I guess that's kind of what makes a game a game. It's more than mechanics. And while I'm answering my own question I'll comment that I don't mean pre-existing themes like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Obviously, those games require a strong theme, even if some of these games have lousy play.

I guess I'm saying that a game is more than moves and mechanics. It is a totally unique product such that the whole is greater than the parts.
 
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jefF, There are some who call me... DuneKitteh
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The best theme, ultimately won't save a bad game, however, a good game will probably show through whatever the theme.

That said though, theme is important. Despite my whole Dune re-theming ranting and raving over the past couple of weeks and how it really shouldn't make a difference (and I still stand behind the opinion that it doesn't make a difference to the play of the game), I have written off games in the past that we're re-themed, or didn't have a theme to my liking. Dune re-themed as Twilight Imperium seems kinda cool, to me. Dune re-themed to, say... a conquest in Antarctica... yeah, admittedly I probably wouldn't buy that one either.
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Bill Eldard
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johnnyLikesGames wrote:
Take the game Lost Cities. It's fun. My wife loves it. But I wonder if the game would be as fun without the expedition theme.


It's fun for me, and I've never paid any attention to the theme.

johnnyLikesGames wrote:
I guess I'm saying that a game is more than moves and mechanics. It is a totally unique product such that the whole is greater than the parts.


It's all a matter of personal taste. Some gamers want theme to be strong, but often that limits the playability of a game.

Zertz, Blokus, and Ingenious have no themes, and yet they are great games. Through The Desert, For Sale, and Money have very thin themes, yet they are great games.

I don't play games for their theme, though I can enjoy games with a good theme. On the other hand, as evidenced on BGG, many gamers are dissatisfied with a game if they don't feel it emerses them in the theme.

It's a matter of individual preference.
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Dave Chalker
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Like any creative work, you must consider your audience. When I design games, my audience is myself and the people I'd like to play it with. So really, just ask yourself, how important is theme to you, or the people you want to play your game?
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Brian Morris
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On a scale from 1-10 theme for me is a 10. There are to many games out there with good mechanics and a good theme to play one without a good theme.
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Cher
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I think it depends on the game. Blokus doesn't need a theme; it's visually appealing and thoughtful, and for me, that's enough. However, I can't imagine wanting to play a game like Thebes with no theme. Moving from point A to point B with markers and numbered cards would be......well, boring. And even though many people around here think the Settlers theme is weak, I can't imagine wanting to trade 2 blues for a green so that I can lay my marker on the board. Yelling about sheep is simply more fun.

If you play a game because you're in the mood for a fun intellectual exercise or you want to solve a puzzle, theme isn't necessary. But if you're playing to escape, enter another world, and PLAY in the true sense of the word, theme can be essential. It's about having fun with people you enjoy being around.

If I'm in the mood to act like a detective or embody a galactic space raider I'm not going to pull out the backgammon set. And why would I want to play a game like Downfall of Pompeii if I couldn't throw dozens of people to their deaths in the pit of a fiery volcano?
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Steve
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mrbeankc wrote:
On a scale from 1-10 theme for me is a 10. There are to many games out there with good mechanics and a good theme to play one without a good theme.


This is me too.

Also, to the OP, you like the *theme* in Lost Cities? Wow, I can't think of a more themeless game. I own and enjoy it occasionally, but it wouldn't matter one bit what is printed on those cards, it is a purely mechanical exercise for me.

Makes me think you need to play more games with more theme to see what people are talking about when they're talking about rich theme!!!
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John W
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Theme is vital.
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Ernesto Cabrera
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I think if a designer has in mind a great mechanic, the theme isn't that important.

Take Mexica for example, it has great mechanics, but it could easily be a tile placement game only, instead you have the "pyramids", when a tile with 1-2-3 points in it could work just as well. You could have pasted a "build a renacentist city" theme in a game like this and still it would be OK... A lot of Euros do this. Blue Moon City could have been a game with a lot of big blank tiles and small cards without any art at all, and the game would be (i think) just as good.

Pasted themes aren't that important, the only problem I have is when a game has the same mechanics another game had, but with a "new" an "innovative" theme. Shogun I have it because I know from BGG that Wallestein was good, and I wasn't gonna waste 100+ dollars in a game I can buy for 50.

Theme is important when it's involved with the mechanics and most ot the times its the game itself. War of the Ring has fiddly mechanics, rules, components... but without the theme it would be nothing more than a pile of worthless cards and Miniatures... You can make a game with mechanics from WOTR (like Yspahan did), but the greatness of the game is the theme...

The point is: The theme helps you get involved in the deepness of the game, and how I said in a post a long time ago, it helps you to abstract yourself in it, takes you away on a journey to a "new plane"... Fury of Dracula, Arkham Horror, Runebound, they're all about theme.

Notre Dame, Caylus, Age of Empires III, Puerto Rico, they're all about mechanics with a theme "feel".

Abstracts are all mechanics....
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David Seddon
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There are great fairry themeless or weak-themed games out there, BUT a great them always improves a game. I've never analysed it, but probably most of the best games have strong themes.
 
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J C Lawrence
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johnnyLikesGames wrote:
I guess I'm saying that a game is more than moves and mechanics. It is a totally unique product such that the whole is greater than the parts.


What I find most annoying is themes that interfere with or in any way get in the way of playing the game. For me all games are abstracts once they're in play. If the theme adds fiddly rules, distracts players with the bits or in any other way distracts from treating the game as an abstract once in play then I consider the design to be unappealing to that degree. War of the Ring, Arkham Horror etc are thus gross exercises in theme-first and are thus also clearly be avoided.

Thin themes are good.

For me the value of theme comes in two parts. First is as a source of convenient nouns and verbs to help understand the game. Somewhere around fifth or maybe thirty fifth is as a subject I have affinity for (for instance Wongar's aborigine mythology theme and Wayfinder's micronesian theme appeal to me for unimportant reasons). However that's really far down the list. I'll very happily play a good game with a theme I strongly dislike. I'll strenuously avoid playing a mediocre game with a theme I adore.

Cher wrote:
And even though many people around here think the Settlers theme is weak, I can't imagine wanting to trade 2 blues for a green so that I can lay my marker on the board. Yelling about sheep is simply more fun.


I've played Settlers of Catan using glass bits/blobs instead of the cards for resources. It worked well. Two yellow for a red? In some minor ways I think the game worked better that way (mostly in that glass bits were easier to handle than cards).

Quote:
But if you're playing to escape, enter another world, and PLAY in the true sense of the word, theme can be essential.


In what way is an intellectual exercise necessarily not play in the true sense of the word?

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And why would I want to play a game like Downfall of Pompeii if I couldn't throw dozens of people to their deaths in the pit of a fiery volcano?


Because I'd like to play a game of emergent short term alliances with card counting and risk management? (Not that I'm that fond of Pompeii, but that's why I'd play Pompeii)
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(The Artist formerly known as) Arnest R
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johnnyLikesGames wrote:
Take the game Lost Cities. It's fun. My wife loves it. But I wonder if the game would be as fun without the expedition theme.


Lost Cities has a theme ??? goo ???

Kidding aside, theme is great if it influences the underlying mechanic in a natural way or at least makes an unusual mechanic seem natural, otherwise it is irrelevant (looking at you, LC).
 
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Daniel Danzer
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What is a "theme"?

Has Chess a theme?
Yes? Why is it called "abstract strategy" then?
No? Why are the pieces called King, Knight, Rook, or whatever?

To me, the question of importance is a kind of "bad" or "wrong" question. I don`t mean this offending the OP, but to me, there are so many ways to define this word and the functions a "theme" can work well or not so well together with game mechanics I cannot commit myself on a fixed standpoint.

Usually, the more complex the rules and the more different bits and kinds of mechanics you have (cards, pieces, board sections, hidden information) the more important is a theme working with these mechanics. If you have just these multi-squares and a rule or two to put them on the board, you don`t need it (Go, Blokus). If all different pieces move differently, it`s nice to know why and more easy to remember (Chess, Hive). If it`s all about the fun and more simulation-like, it`s of course mandatory (Um Reifenbreite, Hotel Life, Zombies, whatever).

So the answer to your question depends very much on the kind of game plus target group / gamer`s personality and thus cannot be answered generally.

I think, having a theme fits a bit better to the human quest for some sense in this chaotic world. You understand things better, if you can build up an analogy or work with words you are familiar with. A game also seems more distinctive with a theme (well, not with a medieval city and traders, that`s true ), so it`s good marketing, too.

After all, to develop a game, think about different ways for your game: Without a theme, with a light theme, with much theme and ask yourself, when it does feel better.

BTW, there are some GeekLists about abstracts "made better" with themes, here is the one I started (attention, humour!):

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/19064

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Ziegreich
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I play Lost Cities with an ordinary deck of cards, Jack to King being the investor cards. I made a fifth set by buying two decks and replacing one suit with black dots. It's still a great game and from what I hear the theme is rather tacked on.

In Ra, I ignore the fact that there is supposed to be a theme. Frankly, the way it was done in Razzia makes more sense and I wish they'd done that up rather than the Egyptian business that makes no sense.

I'd much prefer to play games with a strong theme that is integral to the game. The mechanics should make logical sense within the narrative context of the game.

When I play, I want to experience an element of role-playing, e.g. take the role of a military commander, a captain of industry or a medieval sleuth. If I don't see what role I'm supposed to play, the game becomes less fun.

Which is why I seldom indulge in abstracts.

 
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Jorge Arroyo
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I think it depends on the kind of game. I love theme, but I also love many abstract games that have no theme at all...

For example, there are games that try to recreate the experience of playing a RPG (some with more success than others). In these kind of games, theme is very important. Also for games that try to replicate an aspect of real life (or in case of fiction worlds, an aspect of fiction life) theme is also important. For example: How would it feel to fly around on a spaceship going from world to world trading goods? You can play Merchant of Venus and "find out". It's a game with great mechanics, but I wouldn't like it as much without the sci-fi theme... Wargames are also a good example of this.

-Jorge
 
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I come for the game...I stay for the theme!

I can like a game with good mechanics but I can love a game with an engaging theme to boot.

 
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Henrik Lantz
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clearclaw wrote:
johnnyLikesGames wrote:
I guess I'm saying that a game is more than moves and mechanics. It is a totally unique product such that the whole is greater than the parts.


What I find most annoying is themes that interfere with or in any way get in the way of playing the game. For me all games are abstracts once they're in play. If the theme adds fiddly rules, distracts players with the bits or in any other way distracts from treating the game as an abstract once in play then I consider the design to be unappealing to that degree. War of the Ring, Arkham Horror etc are thus gross exercises in theme-first and are thus also clearly be avoided.

Thin themes are good.


My opinions are almost entirely the contrary. Clearclaw's opinions are very valid, this is what he thinks, but I feel very very differently. Theme is extremely important to me. If the rules makes sense in the theme of the game, I do not mind clunky/fiddly rules. If they are there to convey a feeling/experience in some way, they just add to the experience. Thin themes I avoid! Tacked on themes is actually the worst for me, abstracts with no theme whatsoever I can appreciate better.

Quote:

I've played Settlers of Catan using glass bits/blobs instead of the cards for resources. It worked well. Two yellow for a red? In some minor ways I think the game worked better that way (mostly in that glass bits were easier to handle than cards).


Ouch! That hurt! I would prefer fully painted plastic miniatures.

Quote:
And why would I want to play a game like Downfall of Pompeii if I couldn't throw dozens of people to their deaths in the pit of a fiery volcano?

Because I'd like to play a game of emergent short term alliances with card counting and risk management? (Not that I'm that fond of Pompeii, but that's why I'd play Pompeii)


Sorry, don't agree at all. I can't see a reason to play the game without the theme.

I play games for the experience, I like immersing myself in the theme and the best games make me feel as I am doing exactly what the game is trying to convey; finding treasures, trading goods in the 1500s or fighting aliens or whatever. I never understood how people can play a game for a novel mechanic or "elegant gameplay" (although many people proabably do that, and that is of course great, there are no rights or wrongs here, just opinions). Even winning is actually not that important, if I had fun playing the game I am more than satisfied.

So, to answer the original poster, you have think about the target audience. For some people, like me, theme is extremely important. For others it might even get in the way for their enjoyment of the game. Good luck with the game!
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ɹǝpun uʍop ʞǝǝƃ
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I love a good, rich theme.

Though, it is important that the theme doesn't clash with any key mechanic:

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/18878

Theme is much like an effects pedal on an electric guitar. A great musician can make it sing without one, but for a poor musician it can hide a lot of cock-ups
 
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Eric Knauer
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Some of my favorite games have pretty pasted on themes, so it’s not that important. Actually, I think theme might be a factor in what it isn’t compared to what it is. If Lost Cities had featured Goblins, Trolls, Orcs, Zombies, or Dwarves, I think I’d be much less inclined to pick it up. On the other hand, there are games like Blue Moon City that have such great artwork, components, and mechanics, I can overlook such things.
 
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Arvid Klaverstijn
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I think it depends on what kind of game it is. Games as Sudoku dont need a theme. The focus is different.

Games as caylus and puerto rico do need a theme. Their goals make better sense with the theme. With Caylus the theme is you help building a castle. Without a theme, that game doesnt make much sense. Then it just looks like a really complicated game. Its also because these games have more game mechanics.

I think i can play settlers of catan without a theme and still have fun with it. But thats also because i already played the themed version. So the theme is already in my head.

But imagine if settlers of catan never had a theme, would you still buy it? Would it be as succesfull? Would it be as fun to trade different meaningless cubes then to trade resources? I bought Caylus, puerto rico and settlers because of the theme and the great reviews. I didnt even know the game mechanics by then. So a theme is also good to attract first time buyers.

Also, when i look for example at Blokus (never played it before) i can see in a few seconds by looking at the screens and reading the short description what it is about. A game without a theme and with lots of different game mechanics is much harder to see what it is about.
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Dean
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It depends on the game. For example, Blood Bowl, one of my all time favourite games, is not the same without the theme. In fact, many of the mechanics are in the rules because of the theme. I'm sure it would still be an excellent game if it were set in a different universe, but it certainly wouldn't be the same.

By way of comparison, Quoridor, another of my favourites, has absolutely no theme, nor does it need one.

Some games are saved by their theme. How many people gave Devil Bunny Needs a Ham a chance, based on the title alone?
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Anthony Simons
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Without theme a game is naked; some games I just don't want to see naked.
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Jim Ruddy
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Like movies, the theme is an important aspect of a game.

It can draw you to the game. (Oh look, another train game. Oh look another lord of the Rings game!!)

It can feed your imagination. (Citadels, Lost Cities etc...)

It gives you perspective when playing, helping a game to be less abstract. (Bohnanza and Bang! are good examples.)
 
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Admiral Fisher wrote:
There are great fairry themeless or weak-themed games out there, BUT a great them always improves a game.


It's not clear to me that a great theme always improves a game. How would you theme Go or Bridge or Poker or Trax to improve them?

Quote:
I've never analysed it, but probably most of the best games have strong themes.


Most of the highest rated BGG games have themes.

Most of what the world at large considers the best games probably don't have strong themes (and are mostly themeless). I'm thinking of Go, Chess, Shogi, Poker, Bridge, Scrabble, etc.
 
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Russ Williams
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mrbeankc wrote:
There are to many games out there with good mechanics and a good theme to play one without a good theme.


To me, that's like saying there are too many games out there with good mechanics and cards to play one without cards.

Theme is just one of many possible things that can be in a game.
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