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Subject: Board Game xx is great but the theme is ... rss

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Paul Roberts
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I got to thinking the other day, how often do people quote in reviews or conversations that a games theme is "tacked" on or not integral to the game or some other detrimental comment on the theme. Now I am guilty of these type of comments, as much as anyone else so this is where my thinking went...

When we actually teach a game to new players how often do we as teachers skip the flavour text, Story introduction etc in order to quickly put across the mechanics and get on with playing the game?? Well I certainly am guilty of that and when we do this, mostly in order to reduce the time it takes to get the rules across to people, we are ripping the theme away. Maybe this is what fuels the thoughts the theme is not strong, as we are not doing it the justice it deserves.

I accept that even when we do try and make the effort some games still fall short thereby genuinely earning the bad theme comments. I just feel that maybe sometimes we are too quick to judge based on our riding over the theme in order to get to playing a game quicker.

I am just curious to know what other people think, there is no right or wrong answer to this but it is certainly worth some thought. The designers have put a lot of time, thought and effort into these games we should at least take the time to consider are we doing their games justice in how we put them across to others....
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Laura Creighton
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My anecdotal experience with one game:

About a year ago, I started teaching Alien Frontiers to people. Repeatedly. And I love this game. But I am one of the people for whom theme does not do a whole lot -- when I am playing Euros, when I am playing wargames it's pretty much all about theme -- except that I love boats and trains.

My first teachings were to Euro players who wanted to learn a different Euro -- or new gamers who wanted an introduction to WP games, and I picked this one as a good one to teach this with. I gave a presentation all about how one accomplished the various goals, in walk through the board order of 'how you do this', 'how you do that'. Hang this between a 'and here is what the goals are, what you are trying to do in order to win the game' at the start, and 'and then you have won the game' at the end, and people were extremely happy about how I taught the game. They said that the game didn't have a lot of theme, but was fun for all that.

Then I took the game to a group of wargamers who were interested in learning euros. I am preaching to my hometown audience here. The situation is that you have 1, 2 or 3 people waiting for somebody to spend 15-20 minutes, maybe longer, deciding on what they want to do, moving all his or her miniatures, chits, or cubes someplace, checking the damn thing so that somebody doesn't come by later and say 'there were 2 river squares, you cannot put your tank there' and the like. Then it is somebody else's turn, they do the whole thing. The game takes weeks, maybe months to play, even if you go play it with your friends 2 or 3 times a week.

So, what we like to do is to play short games while we are waiting for the odd-man-out to make his or her move. (Taluva works great for this, by the way.)
AF is a bit longer -- 15 minutes counts as 'a bit' in these circumstances, but both of them lend themselves to 'you will see my position, you play me while I deploy'. The problem I thought was that without a lot more theme, my konflictspellar bretheren would just not be interested. So I started my explanations with:

Imagine that you are the admiral of a fleet of starships. Imagine, that because there is no air, thus airodynamic principles to worry about, people made ships like this (show one die) because a cube is easier to manufacture, and paint. < large cheer from miniature painters among us, 100% > And imagine that the face of your cube determined which docking station at the space station you could berth at -- not that each ship birthed separately but that the space station is set up so that it only will accept a certain number of ships at one time.

Then I launched into the Euro-gamer-this-is-new explanation.

And AF has been a hit around here in both of my wargaming groups. I have lots of friends there who refuse to play Euros, on principle, because they are tedious and soulless, and I have therefore decided that AF must be a Hybrid .. because they are among the first to want to break this out as 'the game to play between the play'. So much so that I got into a slight bit of trouble for borrowing it from the boardgaming society so much -- before the reprinting, that is.

Ok, then, as an experiment, I taught AF again to Eurogamers, but did the 'Imagine you are' for them as well. And they now think that AF has plenty of theme.

So I really think that a significant amount of theme is about the presentation.

But I think that this can only go so far. AF has lots of theme which you might gloss over. I'm not sure anybody can give Caylus a thematic push, though. Beyond my ability at any rate.

---------


Neat question. Thank you for asking it.
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Rich Shipley
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I tend to never read flavor text or story at all. If the rules and components of the game don't convey the theme, then it really doesn't have one.
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Laura Creighton
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rshipley wrote:
I tend to never read flavor text or story at all. If the rules and components of the game don't convey the theme, then it really doesn't have one.


Have you ever played Android ? I am amazingly curious as to whether this game would change your mind about flavour text or not. Please do not take this as a challenge or indication that I think you are wrong for believing or thinking what you do. I am just very interested in how my fellow thinking members of this planet think about things.
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Rich Shipley
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lacreighton wrote:
rshipley wrote:
I tend to never read flavor text or story at all. If the rules and components of the game don't convey the theme, then it really doesn't have one.


Have you ever played Android ? I am amazingly curious as to whether this game would change your mind about flavour text or not. Please do not take this as a challenge or indication that I think you are wrong for believing or thinking what you do. I am just very interested in how my fellow thinking members of this planet think about things.


I haven't played that yet. I'll keep it in mind if I do.

I like a game where the play of it really evokes what it is supposed to be about. If lots of extra text is required to get to that point, I don't think the designer has done a good job.

For me, if I want a detailed background and plot, I'd rather play an RPG or read a book.
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Paul Roberts
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rshipley wrote:
lacreighton wrote:
rshipley wrote:
I tend to never read flavor text or story at all. If the rules and components of the game don't convey the theme, then it really doesn't have one.


Have you ever played Android ? I am amazingly curious as to whether this game would change your mind about flavour text or not. Please do not take this as a challenge or indication that I think you are wrong for believing or thinking what you do. I am just very interested in how my fellow thinking members of this planet think about things.


I haven't played that yet. I'll keep it in mind if I do.

I like a game where the play of it really evokes what it is supposed to be about. If lots of extra text is required to get to that point, I don't think the designer has done a good job.

For me, if I want a detailed background and plot, I'd rather play an RPG or read a book.


I understand where you are coming from but just playing devils advocate here, even when the mechanics, artwork and components make the theme having in-theme text on cards, or even in the rules can add to the atmosphere ratehr than distract if used right.

For example I find the theme very apparent in Arkham horror and this can be enhanced by reading the cards, which does not distract from the gameplay.
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Paul Roberts
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lacreighton wrote:
So I really think that a significant amount of theme is about the presentation.


I could not agree more with this statement and thanks for your eloquent example.

lacreighton wrote:
Neat question. Thank you for asking it.


You are welcome, I hoped other people would find it interesting.

 
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Barry Hood
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I've only run into it once in my limited foray back into gaming, and that's in the case of the Martin Wallace Doctor Who card game. The theme there seems so tacked on that it's actually prevented me buying the game. By all accounts the game itself isn't bad, but I'm a Doctor Who fan (not to any kind of extreme, I've just watched the show since back in the 70s) and the idea that everyone is somehow the same Doctor and they're fighting against each other just doesn't work as a theme at all. You may as well use modern day Wall Street as the theme in a space combat game, it would make as much thematic sense.

What's even worse is that Doctor Who, more than almost any other theme out there, gives you a really easy explanation of why there might be multiple doctors (they've even done movies with multiple doctors) and yet even the most basic of tweaks to the fluff to make this work as a theme was deemed too much effort, which just feels like a massive snub to the fans.

Other than this most games I've played either do the theme really well or have no theme/are games where the theme doesn't matter (other than maybe a particular style to the art, like Timeline or Dixit).
 
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Laura Creighton
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rshipley wrote:
lacreighton wrote:
rshipley wrote:
I tend to never read flavor text or story at all. If the rules and components of the game don't convey the theme, then it really doesn't have one.


Have you ever played Android ? I am amazingly curious as to whether this game would change your mind about flavour text or not. Please do not take this as a challenge or indication that I think you are wrong for believing or thinking what you do. I am just very interested in how my fellow thinking members of this planet think about things.


I haven't played that yet. I'll keep it in mind if I do.

I like a game where the play of it really evokes what it is supposed to be about. If lots of extra text is required to get to that point, I don't think the designer has done a good job.

For me, if I want a detailed background and plot, I'd rather play an RPG or read a book.


Cool, please let me know. Thank you.
 
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Enrico Viglino
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XX games all have pretty decent connection to their subject matter. :P
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Drew McClain
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I too think a game needs an easily discernible theme for it to work on any level I personally care about. It's the reason I couldn't stand Arkham Horror. It's dripping with theme, but I'm there for the game first and the theme second. I don't want to absorb myself in the text or the characters - I want to play the game.

A game with a good theme is a game where I feel like I'm doing what the theme suggests. That never comes from the text on the cards or the instructions, but through the actions I'm doing and the artwork on the board and through the components I'm using. Cosmic Encounter works on a thematic (albeit over-the-top) level because, even if you ignore much of the text - with the kitschy character artwork and the plethora of powers; with the negotiations and betrayals; with the little plastic flying saucers and cardboard planets; it really conveys the feeling of being an alien vying for space domination (or perhaps something else, depending on the winning condition). Nuns on the Run works thematically for me (again in an over-the-top fashion) because despite the abstract nature of the hidden movement mechanics, it conveys the idea of misbehaving nuns and their strict guardians with ease through the board and the church displayed on it, the nuns and their silly secret wishes, and the guards that suspiciously patrol the halls.

I'll even make a case for more abstract themes being sufficient if the goal feels right. Le Havre works for me, despite even the actions not feeling anything like building or shipping, because by the end I really do feel like I'm a shipping tycoon trying to dominate the marketplace. I understand why the themes of Uwe Rosenberg games seem dry for many people (and some of his themes are dry), but to me the feeling matters just as much as anything else, and Le Havre delivers the right feeling. Similarly, Dominant Species really hits the right note to give it that certain feeling in terms of theme. It's very abstract, with cubes representing animals and pieces of cardboard to represent land and elements. Yet, the special powers of each animal and the impending ice age, along with the competitive drive for both survival and domination, makes the theme really stand out. It doesn't need intricate artwork or detailed components to feel like what it's supposed to feel like.
 
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UA Darth
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I think the idea of "theme" is a myth. It just a fabrication for some OCD nerds to complain about imo.
 
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Ben Pinchback
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Just taught played and loved Taj Mahal for the first time this weekend. Our group was fighting over orange, purple, yellow, green, king, and elephant the entire game. No-one so much as asked or cared what the orange dude etc represented. Same with Tigris and Euphrates. If a game plays well and looks nice it will work in our group.
Not to say I don't appreciate a well done integrated theme with backstories like in TI3, but it's not mandatory by any means.
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Ben Delp
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I recently got the Lost Cities app for my iPhone. Interesting little card game. But apparently the city is so lost that even the game can't find it.

I feel on some level that theme shouldn't matter to me, but it does. A LOT. Most abstracts feel to me like I'm doing homework. And I agree with the poster above: if you can completely skip the theme when you're describing/explaining a game, then it's not a good theme.
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