When in the gaming community, you often hear people describe the theme of a game by a setting or what kind of visual elements it entails. This could be a space theme, a traditional fantasy theme, viking theme, etc.
But is that where the theme ends? Is that all that makes up a theme?
To some it might. There are plenty of games out there that slap on a “theme” to the interesting assortment of mechanics they made and call it a day.
I would argue that a theme of a board game should be much more than just the visuals or a setting it provides. The theme should be felt through the style of mechanics, the interactions with other players, the components, the games pace; all of these details play a crucial role in developing a game’s theme.
I started thinking about this topic most intentionally after listening to a recent podcast episode of Ludology. If you haven’t listened to them, they are a great resource for diving deeper into the world of tabletop gaming and designing.
In the episode Everyone’s a Critic, they speak with a gentleman by the name of Daniel Thurot. The episode consists of Thurot’s perspective on a critique vs a review. He doesn’t compare these two concepts as negatives vs positive, as our ears are trained to hear it nowadays.
Rather, Thurot describes a critique more as an analysis of why the discussed content does what it does. This is in contrast to what we would now call a review which tends to be top level overview of the discussed content. Reviews, in this context, allows the consumer to quickly ingest a 3rd party’s opinion so that they can make a more educated decision on whether or not they want to purchase or interact with this content.
I recommend listening to the whole episode through but I want to focus on the tail end of the conversation where they briefly discuss theme. Now Thurot has his opinions on how the term “theme” should be used in the gaming world which is not what I’m interested in focusing on but rather the idea of theme being more than just a setting.
The reason behind a theme needing to be more than just visuals, specifically when it comes to board games is because you are creating an experience for others to engage in, not just consume.
If you have a good combination of mechanics that work great together and then just slap the hot, trendy theme, you’re going to loose out on long term retention and engagement. I would say this even for small games that only have one or two key mechanics. Gil mentions this at the end of the episode and discusses another episode where we dives deeper into this concept. If you know the episode that he mentions, please leave a link in the comments for other readers (and myself) to be able to check it out.
Although Ludology’s podcast really put skin on this for me, this is a concept that I strive to utilize in all of the games I create. The reason why lies in the medium.
Take Space Alert for example, designed by Vlaada Chvátil published by Czech Games Edition. This game is filled with a rich theme that ties so closely to it’s mechanics. This is a chaotic, real-time space game that uses a programming mechanic to portray the unpredictability of a ship that is under attack by aliens. You are working together with your crew but at the end of the day, everyone decides what to do themselves by placing ther action card face down. At the end of the game, everyone reveals their actions and plays out the scene of what everyone does turn by turn to see if they survived the attack.
This isn’t just another space game, it gives the sense of urgency because you literally have a time limit on your actions. You step into the shoes of this crew of astronauts and are panicking to try to coordinate with your teammates who is doing what. You’re thinking about multiple things at once to try to survive. It’s a theme that encapsulates the entirety of the game, not just it’s appearance.
Now when you’re playing a game you might not be actively thinking how the theme is weaved into the mechanics and player interactions but think about the games you really enjoy playing? Do they marry the setting of the game with other parts of the experience? Or could you easily replace it with another “theme”?
Blood Rage is another great example of this. You get the awesome Viking visuals of course but you also get the tactical thrill, the battle strategies, and probably what officially locks in the theme is the Valhalla mechanic. If you haven’t played before, basically, if your units are defeated, they go to Valhalla and are returned to your forces next round. I assume the resurrection aspect is to feature the growing nature of the people, not imortality. There are strategies in the game that encourage you to loose and send your units to Valhalla. Having strategies that encourage players to kill off their units for glory can’t be replaced by just any other combat theme.
These are just two examples of games that really encapsulate how mechanics can be beautifully weaved into its visuals but there are so many more. War of the Ring, Dice Forge, Pandemic, Tokaido, Cosmic Encounter, and Cryptid Cafe are just to name a few. There are plenty of successful games that don’t do this too. The one that comes to mind would be Mystic Vale. Great game, but the theme could be anything really. The card-crafting mechanic is different and fun so it can survive and even thrive with a theme loosely tied to its internal workings.
What exceptions have you found to this thematic rule? What games have absolutely captured your interest but the theme just isn’t integrated. Could value be added to this title? Or do you prefer it just the way it is? I’d love to hear some great examples of either down in the comments below.