Published on June 10th, 2013 | by Luke Turpeinen
Laying It On Thick
Thoughts on the use of theme in board games
The phrase “theme game” is more divisive in the board game world than the casual observer might expect. For many, a game without a strong theme implies the creator lacks true creativity; while for others a heavily themed game implies that rules purity has been sacrificed for the sake of reinforcing the theme. I feel that this is a false dichotomy and based more on history and past experiences than true limits on what a board game can or can not be.
“I always try to come up with a clear theme when making a video game.” -Shigeru Miyamoto
When I was younger and making my first foray into a world of board, card and role-playing games there was one theme that dominated the scene: fantasy. Dragon Strike, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic the Gathering, Talisman, Mage Knight, Warhammer Fantasy, these games were the ones played the most and considered the best by the people I grew up around. Occasionally military themed games like Risk or Axis & Allies would be played or discussed, and Warhammer’s cousin that is
just fantasy in space totally not fantasy was pretty popular. There was a definite monopoly on theme in the games that I saw and played and often times that theme was hugely overwrought and detrimental to the rules mechanics of the game.
The worst offender of sacrificing rules quality on the altar of “cool” was probably Warhammer and its 40k spin-off. These games have themes that still inspire nerds to this day, despite many of the references and jokes of the source material getting lost in newer editions and as the ever newer generations come to enjoy the setting. The creators here went by the “Rule of Cool” where anything that sounded awesome was included and rules were slapped on as an after-thought. Board games of the time, such as Talisman, and RPGs like AD&D 2nd Edition also had reputations for adding rules that sound good but were extremely unbalanced or poorly thought out. This is where the word “Ameritrash” comes from when describing board games of a particular type: typically American, hundreds of rules, thousands of pieces/minis/chits, usually heavy metal themed artwork and horrible balance all typify many popular games of that time period.
Many people had, and still have, fun with this style of game and there is nothing wrong with that. As Andrew is often overheard saying, “Different people play different games at different times for different reasons.” There is no right or wrong way to play a game and enjoyment of an activity is justification enough for continuing to do that activity, but some gamers weren’t satisfied with the board games available. People started to look for games with stronger mechanics, with balanced gameplay and shorter play times- games that weren’t children’s toys like Sorry! but also weren’t the hours-long endeavor that Axis & Allies was. Cue the entrance of Catan and German style board games, the history thereof I’ll leave for another time.
Even looking at our modern range of Eurogames and it’s easy to see why some people would not be drawn to them: a game about building an 18th century Russian city, a game about medieval German merchants, one of building a medieval French city, pre-industrial family farm micro-management, building an electrical infrastructure and trains, trains, trains. How many merchant/colony/city-building games do we need? Sure, there are a ton of people who love these themes and I personally think that each of those games are great and tons of fun to play, but when you’ve just come off a decade of learning spells so you can defeat the Black Knight, slay the Grim Reaper and take the Crown of Hell for yourself to rain destruction upon all those who opposed you, it might seem a bit dull. Suffice it to say that for a while the board game community seemed to be split between “Eurogame” enthusiasts who preferred mechanical perfection and “Ameritrash” supporters who wanted theme. For some reason these groups remained separate in a lot of ways, or at least it appeared that way to me in my community and on the internet.
The problem, as I perceived it, was an insistence that one should have either a top-down or a bottom-up design approach and there was no compromise to be had betwixt them. There was no Stephen Covey style dialogue that might solve this problem either* so it languished for a long time. This also isn’t to say that there weren’t games made in America (or the UK, as I’m sure many will be quick to point out that Games Workshop is an English company) that were on the lighter side of both mechanics and theme, it’s just that they typically weren’t normally targeted towards the board gamer crowd, who were mostly also the wargamer and role-playing crowds too.
There are indications that these barriers are starting to thin out after being up for so long. Now you can find euro-style games with fantasy/sci-fi themes, such as WotC’s Lords of Waterdeep or Alien Frontier from Clever Mojo. These are good steps in the right direction, but I feel like there could be more done to push this line. It’s not that I want to get rid of all the non-fantasy and science fiction games, not every one is into that and even I get burned out on Lord of the Rings licenses slapped onto anything remotely marketable. I am just glad to see that this artificial barrier of theme versus mechanics is starting to break down and I look forward to the future of board games and the themes they introduce to us.