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Subject: How important is theme to you? rss

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Brian White
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Just a random musing, but I was wondering how other BGGers view thematic content as it applies to board games. That's not a very clear question, so I'll give an example: I just bought a copy of Android based in large part on its presentation of its sci-fi theme. Sure, I looked at some reviews by some fine BGG folks first, and what I read, in summary, was this: Android is a good, if somewhat mechanically flawed, game that will really shine if the players are willing to invest themselves in the story. And I am. When I first played through it, I could see where some of the mechanics could feel clunky or disjointed, but the way in which it wove its story through the game made up for that, in my opinion.

For me, a game that mobilizes its mechanics in the service of forwarding an interesting setting, characters, plot, genre, etc., is much more exciting than a game that simply has a creative mechanic or complex strategic possibilities (e.g. Agricola). Indeed, as with the case of Android, a well-written theme can actually allow me to forgive some failings at the mechanical level. So, my fellow Geeks, does a good theme make you want to meet a game halfway, as it were? Do you find yourself more drawn to games with strong themes? Should I stop playing board games and go read a book or write an RPG campaign?

Looking forward to what you have to say!
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Mathue Faulkner
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I used to think that theme was an important factor to me, but Stefan Feld has helped me realize that theme isn't nearly as important as I thought.
Trajan, Macao, and Notre Dame are some of my favorite games...

I still enjoy a good thematic game, but I can't forgive poor mechanics.
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Brook Gentlestream
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Themes are important to me, but what you're describing is a little beyond just having a strong theme -- its a game focused on a thematic emphasis. Although I like these sorts of games, I don't play them often, because they require a large investment of time and dedication. I love playing Arkham Horror, Battlestar Galactica, Target Earth, and Twilight Imperium, and would probably enjoy playing Android, but the truth it I can't take playing any of these games more than once every couple of months.

Still, though, I like having games that may not necessarily focus on a particular story or have particular characters, but strongly suggest a theme that I can flesh out in my own mind while I play. For example, I enjoy the theme in many card games, such as Innovation where I am picturing how my empire is developing, or in Nature of the Beast where I am picturing all the little animals and their strife and intrigues.

On the other hand, games like Galactic Emperor bother me, because while a theme is suggested by the components and mechanics, the mechanics don't fit the theme too well, so both are left feeling weak.

I enjoy games that can tie their mechanics to their theme, but don't necessarily have to go too far in depth to tell an engaging, specific story like Twilight Imperium does.

I haven't played it, but I suspect I would like Agricola. I haven't tried Android yet.
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Eric Brosius
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I generally don't care much what the theme is, but I do care that the game's mechanisms match the theme. I like a game better when the play of the game reminds me of the theme. So, to give one example, I think the theme works better in Show Manager than in Atlantic Star, even though the rules are almost identical. And, though I'm not generally fond of games that involve too much randomness, I think that the play of Thebes is a great match for the theme.
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Brian Thomas
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I personally find that great mechanics can make up for poor theme better then great theme can make up for poor mechanics. Of course when a game has both, like War of the Ring (First Edition), well it just doesn't get better then that.
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Chris Ferejohn
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Eric Brosius wrote:
I generally don't care much what the theme is, but I do care that the game's mechanisms match the theme. I like a game better when the play of the game reminds me of the theme. So, to give one example, I think the theme works better in Show Manager than in Atlantic Star, even though the rules are almost identical. And, though I'm not generally fond of games that involve too much randomness, I think that the play of Thebes is a great match for the theme.


At the risk of being a troublemaker, how does St Petersburg match theme and mechanics (vis a vis your avatar)?

I generally don't care about theme, though there are certain games (Descent, Space Alert, Arabian Nights) that pretty much are only about the theme, and I enjoy those. Generally speaking though, if the game involves "victory points", it is already so abstracted that I could care less about the theme provided the mechanics are sound and interesting.
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Rauli Kettunen
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When I'm looking for a new game to buy, theme is the #1 priority. Game in question has to have a theme that appeals to me. If not, pass. Don't care if the game would have the coolest, most innovative mechanics, if the theme doesn't work for me, I'm not going to bother. If the game passes the theme-clause, then I'll look more closely at its mechanics and what it brings to the table.
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Tomello Visello
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a good theme can help me relate to the mechanisms

a thinly related theme doesn't stop me from enjoying the game

a theme I dislike will indeed stop me from even bothering to investigate.

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Bruno Lorentin
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TVis wrote:
a good theme can help me relate to the mechanisms

a thinly related theme doesn't stop me from enjoying the game

a theme I dislike will indeed stop me from even bothering to investigate.



I feel a bit the same. A good theme I can relate (I admit I have a weakness for Cthulhu / Fantastic / Horror thingies) will make me have a look at a game I never heard about before but abstract games are all good to me as well.

However a game with a theme I really dislike will drive me away, not matter how good the game might be. Sadly for my bank account, those themes are pretty few blush

Same goes for the art actually...
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Eric Brosius
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cferejohn wrote:
At the risk of being a troublemaker, how does St Petersburg match theme and mechanics (vis a vis your avatar)?


I love Saint Petersburg even though the theme is only weakly tied to the game play at best. I don't insist on a theme, but a good match is a plus.
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Robin
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I like when a game mechanic can match the theme. I don't mind if themes are tacked on but I do tend to be less interested. Like you, I think a game based on a theme I am actively invested in is more enjoyable, despite possible mechanical flaws.
 
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J C Lawrence
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I use theme to explain a game to others; otherwise I ignore or forget about it.
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Magic Pink
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I don't care how great the mechanics are, if a game has a theme I don't like I won't play it. Strangely, I'm exactly opposite that with video games where it's all about good mechanics for me, theme be damned.
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James Pinnion
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A good game is a good game regardless of theme. There will always be a tinge where something makes far more sense in game terms than in theme terms; but that will not stop me enjoying the game - Agricola is one of my favourite games, despite the fact that you can only purchase one female animal of each breed!

However I do give some games more chances that I otherwise would do if it werent for the theme. I have had two fun games of Republic of Rome and about eight dissappoinments - but I would try it again in a second (well in a day, anyway!). But even if a designer brushed up the rules: If they rethemed the game around political families fighting for power during the rise of the USA, I wouldnt give it nearly as many chances.
 
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Robert Grainger
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I agree with many of the replies here. Theme is not the most important thing. However, there are some odd exceptions in my case.

Usually, theme determines how much I look at a game in the first place. If the game features a TV show, or themes that make me cringe a bit (zombies, horror, space marines, etc.), I'll probably avoid it, or at least not bother to give it a second look. If I hear that it's a good game, however, I'll give it a go.

If it involves the ancient Romans, I'll definitely give it a look. I know this is a well-worn theme for games, but I love Roman history. However, theme alone here won't sell the game to me (if it did, I'd own 3000 ancient Roman games). It has to be a good game, and one I think I'll get to the table.

If the theme is somewhere in the middle - i.e. most Euro-type themes - in other words, themes that don't necessarily excite me, but don't put me off with their depressing lack of imagination (zombies, space marines...), I'll give it a look. Also, many Euros have what I find to be interesting/original themes (building zoos, racing steamboats, managing a vineyard - what some Ameritrash gamers call "boring" because they don't involve killing things in familiar settings); in such a case, I'm more likely to take a look.

Overall, though, it's really interesting mechanics that excite me. I think that's what was so great about the whole Euro explosion - it really gave a kick in the backside to what was a relatively staid market. That may have declined now - there are only so many new mechanics, after all - but it was a real revelation in the mid-late 90s. Another thing I like to see is elegance (which is becoming, sadly, a dirty word).

There's one type of game where theme is paramount to me: wargames. I have to be interested in the theme, and comfortable with it. I certainly wouldn't buy a game set in a modern conflict because it would make me itchy. The game still has to be good, too, and the right weight/style. I guess theme is important here because I want a simulation element in my wargames - I want to learn from them, and experiment with history.

Overall, though, it's likelihood of actually playing it - playing time, weight, number of players, etc. I've passed on several awesome-looking ancient Roman-themed games because I'd never get to actually play them, except solo, and they don't happen to solo very well.

Edit:
actually, while theme isn't important to me overall, I do favour nice components! If I like the artwork, colour scheme, etc., I'm more likely to pick up a game. So for me, it's the visual/tactile experience more than theme that is important... but I wonder if people sometimes confuse this aspect with theme, as they overlap somewhat. For me, this equates, ideally, to attractive colours, wooden pieces, beautiful artwork. The actual theme depicted ultimately doesn't matter.
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Billy the Hut
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For me Theme is very important. I can enjoy a good abstract game, but I'll enjoy a good abstract game with a nice theme pasted on even better. I think this is because I often use a theme as a jumping off point to investigate that subject all the more.
"2 de mayo" is a good example of a game introducing me to a subject. I received this game as a birthday present last year. I love Madrid & have lived there two separate summers. However I knew nothing about the history. The game raised my curiosity and I ended up reading up on it. Very interesting and part of the fun of many games for me.
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Andy Evans
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Personally I like games with theme from historical wargames to ameritrash games to train games.

I'm also happy with games with no theme at all.

What I don't like is games that pretend to have a theme, particularly bad are those who have themes which jar with their mechanics for example games which prevent you taking actions because someone has beaten you to it despite this exclusitivity having no thematic sense whatsoever!
 
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RJD
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The theme is vital. It determines what games I'm interested in and which ones I'll end up owning. The game mechanics are a terribly important part of that too, but if I dislike the theme (or lack of theme) than the mechanics won't matter very much because I'm far less likely to bother with the game in the first place.
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Monica Elida Forssell
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I don`t really believe I have a special addiction to themes, though I see many of the games I enjoy the most have historic themes, and then especially ancient history. Though there are other themes sneaking in to my collection. That`s a good thing, gives my collection some variation....some....
 
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Joan Thalamus
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Theme comes in distant second to gameplay. A great thematic interpretation doesn't matter, if the gameplay is clunky, repetitive, or tedious. Lots of great thematic games out there that fall down badly on gameplay.

Oh, and I don't give a damn about "bits." I'd happily trade all the shiny plastic bits in the world for additional play-testing and refinement.

Joanie
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Guido Gloor
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Theme, to me, is essential. I need theme in my games, or I won't bother playing them. If I can't immerse myself in a game, it feels shallow, superficial and pointless.

On the other hand, mechanisms are (nearly) equally essential to me. Even the best theme cannot make up for poor gameplay.

A game that tries to hold me only by theme will fail to make me a happy gamer. Similarly, a game that has awesome mechanisms that don't tie into their theme will also fail to make me a happy gamer. The games that successfully integrate both in equal parts are the ones I like.

Whether they put more focus on mechanisms (like Troyes) or theme (like Mansions of Madness) doesn't realy matter, as long as they pay adequate attention to both.

And of course, this "adequate" is the very crux of the matter, and the point where subjectivity comes into play.

It's interesting that this entire thread was started by Android - which, to me, was a game where the integration of theme and mechanisms didn't work. There were plenty of mechanisms that, to me, didn't make thematic sense - and the mechanisms didn't really seem to reward in-theme play, thus leading to unthematic events when played by players trying to maximize their scores. Theme has to emerge from optimizing play, and in Android, it didn't.
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Christopher KrackerJack
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I go back to open and closed rule sets.

A game with a closed rule set has a limited set of options for the player. Most of your abstracts and Euros are closed rule sets. For example, in a game like Stone Age you place a worker in a finite number of places and then get what he produces. If you wanted to do something else like raid an opposing tribe or expand beyond 10 workers, the rules forbid it. For games like this the theme is much less important because it only drives the artwork.

A game with an open rule set makes efforts to model the options that would be available to a person in the actual situation. In a game like Squad Leader, you have the option to do almost anything an actual soldier in that environment could do. The rules don't attempt to restrict your actions, but attempt to model how you can move, fire, conduct close combat, call for artillery, drop smoke, etc. For games like this the theme is much more important because it drives all aspects of the game design.

Obviously, no game can be completely open. The determining factor is what drives the game design: a mechanical engine or a thematic concept. Games can fall anywhere on the spectrum, and more and more hybrids are popping up as designers are trying to build thematically driven closed rule sets.

So, I guess for me it depends. Some themes are so uninteresting that I would only try them if a friend brought them to the table (postal service). Some mechanics (deck building) are so uninteresting I doubt I would ever play them.

Closed rule with poor themes can be a lot of fun (Hey! That's my Fish) just like well designed themes with mechanical flaws can be fun (Betrayal at House on the Hill).

When they come together well (Twilight Struggle) you get a great game.



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Jonathan Challis
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Theme is not remotely important to me. I'd give it 2/10 which is to say I do have preferred themes, and disliked themes but many of my favourite and abhorred games buck those trends. So basically I'll always go with the gameplay, and theme be damned. When rating games the best theme in the world almost certainly gets it less than 0.5 of 10, and a theme I greatly dislike doesn't deduct any.

Theme isn't even the second choice of two for me, more like 5th of 5 after game mechanics, component quality, game weight and length, and so on.

Even for Ameritrash games, my choice is driven by mechanics, not remotely theme.
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Bill Stivers
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TVis wrote:
a good theme can help me relate to the mechanisms

a thinly related theme doesn't stop me from enjoying the game

a theme I dislike will indeed stop me from even bothering to investigate.



I agree TVis. I may go a little further with a good theme. A good theme will make want to learn and possibly buy a game. When I was younger I could buy a game based on theme alone. Now older and have limited time for hobbies I choose more wisely, but if I see a theme I enjoy I will investigate it, watch reviews, try to play it, and finaly make a choice.

A theme that does not attract me will only get my attention if I see others enjoying it first. LeHerve, Power Grid, Alahambra,Carcazzone, and Catan are games I would not have just said "Hey that looks like fun!" and fork out the money for it.

Keep Gaming!!!
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Jaime Lawrence
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There are good games with poor theme, but the best games have strong themes. I'm happy to overlook bad mechanics if I get a good theme, but that limits replayability. A weak theme will most likely stop me from ever playing the game in the first place, as life is too short. Like the OP, I think Android is fantastic despite its flaws and I think Knizia is a blight on us all for his themelessness.
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