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Subject: How Important is Theme? rss

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GeekInsight
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A lot of players make the "theme" of a game a central focus of their discussion. Some games, like Battlestar Galactica, have a very strong theme. If it wasn’t about hidden cylons and the struggle of mankind, the game wouldn’t make much sense. The theme is integral to the enjoyment of the game. On the other hand, some games have very light theme. One of the lightest is Lost Cities. Those cards could really be about anything. All that matters is the suits and the numbers. So how important is theme to your enjoyment of the game?

For me, theme is really of secondary importance. Sure, having a good theme is nice. And, it can be critical to a game like Arkham Horror where the game is more about the theme of playing a Lovecraftian hero than about the various mechanics. But I mostly play games that work well mechanically, that provide everyone at the table with many options, and that allow the game to progress in a relatively fair manner.

Puerto Rico has a thin-ish theme. So does Jaipur. But both of those games are among my favorites to play. For me, it comes down to the mechanics, the puzzles, the strategy. No amount of theme can make up for a broken game (I’m looking at you, Killer Bunnies). So I see theme as simply icing on the game-cake. While it can certainly enhance, the lack of a theme doesn’t bother me in the least.

What about you? How important is a game’s theme when you play?
 
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Jim Cote
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There's a great discussion of theme on Boardgames To Go episode 104:

http://www.boardgamestogo.com/2010/05/bgtg-104-boardgame-the...
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I generally agree with these comments...

MyParadox wrote:
For me, theme is really of secondary importance. Sure, having a good theme is nice. And, it can be critical to a game like Arkham Horror where the game is more about the theme of playing a Lovecraftian hero than about the various mechanics. But I mostly play games that work well mechanically, that provide everyone at the table with many options, and that allow the game to progress in a relatively fair manner.

Puerto Rico has a thin-ish theme. So does Jaipur. But both of those games are among my favorites to play. For me, it comes down to the mechanics, the puzzles, the strategy. No amount of theme can make up for a broken game (I’m looking at you, Killer Bunnies). So I see theme as simply icing on the game-cake. While it can certainly enhance, the lack of a theme doesn’t bother me in the least.
However, an innapropriate theme (or a theme that just doesn't fit the mechanics) can, I think, hurt an otherwise quality game. I recently picked up Fresco, but one of the comments I read over and over again in reviews was about how some of the mechanics made no sense with the theme. I like Fresco okay (after just 1 play), but it doesn't really make sense that a booth closes its doors as soon as someone buys paint from it. And, it doesn't make sense that the earlier I wake up the more expensive it is for me to buy paint. In fact, I would expect the opposite in both cases. Now, the mechanics of the game work which is why it is still fun. It just leaves a slightly bad taste when the theme and mechanics are so opposite expectation.
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Paint took a long time to make, was made in very limited quantities and had a very short shelf-life. Thus yes, early-morning paint cost more (it was fresher & could be used for longer), and vendors closed when the day's supply was exhausted.
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Jon Day
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I will enjoy a game with a great theme.

I will enjoy a game with great mechanics.

I will LOVE a game that has both working in unison.

To clarify - a game can have great mechanics, but without the correct application of theme the game will never become 'intuitive' to play, but instead become a collection of rules.

This is probably why I do not enjoy Brass so much.
 
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My feeling on theme versus mechanic in games is about the same as my feeling on art versus writing in comic strips. I'm willing to play a great game with middling-to-poor theme (Bazaar or Endeavor, or by the comic analogy, something like The Far Side or xkcd -- fantastic writing, middling art). On the other hand, a poor game with great theme is possibly worse than a poor game with poor theme -- the theme pulls you in and makes you want to like it, which doubles the disappointment (Say, Paranoia: The Mandatory Fun Card Game; I could think of dozens of comics, but can't bring up names, as they're a dime a dozen and that unmemorable). Of course, a game that nails mechanics AND nails theme is going to beat them all (Mechanisburgo or Alien Frontier, Calvin and Hobbes...)
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Jonathan
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bnordeng wrote:
However, an innapropriate theme (or a theme that just doesn't fit the mechanics) can, I think, hurt an otherwise quality game. I recently picked up Fresco, but one of the comments I read over and over again in reviews was about how some of the mechanics made no sense with the theme. I like Fresco okay (after just 1 play), but it doesn't really make sense that a booth closes its doors as soon as someone buys paint from it. And, it doesn't make sense that the earlier I wake up the more expensive it is for me to buy paint. In fact, I would expect the opposite in both cases. Now, the mechanics of the game work which is why it is still fun. It just leaves a slightly bad taste when the theme and mechanics are so opposite expectation.


Someone made a simular point about Agricola. Why can't multiple farms plow or sow fields in the same turn? They all share one plow? For me it makes no difference. As long as the game mechanics are solid I could care less about theme or if the actions make sense. I can see how it would be important for games like Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game or other action/dungeon crawler/war games.
 
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jond wrote:
This is probably why I do not enjoy Brass so much.


I think Brass is excellent, but in talking to players who don't share my opinion, it seems that the critics think it has Too Much theme. Martin Wallace really did want a game about 19th century cotton farmers, even if that didn't support the game mechanic (you build a widget that anyone can use, so you can create widgets that advance both your position and someone else's, hopefully yours more). This is why you get silly rules like Birkenhead and teleporting iron (but not coal).
 
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J C Lawrence
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uniconfis wrote:
Why can't multiple farms plow or sow fields in the same turn? They all share one plow?


Yes. Welcome to subsistence farming. Plows (as different from a furrowing stick) and other high capital items were jointly owned by the community.
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I think it depends on the game. Some games have interesting enough mechanics that keep my engaged. Ra for example is interesting to me, but you could have almost any theme and I'd still like it. However, other games only keep me engaged because of the theme. Bang! and Shadow Hunters are similar in a lot of ways, I can't stand playing Bang!, but I love a good game of Shadow Hunters. The theme just makes it that much better.
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Jeff Timothy
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To answer the question, just think of all the games you've played and imagine completely wiping the theme from them to be left with a purely abstract game. So how good are those games now? Some will be playable, most probably won't be enjoyable.

I agree also that theme which doesn't make sense with the mechanic it is applied to ruins the experience. Truly if you are making a game with theme, there is a reason for your decision to use theme instead of just making an abstract game. So, if you are using theme, it really needs to fit the mechanic and game play otherwise, just dump it and make an abstract game. I always prefer games with interesting theme over abstract games.

A well developed and executed theme can transform a good abstract game into a great themed game. The best application of theme won't make a terrible abstract mechanic into a good game. (coming from the video game industry I could go on for hours on the parallels there!)

But ultimately, any game that is fun to play is, well...fun to play. Theme or otherwise.

~Jeff
 
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I play primarily wargames and Ameritrash games (i.e. Thematic). As you might expect, the concept of "theme" is central to my enjoyment of these games. A properly executed theme is just as important as a well-crafted set of mechanics in my gaming world. I can't have one without the other.
 
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MyParadox wrote:

What about you? How important is a game’s theme when you play?

Depends on what I'm after at that particular time.

Recently I wanted to vicariously experience commanding American Civil War ironclad warships in action. The Ironclads turned out to be wonderful for that, and it'd be a horrible game without a theme.

But last night, I just wanted to exercise my mind a bit and play around with something of a puzzle-like nature. Checkers fit the bill perfectly, and I had a good time. But I'd never want to play a themed version of checkers (or if it had a theme, I'd just ignore it).

I learned to like Runebound the second time I played it because I made myself get into the theme more, reading the card text and picturing what my character was doing and how the story was unfolding. The first time I played, I'd been pretty much ignoring the theme and acting as if it was an abstract game--and that spoiled it; it was just a bunch of mostly meaningless moves and dice rolls.

The paper-thin themes of Lost Cities and Bohnanza add a little something to the game for me. If they were presented as purely abstract (i.e., themeless) games, I'd probably like them a lot less. As it is, my imagination is titillated by the theme and pictures and all. Not necessary, but it's cute and makes the game a little more fun.

The theme of Advanced Civilization made that game for me and the people I played it with. It was cool to be the consciousness of a people as they expanded and developed a historical civilization. But right now I'm teaching myself Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, and so far I'm unimpressed. It doesn't engage my imagination enough; I don't get caught up in the make-believe of developing a historical civilization. Instead, it feels like the theme is there just to tie a complex game system together. It's all too easy (and rewarding, in terms of being able to win) to peek under the hood, ignore the theme, and just start looking for optimal card combinations and such.

When a game has a theme, I want that theme to draw me in so that I can enjoy the "make believe" as part of enjoying the whole game. Otherwise, I'd prefer that the game be starkly abstract (themeless).

What I dislike most is when a game's theme is just a mnemonic device--something to help tie all the rules together. I resent that. It makes me feel that the game is just more complicated than it should be. I have no interest in tackling a complicated game just for the sake of working with complication. That kind of complexity is only justified, in my opinion, when it's there to support an elaborate, detailed theme that's fun to imaginatively immerse oneself in.

So, I like wargames. And if I were more social, I'd probably like RPGs. If I didn't hate the theme, I might like Arkham Horror. But I just don't get the likes of Die Macher at all, and I suspect I'd be put off by most "heavy Euros."
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dchappelle wrote:
jond wrote:
This is probably why I do not enjoy Brass so much.


I think Brass is excellent, but in talking to players who don't share my opinion, it seems that the critics think it has Too Much theme. Martin Wallace really did want a game about 19th century cotton farmers, even if that didn't support the game mechanic (you build a widget that anyone can use, so you can create widgets that advance both your position and someone else's, hopefully yours more). This is why you get silly rules like Birkenhead and teleporting iron (but not coal).


Yeah, I'm not sure what doesn't work theme-wise in Brass. It really goes to great pains to accurately (if still abstractly) represent the challenges specific to its place and time.

"Teleporting" iron makes sense in the context that Iron was needed in fairly limited supply and could be transported by horse and wagon, whereas coal was needed by the many-tons and so could only practically moved by boat, and later train.
 
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clearclaw wrote:
uniconfis wrote:
Why can't multiple farms plow or sow fields in the same turn? They all share one plow?


Yes. Welcome to subsistence farming. Plows (as different from a furrowing stick) and other high capital items were jointly owned by the community.


Goes to show my ignorance when it comes to farming Now how do you explain family growth?
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uniconfis wrote:
Now how do you explain family growth?


Larger than 75% infant mortality rates.
 
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clearclaw wrote:
uniconfis wrote:
Now how do you explain family growth?


Larger than 75% infant mortality rates.


Ha ha. Good one.
 
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JeffTimothy wrote:
To answer the question, just think of all the games you've played and imagine completely wiping the theme from them to be left with a purely abstract game. So how good are those games now? Some will be playable, most probably won't be enjoyable.


Most German style games would escape relatively unscathed, though learning the game might be tricky as to delete the theme you'd have to come up with new names for everything. They'd all be perfectly playable, because the theme is independent from the rule systems, so the games are just as 'good,' but they would be enjoyed less especially by the people who value theme highly.

JeffTimothy wrote:
I agree also that theme which doesn't make sense with the mechanic it is applied to ruins the experience. Truly if you are making a game with theme, there is a reason for your decision to use theme instead of just making an abstract game. So, if you are using theme, it really needs to fit the mechanic and game play otherwise, just dump it and make an abstract game. I always prefer games with interesting theme over abstract games.


I agree. I struggle to enjoy many Knizia games, partly because of the irritating theme mis-match, but mainly because I happen to dislike the mechanics. I believe the reason that there are so many pasted on themes is because themed games are easier to sell - how often do you see people discussing themeless games on BGG? Hence Knizia's abstract mathematical scoring systems have themes forcibly applied to them when it's not always appropriate.

JeffTimothy wrote:
A well developed and executed theme can transform a good abstract game into a great themed game. The best application of theme won't make a terrible abstract mechanic into a good game. (coming from the video game industry I could go on for hours on the parallels there!)

But ultimately, any game that is fun to play is, well...fun to play. Theme or otherwise.

~Jeff


Absolutely. All games are essentially logical, mathematical entities which an AI could be programmed to play. Theme is just marketing, to help sell the idea. From a human point of view, theming can create extra enjoyment on top of that provided by the game mechanics, but if the mechanics suck, then so does the game because the game is the mechanics, regardless of 'what it's about'.

 
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paulclarke339 wrote:
I struggle to enjoy many Knizia games, partly because of the irritating theme mis-match, but mainly because I happen to dislike the mechanics. I believe the reason that there are so many pasted on themes is because themed games are easier to sell - how often do you see people discussing themeless games on BGG? Hence Knizia's abstract mathematical scoring systems have themes forcibly applied to them when it's not always appropriate.


Reiner Knizia is one of the more diligently careful designers when it comes to theme. His games (well, those that the publisher didn't retheme) are almost simulationist when viewed carefully, and are almost always thematically accurate. The difference is that he also exposes the mechanical and arithmetic skeletons of his games to clear view, in many cases making those logical skeletons more clearly visible than the thematic bindings. Lost Cities is an excellent example. Many complain about how thinly themed it is, and yet if you consider the game from the vantage of planning and advanced risk management (for dangerous expeditions), ie the planning what to take and how to prepare before the expedition, then the theme fits like a glove. Sadly, that is often ignored.
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cferejohn wrote:


Yeah, I'm not sure what doesn't work theme-wise in Brass. It really goes to great pains to accurately (if still abstractly) represent the challenges specific to its place and time.

"Teleporting" iron makes sense in the context that Iron was needed in fairly limited supply and could be transported by horse and wagon, whereas coal was needed by the many-tons and so could only practically moved by boat, and later train.


As to why Bras doesn't work for me - its not the lack of theme, but the application. Many things that happen on the map and in the game are just not intuitive and make the game fiddly, breaking the suspension of disbelief. (does that make sense - suspension of disbelief in games?)

The result of this is that I no longer feel as if I am "running a business" or am some kind of tycoon, but i am merely playing a game and manipulating board elements to a desired outcome.

All games can become like this, it is especially dependant on who you play games with and why you play - I love BSG, but the wrong players will kill it dead by emphasising the "gamey" elements, rather then the thematic ones.
 
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clearclaw wrote:
uniconfis wrote:
Why can't multiple farms plow or sow fields in the same turn? They all share one plow?


Yes. Welcome to subsistence farming. Plows (as different from a furrowing stick) and other high capital items were jointly owned by the community.
|

No doubt that was true, however it did not take one farmer a whole season to plough his fields, denying the use of the plough to any other farmer in the community that year. If that had happened, all the other members owning a share in the communal plough would have revolted.

Agricola is a good example of a complex abstract game with a strong theme painted on top. It doesn't really fly until you realise that it is not a simulation of 17th century farming, it is a game, with the object of victory point maximisation.

That doesn't in any way make Agricola a bad game. It just means you could take the same core mechanics and apply them to a game about a college of wizards or an interstellar robot manufacturing conglomerate, and it would work equally well.

For me, Theme is -- or should be -- strongly linked to simulation. An American Civil War game, a Great War game and a World War 2 game should all play differently not because the theme is different, but because the circumstances of warfare were different and affected the capabilities of the armies involved, and the decisions that leaders had to make.

What I mean is that if you know something about the background -- the theme -- that should translate into some kind of knowledge about how the game will work even before you have read the rules.

To reverse the example, you don't need to know anything about how to set up a long distance archaeological expedition to play Lost Cities. A better training is to have played a lot of Canasta. Once again, that doesn't make Lost Cities a bad game. It's a great game.
 
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jond wrote:
cferejohn wrote:


Yeah, I'm not sure what doesn't work theme-wise in Brass. It really goes to great pains to accurately (if still abstractly) represent the challenges specific to its place and time.

"Teleporting" iron makes sense in the context that Iron was needed in fairly limited supply and could be transported by horse and wagon, whereas coal was needed by the many-tons and so could only practically moved by boat, and later train.


As to why Bras doesn't work for me - its not the lack of theme, but the application. Many things that happen on the map and in the game are just not intuitive and make the game fiddly, breaking the suspension of disbelief. (does that make sense - suspension of disbelief in games?)


I've never played Brass to create the thematic experience of running a business empire. The same is true of other games, including Battlestar.

jond wrote:
The result of this is that I no longer feel as if I am "running a business" or am some kind of tycoon, but i am merely playing a game and manipulating board elements to a desired outcome.


Yes! That's what you're doing!

jond wrote:
All games can become like this, it is especially dependant on who you play games with and why you play - I love BSG, but the wrong players will kill it dead by emphasising the "gamey" elements, rather then the thematic ones.


My enjoyment of the BSG game stemmed from about 99% game mechanics, 1% theme. Then I watched the TV show, which increased the enjoyment I got from the theme, so now it's like 95%/5%. That doesn't mean I enjoy the mechanics less, just the pie got bigger.

I am of the opinion that the system should always be gamed to maximise the chance of a win for your team, and fortunately this is mostly* in line with the theme. The biggest threat to my enjoyment of BSG is people who make bad decisions due to role playing. When I make a crisis choice, I don't ask myself "What would Lee Adama do in this situation?" I look at the dials and other information about the game state and do what I believe is best for my team. The theme and atmosphere emerge naturally from the mechanics.

*I don't play with the sympathiser or New Caprica, but that's mainly for mechanical reasons than the fact the humans have to severely violate the theme to stand a chance.

 
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clearclaw wrote:
paulclarke339 wrote:
I struggle to enjoy many Knizia games, partly because of the irritating theme mis-match, but mainly because I happen to dislike the mechanics. I believe the reason that there are so many pasted on themes is because themed games are easier to sell - how often do you see people discussing themeless games on BGG? Hence Knizia's abstract mathematical scoring systems have themes forcibly applied to them when it's not always appropriate.


Reiner Knizia is one of the more diligently careful designers when it comes to theme.


How do you know this?

Quote:
His games (well, those that the publisher didn't retheme) are almost simulationist when viewed carefully, and are almost always thematically accurate.


Yes, if you turn your head the right way and squint at them. The theme hardly leaps out at you.

Quote:
The difference is that he also exposes the mechanical and arithmetic skeletons of his games to clear view, in many cases making those logical skeletons more clearly visible than the thematic bindings.


I agree, his games often have clear, overt decisions with minimal bells and whistles and reference charts, and that's a positive thing IMO.

Quote:
Lost Cities is an excellent example. Many complain about how thinly themed it is, and yet if you consider the game from the vantage of planning and advanced risk management (for dangerous expeditions), ie the planning what to take and how to prepare before the expedition, then the theme fits like a glove. Sadly, that is often ignored.


I wouldn't think to emphasise the perfection of the theme, though it does not contradict the mechanics. If presented as a true abstract, who could deduce what the theme was? The theme is arbitrary and could have been about anything.

 
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ekted wrote:
There's a great discussion of theme on Boardgames To Go episode 104:

http://www.boardgamestogo.com/2010/05/bgtg-104-boardgame-the...

Read only the introductory text - the difference between theme as metaphor and theme as a basis for narrative (and immersion) is an important point, I believe. (it also marks more or less accurately the difference between AT-narrative and euro-metaphorical use of theme. Not sure about wargames, they could have both. )

For to call a game thematic, theme must have a narrative angle and it must enable me to immerse in character or whatever my position in the game is. Game which has only metaphorical use of theme will never feel thematic, my main case here is against Thebes. I am an archaeologist, with no name, no individuality, treasure differs only in scoring VPs, and to boot no interaction?, wake me up when it's over please.

Metaphorical use of theme is however very important as it makes even heavier games easy to grasp. The best case is Power Grid, by itself it's complicated, feels like a patchwork of insular parts and there also the honestly named bureaucratic phase. However it is exactly through the theme that all the pieces are merged together and make the game very intuitive and easy to grasp (buy plants and fuel, spread your network, use fuel to supply electricity).

A game is not thematic whichever amount of chrome you put on it if it's counter-intuitive. Not counter-intuitive in a sense that you just need another perspective to get intuition (like games where pieces are not owned by side but a company - Chicago express and Imperial) but that the rules make sense only in themselves and this detaches you from whatever you feel like you should be doing according to theme.

Games that try to pull of a narrative can be ruined by clunky mechanics, say what you will against dice, but dice resolution systems are quick, painless and easy compared to recent love of card driven resolutions (FFG's recent games, MEQ in particular as I have played it, also a case of Catan's card deck to replace rolling of dice). If a game is about thematic immersion, heavy interaction (negotiation, trading) - not about brain burn and deep heavy data processing - please keep the resolution systems simple.
 
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clearclaw wrote:
Lost Cities is an excellent example. Many complain about how thinly themed it is, and yet if you consider the game from the vantage of planning and advanced risk management (for dangerous expeditions), ie the planning what to take and how to prepare before the expedition, then the theme fits like a glove. Sadly, that is often ignored.
Well if you have to think about the theme to find it rather than feel or imagine it, it will get ignored, for sure. Another thing about Lost Cities is probably that even if it really makes you think about expeditions into the unknown, it's not handled the way you would expect - exploring hidden map, finding hidden treasure, instead it's a game about financial risks behind expeditions. Knizia tackles only a specific part of expeditions and this small part he then abstracts. I don't find any thematic reasons why you can only follow a card by a higher card, per instance. Of course the theme will get ignored as the logic behind theme-mechanics relation is in this game different than gamer-game relation (Have just read an article about dramaturgy in performances - there are some scenes in some performances that were necessary for the group in the creative process (dramaturgy of creative process), the same scenes however are not so important for the audience as the dramaturgy of the spectator is handled differently).
 
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