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Subject: When Theme Comes Alive rss

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Mario Lanza
United States
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Theme is one element of boardgame design that must not be overlooked. It takes ho-hum mechanics and binds them to a storyline that adds meaning and helps captivate the audience. Divorce themes from boardgames leaving the likes of Chess, Reversi, Checkers, and Backgammon and you can forget about me taking such an enthusiastic part in the hobby. Theme is the glue that keeps me in gaming and excited about trying new releases.

I'm not as concerned with what the theme is as I am concerned with how well the mechanics convey that theme. I won't argue that publishers should take care to choose the right themes for their games, but I think this is a detail with which publishers can become overly concerned. Personally, as a gamer, I am far more interested in thematic cohesion. Are the things I'm doing on my turn reminding me that I am a plantation owner, an island settler, or a principality developer in renaissance Italy? If they are, I'm going to enjoy the game all the more.

I am open to new, fresh themes that I haven't seen before. In Industrial Waste competitors pollute the environment and hire and lay off workers all to the tune of profit; the theme is novel and the game, a good one. The theme works and that really is what matters most, not the flavor of the theme.

Of course, in games there will always be some abstraction. A game ceases to be a game and becomes a simulation when it attempts to mirror every facet of reality. I'm not interested in Advanced Squad Leader depth, I just want a game that at least loosely carries me past the game board and bits into a new, fresh place. I know its been said that "gameplay is paramount." If abstracting makes a game more fun and helps alleviate mental recordkeeping, it should be done.

Let's take the journey from "theme dead" to "theme alive."

No Theme
Drop all precepts of a theme and you have an abstract game. This leaves us with classics like Chess and Go. It leaves us with traditional card games like Bridge, Canasta, Spades, Hearts, and Poker. It leaves us with Eurogames like Ingenious, Blokus and DVONN (and others in the GIPF series). I like many abstracts; Chess, for example, in my mind is a game of incredible brillance. And of the recent Eurogames, I like Ingenious quite a bit. By and large, I consider abstracts appetizers not entrees. Sometimes I'm in the mood for them, but most times I'd rather be playing a game with at least some theme.

Chess may be likened to a battle between kingdoms. Yet, I can find no reason why the queen should be able to strike down almost any force from across a field of battle. Can you see it? Crazy woman, scepter raised high over head shrilly screaming "Yie-yie-yie-yie!" as she races toward the knight and thunks him on the head. His corpse slides from his horse and bellyflops onto the ground. Yes, folks: Chess is abstract.

Trying to add a theme to Go would be absurd. The one thing that I respect about abstract games is that they don't pretend to be anything other than what they are: abstractions. No fluff is added; players focus on the pure task at hand, nothing more. Go defines abstracts. It shows more clearly than any game how beauty can spring forth from utterly simple rule sets.

Hex-like multicolored dominos are added to the board and points are accumulated for adjacent, like-colored spokes. Add a theme; I dare you!

Before I move on to the first level of theme, I want to make a couple observations.

First, hardcore enthusiasts and game designers will often speak of elegance in a game's design. Elegance comes when the design has been shucked clean of fiddly rules (or "niggly" rules if you're Rick Thornquist). While elegance and theme are not mutually exclusive, it becomes increasingly difficult to retain stark elegance as thematic layers are added. Still, gaining theme at the cost of some elegance, to me, seems a worthwhile trade. I believe theme most comes alive when the separate mechanics/subsystems are marvellously tied together so that the interactions make complete sense and that the rules seem almost obvious. I'll take a little fiddliness to get a richer theme.

Second, lots of games add exception mechanisms. In Amun-Re, you have power cards. In Puerto Rico, it's the buildings. In Byzantium it's the special actions boxes. From my perspective, these things don't muddy up the subsystems and mechanics that define the game, they merely add to or adjust them. I consider adding provocative exception mechanisms one of the cleanest way to enrich theme.

Light Theme
Now we've ventured into the land of pasted-on themes. Loose themes so barely hold true, they could easily be dropped leaving a simple abstract game. In many cases, another theme could easily be "pasted on." I'm not advocating that loose themes are worthless or that there aren't some great games with hardly a theme. In almost every case, I'd rather have a theme with as much stick as a Post-It than to have no theme at all. Even a loose theme, if it sensibly conveys mechanics, can serve the players.

For Sale
Some might argue that the theme is fitting. I agree: it is. Yet, the game is so pure, so elegant that no theme could convey any real depth. Again, this is just a matter of theme and elegance being on somewhat opposite ends of the spectrum. I'm not suggesting For Sale is not a good game, just that the theme doesn't have (cannot have) the strength that comes from a game with a greater number of interlocking, theme-supporting facets.

Lost Cities
Knizia is the king of the why-bother themes. The vast majority of his games surround a couple clever mechanics that make for brilliant, albeit theme-light, games. Lost Cities is no exception. For its shear simplicity there is no more excellent a game, yet it hardly takes me to another time or place. During the whole of a session it feels like I'm "playing cards." Knizia is without a doubt a games genious. Yet for his marvelous ability and my personal taste, he has as many misses as he has hits. (Kramer is the more consistent hitter in my book.) Recent theme-light offerings like Beowulf, Tower of Babel, and Palazzo have me wondering when I can expect another Amun-Re from the good doctor.

Medici is so theme light I contemplated categorizing it a pure abstract. I mean, sure you can talk about your ship having a hold and about earning a reputation as a trader of various commodities, but did you ever--for even a second--escape into that theme? The only reason that I added in under light themes was that the trader theme poses enough of a framework that it does aid in explaining and remembering the rules. So you see: even the lightest of themes can serve the players.

Emerald is another case where the game itself lightly conveys the theme. It only just barely has enough game to substantiate stealing gems and gold from a dragon's lair. The game is a fun, light game great for families and groups including casual gamers. The theme is there, but its systems are so simple that it doesn't totally come alive.

Tower of Babel
This game almost seems complete abstract to me. I'm not arguing that the clever doctor created an unworthy game. It has nice elements to it. It's just that, for me, I'm not taken to a world where I'm participating in the creation of wonders and for this reason the game will never rise to personal greatness. The veneered theme nominally improves the game.

Through the Desert
Lots of people tout Through the Desert as dry and, some, say it has a pasted-on theme. I won't argue; in any case, I love the game. It is tactically rich, it has me constantly assessing risks, and timing my moves to avoid losing ground, VP chits, or oasis connections. Yep, it's dry and it does very little to make me feel like a caravaneer making his way "through the desert," but boy-o-boy has it got game!

The spacial element of building railways across the board is believable, but its shear elegance does not allow it to transcend. There is simply not enough to the game to create strong theme. This is not a put down; the game is what it is and people really like it. The artwork helps. Although the board is highly abstracted, cities are relative to their real-world counterparts. The colorful map adds to the sense that railways are being built across the Americas. I don't find the theme is pasted on, merely light. If not for the spacial element and the real-world approximation, it would be just as light as For Sale.

Shadows Over Camelot
All right, it's time to offend. Popular or not, Shadows just falls flat for me. I move my knight pawn around the board and play number cards into slots in order to beat back invaders and other threats. Special cards lend additional flavor to that theme; however, its dry mechanics do little to make me feel like a knight of The Round Table. Only the artwork and the traitor truly work toward painting a theme. By the way of a theme coming alive Shadows is a flatliner.

Louis XIV
The board is a checkered array of personalities. On my turn I'm placing tokens like breadcrumbs to earn influence among those personalities. And I'm achieving missions which are really nothing more than collecting tokens, area-majority style, from those personalities. It's an abstract game with enough of a theme to be really good. Louis makes a good example, in my mind, of the fact that a game's mechanics needn't always believably convey a real world action. Louis is more abstract than not, yet it's clever and fun.

More of Acquire is abstract that not. The board and the limitations of placing any of one's six tiles into its exact spot, is abstract. Still, there are enough rules about mergers and stock acquisition that make this mostly abstract game a great one. It has just enough theme to help the rules gel and to make the game more interesting than it would have been devoid of theme. While the theme barely holds true, the game itself is brilliant and strategically/tactically rich. Acquire is definitely a case where trying to add any more thematic depth would have cost in elegance and game play. Sid Sackson got it right just the way it is.

As I mentioned, these games may be rightly themed and convey a sense of what's going on, but for the simplicity of the game itself, there isn't enough room in which to bring the theme alive.

The Theme Is Alive
For me, theme comes alive when a game has sufficient substance and the substance itself supports the theme. Substance for me is usually matter of dimension, the number of mechanisms or subsystems that interact in defining the bounds of play. The support is derived from mechanisms and subsystems that tell me I'm doing something within the confines of the game world, especially when all the elements are masterfully woven together. That last part, is the line that divides the good designers from the great ones. I don't want to be broken out of my gaming trance because what I'm doing seems forced or arbitrary.

When I watch movies I am peeved by the overuse and poor integration of CGI. I love movies for the same reason that I love games. They allow me to temporarily escape from the real world into an imaginary one. When I'm watching a great movie, like Lord of the Rings, I'm completely immersed in the story. Then, when starkly-contrasted CGI flashes onto the screen, I'm startled out of my trance and whisked back to reality--that is, until I can again be absorbed by the on-screen telling of the tale. If I'm continually interrupted by CGI-shock the movie loses quite a lot. The Battle of Naboo scenes from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace looked like a giant video game to me. On the other hand, I was blown away by the CGI delivery of King Kong, hardly ever being startled into reality.

When a game has me doing something that seems out of place, I find myself distracted. Or, at the very least, I find that I'm not able to buy the theme. To overcome these shortcomings, the game itself will have to be truly great.

Settlers of Catan
Sure, the game is abstracted. What game isn't? But, by and large, I'm sold. The game world makes sense to me. I'm building settlements and cities and roads. I'm harvesting resources and trading them. The board looks like an island. Who knows why a lone robber inhabited the island before I got there, but who cares? It feels like a place and I enjoy being there. There are enough mechanisms present for the game to transcend its abstraction. Again, my driving thrust is that only games with a good degree of mechanical depth can truly deliver a living, breathing theme.

La Citta
I'm building growing cities and trying to attract the nearby citizens of neighboring cities to mine. I'm concerned with feeding my population, building amenities according to the latest desires of the people, trying to reach water sources and mountainside quarries, and all the while trying to observe the intrinsic rules of city growth. Can I explain why someone thought to found our cities in the cracks of countryside valleys? No. I don't care to. Gameplay is paramount to realism; having to expand cities by the way of valley cracks creates interesting tactics that wouldn't otherwise exist.

I'm underwater. I'm expanding a subsea station, developing technologies, and uncovering treasures from the seafloors. What else I could I be doing?! The game is theme. As far as know it's not an overly popular title, but that's my other point. Just because a game does well to convey theme, doesn't make it a great game. I personally like it, but that's just a matter of taste.

Evo is colorful and has lots of abstractions. Moving dino-discs around the board doesn't convince players that they're dinosaurs on a continent. In spite of this, the game has lots of character. Players earn mutation genes and play event cards. The genes allow for each dino species to take on its own characteristics and the event cards, played at opportune times, make for interesting story twists. Character makes Evo's theme come alive. In part, whether a game takes off or sinks is a matter of the group. The group that played Evo with me recently really enjoyed the game and got into the spirit of it. Evo provided just enough interlocking mechanics to make it real. We were dinosaurs.

Though I almost lost it trying to survive the rules explanation, by the time I reached the midpoint of the game I was sold. Wallace had really done a superb job with this game. It offered lots of choices to players who could take part as a faction on either side of the war. The theme comes alive for all of the various options and considerations presented to the players. These options--like enacting civil wars, building fortifications, and so on--painted the tapestry that was Byzantium.

I won't argue that many of the elements of the game are abstract. On top of that abstraction are interwoven subsystems and subgoals. You're claiming land and growing animal herds. You're taking those animals to market and you're getting them to waterholes. These elements speak of the hacienda storyline Kramer chose. All of this is greatly abstracted; however, it's the intermeshing of the parts of the whole that breathe life into the game. For one thing, games whose boards provide landscapes for the spacial relation of bits more believably paint theme-rich environments. Contrast Ra against Hacienda, two somewhat abstract games in their own right. Which conveys theme more strongly?

Here's a prime example of how superb art can really push a game over the top. Not only is Tikal is a great game for its wealth of tactical options, it conveys an atypical, but very pleasant theme: that of leading an archeological expedition to digging up temples and treasures. The mechanics convey digging up temples and treasures, setting up camps, and gaurding temples. Do I need to explain why I am able to place the hex I play in any orientation, and why my base camps are all connected by secret pathways? No. For the sake of superior game play, players are willing to forego some believability. (It's like watching James Bond: for the sake of being thrilled by his many amazing abilities we suspend disbelief.) I have played Tikal dozens of times, each time I'm immersed in the jungle ruins that surround me. I buy the theme and the mechanics hook, line, and sinker.

The latest Splotter offering is awesome. I've only played it once, so I'm sure I'm jumping the gun, but the game, I think, does a splended job of creating an economic system in which business owners compete. The design is as elegant as I've seen for the level of depth and richness of the theme. I can't speak yet of the game's long-term staying power, but I do have a good feeling about it. The complexity of Splotter titles, while often fiddly, are usually theme rich. Indonesia is only my second Splotter game after Antiquity, but I have to say, "Splotter designs just the sort of games I would design if could."

Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico thoroughly demonstrates what I mean when I speak of interlocking systems. Players interact with a trading house, they produce goods, they ship those goods, and they plant and work plantations. Each of these mechanics makes sense. But it's the way in which these mechanisms all interact to produces one of the richest thematic, tactical, and strategic environments ever designed. The buildings each uniquely bend the rules according to its own purpose. Sure, it's a game of bits manipulation, and it has abstracted the various roles necessary in its imaginary plantation world. Nevertheless, it delivers elegance and theme quite well.

Licensed Themes
I've already shown that great games can exists devoid of great themes and that, conversely, great themes don't necessarily bring forth great games. How many board games are created primarily to capitalize on what's popular? Take CSI: The Boardgame, a slew of Simpsons titles, and Lord of the Rings. America is especially bad with this. Elvis still sells? Let's slap his name on a game or two all for the sake of a profit. Anyone want to take a chance on buying one of these games? Not me.

Games based on licenses will seldomly create anything worthwhile. They refit existing games with the new theme (Simpsons Monopoly, Simpsons Trivial Pursuit, etc); nothing new is added. They are produced only with enough of a game to substantiate the theme and sell it to the existing market segment. They may, in rare cases, actually produce good games. It's just not worth the risk. The hit-miss ratio is ridiculous.

I could say I hate to repeat myself, but that just wouldn't be true. I freely use repetition while teaching games and I will do so now. Theme comes alive when

*performing a mechanic reminds you of doing the real-world action.
*the net effect of interweaving multiple mechanics/subsystems is a more cohesive whole.
*supplying an alternate theme is no trivial task.
*the game is coupled with meaningful, theme-rich artwork and icons.

Long Live The Theme
I'm hoping to see lots of new designs over the years ahead, but mostly I'm hoping for theme-rich games that intermesh multiple thematic elements.

From a personal perspective, the German school of game design has produced more notable titles than the American school of design. Still, there is one thing about the American school that holds such future promise. It starts with theme. I'm hoping the American, German and other international schools of design hone styles that emphasize thematic richness.

This article was rescued from my long-defunct boardgame blog: Boardgamers' Pastime. I added it here if only to preserve it.
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