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Subject: What exactly do people mean by Pasted on Theme? rss

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G. Gambill
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I was reading some reviews of Rise of Empires the other night, and found a thread discussing how many felt the theme was pasted on. I posted a reply about his, but no one seems to have seen it, so I copied it here to this forum. I was looking for some idea of what this means. I am including the original post below. I have seen this comment often, and I'm just not sure I understand. So, without further ado, the question!

I just played Rise of Empires for the first time last night, and I'm a little confused about these theme issues. It seems to be generally accepted that Advanced Civ is the grail civ game. I've played that. It's wonderful. You do start out with your chits in a historic region, and the pictures on them do match something from the culture, but you can move or expand anywhere you wish. I'm not forced to play in only "Egyptian" territory if I'm playing Egypt, nor do I have different advances or other abilities than everyone else because of being Egyptian (though I am prone to floods!). I can obtain advances, have to manage my food, watch my population growth, and trade with others (or in the case of this game with the chart) for what I need. My advances give me advantages, but they are not tied to any particular culture or theme. Agriculture is agriculture. Navigation is navigation.

In this game, I have no counters with a picture showing someone from my "culture", but a cube. A cube and a chit is a cube and a chit. No real difference there. I still can expand only by adjacent territories unless I move by sea. I still look to trade to gain advances (though in Advanced Civ you do trade with others which IS more fun than trading with a chart!). I still look to build up my cities and monuments to score points to advance toward victory. The winner is still the one who makes the best use of their opportunities.

So, what's my point? How is the theme in this game, or a game like Through the Ages (another one I LOVE), pasted on? What makes this game more abstract than Advanced Civ or any other civilization game? They just don't seem that different to me. At the end of the day, no civ game I have played is a simulation that feels "authentic". They all involve resource management, trading, advances, conflict of some kind, and victory points. I'd be curious if someone could help me understand these comparisons and objections.

Based on my single play of the game with four players, I really enjoyed this game. I've given it an initial 9. That may change with time, but ther it is. I had just as much fun as I did when I played Advanced Civ. I did miss the chaotic trading sessions, but BOY, did I NOT miss the endless disasters! Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.
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Stephen Tavener
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I haven't played the games in question, but my take on theme is:

Each game tells a story. A game feels themed if the actions that you make during the game help the story progress, and the theme feels pasted on if the acions you take don't fit with the narrative.
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Kai Bettzieche
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As much as I get it, a "pasted on" theme stands for an interchangable theme: You've got some core mechanics and the theme stands in no relation to the mechanics.

Another example is Carcassonne: The mechanics consists of laying tiles and placing workers. You could however transfer the whole theme with a bit of creativity as well into space.

And this is, what "pasted on" stands for.

Right now, I've got no counter example, though .. anyone else maybe?
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G. Gambill
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OK, so are you saying that the mechanics have to match the idea of the theme? An example I can think of is "digging" in Thebes. Pulling tiles from the bag full of sand AND some artifacts "feels" like actually digging in the dirt looking for buried treasures. So, is the question more about mechanics than theme then?

BTW, thanks to both of you for sharing your thoughts and ideas. I appreciate it!

(edit for spelling)
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G. Gambill
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Stephen, thanks for your ideas. If your definition is accepted, then I do feel that the theme is matched by the mechanics in the game. I do feel as if I'm building my civilization in this game. Gaining territory, people and advances, building cities and wonders by using my people and resources all seem to match the "building" process to me. The only thing that does not match in my mind is the rule that allows you to remove ALL of your cubes from the board and just "start again" with a new civilization. That just does not work for me, though I do know civs rise and fall. If you had to give up everything else as well, maybe, but that rule/mechanic is the only one I feel does not work in this particular case. Thanks for sharing your definition. This has always confused me in reviews. I hoping more people will share their ideas.
 
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Matt Kruczek
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For me another good example is Lost Cities. The theme suggests trekking through Amazonian jungles and discovering ancient treasures. The game is about putting matching coloured numbers in order.

I suppose the best counter example would be historical wargames. Almost every design choice is about serving the overall idea of re-creating a historical conflict, be that by including greater detail or creating a system that streamlines management in favour of strategic decision-making.

Maybe a simplified way of looking at a game is to ask "Does it feel like I'm moving my tanks against his infantry, or am I moving my Black Five Square against his Blue Three Circles?"
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Pieter
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In my idea, it's like this:

A designer creates a game, consisting of moving pieces about, playing cards, rolling dice, etc. At the end, the publisher says: we still need a theme, so a theme is sought and made to fit the mechanics. Sometimes this works fine, often it feels like the theme is not really covered well by the gameplay.

On the opposite side of the coin, you have a designer who says "I am goin to make a game about the second world war/battlestar galactica/vampires/whatever", then decides on the game's story and feel, and then seeks mechanics which fit the theme. Often this makes for a fun game for those who like the theme, often it just falls flat because the mechanics don't work.

Of course, the best games are those which integrate good mechanics with a good theme. Whether the theme was there at the start or pasted on later does not really matter then.
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G. Gambill
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Thanks Matt! I totally agree about Lost Cities. I HATE that game. It's NOTHING like archaeology, it's a math exercise, and a game of "How can I mess myself up the least when I am forced to play a card". THIS is an example of pasted on theme I can understand. There is a TOTAL disconnect between the game, mechanics and theme. If this was the definition, I would get it, but others have raised interesting points (see the post from Kai for example) about their definition. I guess I only care so much because I am actually a theme guy, so when I read that a game has a pasted on theme, I will avoid it and I worry that I'm not thinking the same thing as everyone else. I may be missing out on some good games because of this confusion. Thanks for your post!

So what is it? Mechanics matching the theme, telling the story, the game feeling like the event (like the simulation feel of a good war game as mentioned above by Matt)? Any other thoughts? Thanks for sharing your point of view! I have to go to work now (Curse my work filter! How dare it block BGG!), but I'll be checking posts when I get home, so please keep them coming!
 
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Nigel Buckle
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For me the pasted on bits of rise are those that just don't really help me feel that I'm immersed in the game, in this case I'm developing an empire over a vast track of time.

So with Rise what are these jarring bits:

1. Action track and the fact that stuff I put down for A has to happen for B. Give the scale it seems ludicrous that my empire is so lumbering and sunk in dogma that it can't possible react to situations happening half way through an era. Nope, sorry we're set on doing what we did a generation ago ...

So action track is clever mechanically but just doesn't fit the theme ... plus what the heck is the having to spend if another empire has a token in front of yours on the track supposed to represent? It doesn't, it's another clever mechanic/balance mechanic but not there to help with the theme.

2. Reset - you can just up your whole empire and move to another location ... this just doesn't make sense thematically, unless you are also representing a 'fall' but there isn't any real penalty for doing it - so it's there mechanically to make the game work (reset if you're tanked) but doesn't fit the theme.

3. Food - works totally the wrong way to how I'd imagine it works. You start with a huge stockpile and slowly it erodes over the eras ... huh? I don't get this at all, thematically.

You could take this game and apply a different theme and the game would work (sure you'd have to rename the tiles, give it different art) and there wouldn't be much that you'd have to change mechanically. Say turn it into a stock market game. Cubes on the map could be shares, development tiles could be recruitment of staff, wonders/cities could be futures. Etc. Conflict on the map is just hostile take overs - bonuses for areas are dividend payouts.

With a heavily themed game where the mechanics fit the theme you can't do this - as then you end up with a game where the theme feels pasted on as there isn't a connection between the two.

Thebes is a good example, moving around costs time, which fits thematically, getting a car helps you move faster, digging involves sifting through a bag of stuff, getting to a site earlier there is more chance of finding stuff, staying longer increases your chances, researching the area helps, getting equipment helps etc.
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Mikko Saari
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A good theme often makes explaining the game a bit easier. A bad theme raises questions of "why on earth this works like this?". An irrelevant theme could be switched or stripped off without doing much harm.

Thebes has a good theme, Lost Cities has an irrelevant theme (some might think it as a bad theme, but to me it's irrelevant), and I can't come up with a good example of a bad theme right now.
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"Pasted on theme" to me just means that the game could be re-themed easily without needing to change the game's mechanics. Of course one ought keep in mind that to some of us this is not at all a problem.
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Chris J Davis
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msaari wrote:
I can't come up with a good example of a bad theme right now.


Android
 
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Jorge Arroyo
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bleached_lizard wrote:
msaari wrote:
I can't come up with a good example of a bad theme right now.


Android


Only if you don't get what the theme really is about

Android is a game about "directing" a story together with other players and trying to get your character to come on top (accomplishing more than the other characters). If you think it's an adventure/RPG boardgame where you can get "in-character" (like Arkham Horror) or a game where you have to solve a mistery (like Clue) then I can see how you might think the mechanics don't fit the theme...

But theme is not always something taken from reality (or fictional reality in the case of a fantasy, or science fiction game). Sometimes theme is more conceptual and abstract. Sometimes a game tries to go beyond "reality" and explore other concepts and interactions. I'd still say such a game can be thematic, because its mechanics may fit the concepts it wants to portray well. In Android's case, the struggle of the different players as they try to mold the story to their goals and their interactions is well represented with the chosen mechanics, especially the card play but also the way the murder investigation and the conspiracy work.

The game accomplished its goals of creating an interactive story where every player contributes but also provides a framework of rules that give players lots of opportunities for strategic play, and I think it is very innovative in this sense, as most storytelling games before Android relied more in loose rules and more in player creativity and methods to decide who gets to tell each part of the story (see Once Upon a Time: The Storytelling Card Game or Universalis (Revised Edition)).

True, the science fiction setting adds flavor, as do all the plots and story elements from the game, but that's something else in this case. You could replace those elements and get a total different kind of story, but that doesn't mean the theme is pasted on. What is sort of "pasted on" is the setting. But the theme goes deeper than the setting in this case, and it is irreplaceable.




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Rik Van Horn
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All themes are pasted on. Some just need more paste than others.
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Darrell Hanning
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Ninety-nine percent of the time, the accusation of "pasted-on theme" is a misnomer. With the exception of purely abstract games, every designer ever interviewed that I've read states pretty clearly that the theme comes first, and is (at least) the inspiration for the game. Where they go with that inspiration, how much they feel compelled to put the players in lockstep with that theme, is up to the designer.

Not that such knowledge would ever stop some people from chanting "pasted-on theme".

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So with Rise what are these jarring bits:

1. Action track and the fact that stuff I put down for A has to happen for B. Give the scale it seems ludicrous that my empire is so lumbering and sunk in dogma that it can't possible react to situations happening half way through an era. Nope, sorry we're set on doing what we did a generation ago ...

So action track is clever mechanically but just doesn't fit the theme ... plus what the heck is the having to spend if another empire has a token in front of yours on the track supposed to represent? It doesn't, it's another clever mechanic/balance mechanic but not there to help with the theme.

2. Reset - you can just up your whole empire and move to another location ... this just doesn't make sense thematically, unless you are also representing a 'fall' but there isn't any real penalty for doing it - so it's there mechanically to make the game work (reset if you're tanked) but doesn't fit the theme.

3. Food - works totally the wrong way to how I'd imagine it works. You start with a huge stockpile and slowly it erodes over the eras ... huh? I don't get this at all, thematically.


First of all, this is a game spanning several millennia. I'm not sure how one is supposed to fit "thematic actions" with activities on a timescale only a redwood tree could grasp. Expressing your concerns as those of "generations" doesn't even begin to cover the scale of this game.

Actions are obviously intended to represent the general tendencies of a civilization over time - emphasis on building cities, taking new land, settling in multiple locations, compiling knowledge, etc. In that light, perhaps the cost of using an action token out of sequence has a cost because it correlates to a flexibility in cultural focus that can only be manifest at great expenditure with the vision of multiple rulers.

The "reset" action tells me that it's nonsense to assume that you are necessarily a single civilization throughout the game. It isn't considered silly when, in History of the World, you become different civilizations in different locations, from one epoch to the next, so why is it considered silly in RoE?

Food - the surplus at the beginning likely represents the earliest civilizations which were by necessity primarily agrarian. It is only with the building of cities, exploitation of metals and minerals, and advancement of culture that farms start supporting more people than simply those who work them, and surplus food becomes more problematic both to obtain and maintain. Consider food in the game, then, as being a running "balance" of food collected and distributed, versus what is needed to keep that civilization functioning optimally.

But most of all, it is probably best (particularly for those who have "game designer" as a badge) to consider that for every two designers there will be at least two different, possible design approaches for dealing with the same issue, and possibly more. I know that in my forays into game design over the last thirty-plus years that there have been many occasions on which I came to a virtual standstill, because I simply could not decide which mechanism (or series of mechanisms) was best suited for the aspect to which I was applying them - and often the best solution is the least intuitive, the one that superficially seems to least resemble the activity in question.

In the final analysis, the game can only be considered a success if it works, presents the players with real problems, and isn't simply derivative of other designs (with the possible caveat of being derivative of your own designs). Often those goals will lead a designer to de-emphasize such concerns as game activities somehow intuitively mimicking real-world activities, and yet the theme as whole can benefit from this.
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Chris J Davis
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maka wrote:
Only if you don't get what the theme really is about


Yeah, yeah - heard it before.

maka wrote:
In Android's case, the struggle of the different players as they try to mold the story to their goals and their interactions is well represented with the chosen mechanics, especially the card play but also the way the murder investigation and the conspiracy work.



You mean how the investigators decide who the murderer is ex post facto? Or are you referring to how the detectives create the conspiracy they are supposed to be uncovering?
 
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Scott Nelson
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Look at Tinners' Trail for mechanics created for the theme.
Look at Ticket to Ride for pasted on theme. Clearly you are not doing what the front page claims you are doing, racing from one side of the US to the other.
Iirc, R. Knizia mentioned somewhere that Through the Desert was about building a golf course at one point.
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Nigel Buckle
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DarrellKH wrote:
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the accusation of "pasted-on theme" is a misnomer. With the exception of purely abstract games, every designer ever interviewed that I've read states pretty clearly that the theme comes first, and is (at least) the inspiration for the game.


Shrug, it depends on your priority as a designer then (or if the publisher/developer changes the game dramatically). Some games have the appearance to me that the mechanics and the theme do not mesh. As a designer, which is more important a game with interesting mechanics or one with an strong theme? Not to say you can't have both. Take Sierra Madre Games most of their games have a strong theme, and that is more important than streamlined mechanics.

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First of all, this is a game spanning several millennia. I'm not sure how one is supposed to fit "thematic actions" with activities on a timescale only a redwood tree could grasp. Expressing your concerns as those of "generations" doesn't even begin to cover the scale of this game.


Ok, in which case the theme fails to engage me then, the scale is too vast. What am *I* representing in the game if it's not an empire, some abstract thing that is collecting vps?

In Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization for example I feel I'm developing my empire = strong thematic tie.

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Actions are obviously intended to represent the general tendencies of a civilization over time - emphasis on building cities, taking new land, settling in multiple locations, compiling knowledge, etc. In that light, perhaps the cost of using an action token out of sequence has a cost because it correlates to a flexibility in cultural focus that can only be manifest at great expenditure with the vision of multiple rulers.


Maybe, but for me (just my experience, others may have different experiences) I just don't feel that connection playing. The mechanics jar for me as I'm playing, as said earlier in the thread they don't help *me* to develop an (internal) narrative during the game.

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The "reset" action tells me that it's nonsense to assume that you are necessarily a single civilization throughout the game. It isn't considered silly when, in History of the World, you become different civilizations in different locations, from one epoch to the next, so why is it considered silly in RoE?


Umm, because I retain the advances I collect, the cities, the wonders? In History of the World it's clear from the start you are separate empires. In Rise it isn't (at least to me).

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Food - the surplus at the beginning likely represents the earliest civilizations which were by necessity primarily agrarian. It is only with the building of cities, exploitation of metals and minerals, and advancement of culture that farms start supporting more people than simply those who work them, and surplus food becomes more problematic both to obtain and maintain. Consider food in the game, then, as being a running "balance" of food collected and distributed, versus what is needed to keep that civilization functioning optimally.


Ok, again for me that's too abstracted to help.

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But most of all, it is probably best (particularly for those who have "game designer" as a badge) to consider that for every two designers there will be at least two different, possible design approaches for dealing with the same issue, and possibly more.


Of course, and different designers and players have different tastes, drivers for designing and playing games etc.

One person plays to win, another plays for the experience, all of us bring a different agenda to the table.

I can quite accept for some people a theme is strong but for me it isn't if I can't tie the mechanics into the theme internally.

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In the final analysis, the game can only be considered a success if it works, presents the players with real problems, and isn't simply derivative of other designs (with the possible caveat of being derivative of your own designs). Often those goals will lead a designer to de-emphasize such concerns as game activities somehow intuitively mimicking real-world activities, and yet the theme as whole can benefit from this.


Hmm, that depends on your definition of success. Many wargames will be derivative of other designs, with the designer deciding what elements of the conflict they want to highlight and then taking mechanics that simulate that.

I'm sure many gamers enjoy Rise, many will feel it is thematic enough for them - just doesn't do it for me.
 
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An interesting example for in the discussion of pasted-on-theme is Ra and its spinoff Razzia!.

Ra is an outstanding game, a true modern classic in my mind. But the theme makes no sense at all - who are you representing as you bid on Pharaohs, Gods, Monuments? How does one buy a flood? How does one spend Sun?

Then along comes Razzia!, and whether or not you believe that Knizia conceived the theme of Ra prior to the mechanics there's no denying that Razzia!'s theme is pasted on - it's exactly the same mechanics as the original! But here's the twist - in Razzia!, the theme makes sense! You represent different Mafia families, and you're divvying up various illicit assets. When the cops show up you better quick make a decision and get out. Too many cops and it's the end of an era.
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I have a good example of a pasted on theme. I had a game called Prison Break. The jokes began to fly about this and that, and currency was cigarettes. I didn't like the currency idea but it fit the theme currently. Then I was looking for a publisher and it was brought to my attention the theme was rough, but the game was light. So, I looked for another theme that would fit the games mechanisms. Thus, it became a light0themed game about patrolling a swimming pool instead of bribing the guards at a prison yard. I changed the names of stuff to fit the Lifeguard on Duty theme, which is what it thus far, has continued. It has lightened even more by removing the bribing, so it can catch an 8 yr old age-frame now. So, it was clearly pasted on as Lifeguard on Duty, but with the prison break ideas it felt like it wasn't pasted on until it was seen how easy it was to change it. And this is what is done by publishers sometimes. They will change the theme to hit the right demographics for their line of games.

Tower of Babel by Knizia is very much pasted on. You take cards, you bid on projects, and help or not to gain VPs along the way. You do not feel that you are actually building anything, nor helping out with building anything. You feel like you are using mechanisms to gain VPs by helping out the most in areas on the board.

I guess what I am saying is that a pasted on theme usually is quite an abstract game that any theme could be worked into its mechanics. Rise is most likely not a very pasted on theme compared to what someone would say is defintely pasted-on.
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Darrell Hanning
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Ok, in which case the theme fails to engage me then, the scale is too vast. What am *I* representing in the game if it's not an empire, some abstract thing that is collecting vps?

In Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization for example I feel I'm developing my empire = strong thematic tie.


And where exactly is your empire, in Through the Ages? Can you point to it on a map?

This is "weak", thematically. And yet TTA is a very good game, I agree.

Suspension of disbelief to some degree is critical for thematic immersion in any game. Fortunately, my enjoyment of a game does not rely upon that - I would much rather have an interesting strategy challenge than mechanisms that are intended to fool me into thinking there is some inherent "narrative" structure.

Any game can have its thematic elements stripped out, and still be game. Will it be a good game at that point? Maybe not, but the test at that point will be if it's a game system that can stand on its own merits, and not rely upon a player's desire to play an easily-identifiable role. After all, that is what RPGs are for, isn't it?

Must all games cater to RPG desires, to be a success in your book?
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Battle line is, IMHO, a great example of a game with a theme pasted on it.

I really like the game, but it could easily work with any other theme. It does not really feel like an Alexander the Great game. You have to make "poker like" formations, with numbers that go from 1 to 10, and claim 5 out of 9, or 3 consecutive flags (or stones or whatever). You have some tactic cards, but the game has no ancient Macedonian or Persian flavour at all.

Actually, the game is a remake, with some additions, of another game called Schotten-Totten which has a different theme (also pasted on it).

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DarrellKH wrote:
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Ok, in which case the theme fails to engage me then, the scale is too vast. What am *I* representing in the game if it's not an empire, some abstract thing that is collecting vps?

In Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization for example I feel I'm developing my empire = strong thematic tie.


And where exactly is your empire, in Through the Ages? Can you point to it on a map?


No, that element is abstracted - but for me that is fine. I personally don't need a map with units on it to feel I have an empire when playing this game. I can fully accept that for others it is a major flaw.

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Suspension of disbelief to some degree is critical for thematic immersion in any game. Fortunately, my enjoyment of a game does not rely upon that - I would much rather have an interesting strategy challenge than mechanisms that are intended to fool me into thinking there is some inherent "narrative" structure.


And that is probably where we differ. If a game is designed foremost as an interesting strategic challenge I have no problem playing it as an abstract with no theme at all - and probably would prefer it to the same game with theme selected by a publisher just added to entice sales, and certainly if the theme has no overlap with the game mechanics at all.

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Any game can have its thematic elements stripped out, and still be game. Will it be a good game at that point? Maybe not, but the test at that point will be if it's a game system that can stand on its own merits, and not rely upon a player's desire to play an easily-identifiable role. After all, that is what RPGs are for, isn't it?


Different people play RPGs for different reasons, just like different people play boardgames for different reasons. A game is there as entertainment. If you are entertained by a game with a pasted on theme (as I define it) great for you - I find more success (in terms of entertainment) with a game where that is not the case.

Quote:
Must all games cater to RPG desires, to be a success in your book?


No of course not if you mean 'success' generally. If you mean 'success with *ME* ... then it depends. If there is no intention to tie theme to mechanics I'd prefer not to have the theme at all. If there is a theme I like the mechanics to work with it. Doesn't mean I'll refuse to play a game where that isn't the case - just my personal preference is for theme.
 
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Kai Bettzieche
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I think I found other good examples besides those already given in the thread:

Take Games Workshop's games for example:
A tank drives towards a band of warriors, the warriors have to succeed at a leadership test, otherwise they panic and flee.
-> Mechanics fitting to the theme.
You've got two rows of swordmen, however only those in the first row may attack the opposing troop. Replace the swordmen with spearmen and have the second row attack as well.
-> Mechanics fitting to the theme.
A terminator needs to roll a 6 on one of his d6 in order to hit a charging 'stealer. On every subsequent shot, his chances are raised to 5 and 6 on one of his d6, since he is focusing his fire.
-> Mechanics fitting to the theme.

Now look at a Knizia-Abstractum:
Ingenious: You are laying tiles with shapes and get VPs for laying equal shapes next to each other.

Now let's paste a theme onto this:
Island builder:
In an ocean you are building islands with different kinds of soils. You get VPs for laying equal shapes next to each other.
Voilà!
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Scott Nelson
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schattentanz wrote:

Now look at a Knizia-Abstractum:
Ingenious: You are laying tiles with shapes and get VPs for laying equal shapes next to each other.

Now let's paste a theme onto this:
Island builder:
In an ocean you are building islands with different kinds of soils. You get VPs for laying equal shapes next to each other.
Voilà!


Or building houses on the island, and if the same type of hut is built next to similar one, you gain VPs since the neighbors like others of a similar style...Funny Knizia never themed that game.

His Poison game is another one, he re-themed it from poison in a brew to a bad batch of doughnuts.
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