I’ve been having a discussion online with another board game designer about how important theme is for board games. My point was that for many lighter games the theme is largely irrelevant for the game play, and is more of a marketing issue to persuade people to buy a game. I used the examples of Carcassonne: Star Wars Edition and the various variants of Love Letter. Same game, same experience, different target markets, I wrote. He replied that “the themeing [sic] in Love Letter and Carcassonne DOES matter. Otherwise, why would you retheme them? The theme itself changes the experience of playing the game.” This got me thinking about the venerable issue of theme versus mechanics and their relative importance for different types of game and different types of gamers.
So what are mechanics and what is theme? In a nutshell, the mechanics of a boardgame are how it is played – the combination of the components and the rules. For Carcassonne the mechanics consist of various types of tiles, the meeples and how they interact through the rules – where you can place tiles and in what orientation, where and when you can place meeples, when and how you score etc. The theme is the subject of the game. In Carcassonne it is the medieval city of that name. For some games the theme is given only by the name of the game – and possibly the names of components such as cards – and the artwork. For other games the theme is also provided by the mechanics. In wargames, the mechanics are an attempt to simulate warfare. You move and fight with units, in some sort of simulacra of battles, operations or campaigns. Even a simple game such as risk does this. You move and fight with your units, but you must always leave at least one unit behind to secure your line of supply or your production base (it is not clear exactly which because the mechanics are too simple to provide anything beyond the most basic simulation).
Classic games like chess and bridge are all about the mechanics and the same goes for abstract games like Connect Four. There is often no theme at all. On the other hand, most mass market games are about the theme, with the mechanics being very primitive. Quiz games are a good example of this. The various special editions of Monopoly do have mechanics – essentially the same set of mechanics for all of them – but people buy them for the theme. In each edition, a different theme (the names of the spaces on the board and the artwork) is transposed onto the same mechanical base. Euro games, which started to become popular in the mid-1990s with the success of Settlers of Catan, are different to both abstract games and older-style mass market games. While the focus may be on the mechanics, they also have a theme. The latter may be nothing more than the name and the artwork or it may be integrated into the mechanics. In Ameritrash games, which have their origins in the late 1970s with the likes of Dune and Cosmic Encounter, the focus is on the theme but they also have highly developed mechanics.
The relative focus of hobby games – those played by enthusiasts rather than casual gamers – has changed over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, when hobby gaming was dominated by companies such as Avalon Hill and Games Workshop, games had both strong themes and often fairly complex mechanics. Theme was conveyed both by the art and the mechanics. Overall, theme was most important – indeed, the mechanical complexity often existed in order to further the theme at the expense of game play. This is called ‘chrome’ – perhaps a reference to the flashy American cars of that era that might look fantastic but were poorly engineered. The rising popularity of euro games in the 1990s created an entirely new segment of games for the board gaming enthusiast and changed the focus of hobby games. Boardgamegeek was created in 2000 and can be used to track this transition and the changing focus ever since then. The top ranked game on bgg in the latter half of 2001 was Paths of Glory, a complex wargame with a strong thematic element. It was replaced in early 2002 by Tigris and Euprates, Reiner Knizia’s masterpiece, which is essentially an abstract game with a pasted-on theme. Then Puerto Rico was the number one game for several years. It is not an abstract, as the theme is reflected in the artwork, the names of components and also in the mechanics, not the least of which is role selection. However, I would argue that it was so highly rated more for its game play than its theme. Agricola took over the top slot for a couple of years. More strongly themed than Puerto Rico and with more integration between the theme and the mechanics, but still very much a euro game. The current decade has seen euro games gradually lose their position in the rankings and, arguably, a return to the importance of theme. Twilight Struggle, a new type of hybrid game, was rated number one for five years. It combines a very strongly developed theme with well-honed mechanics and streamlined game play. It uses mechanical elements from euro games and from newer-style wargames to bring back to life the thematic richness of games from the 1970s and 1980s.
In the past couple of years there has been a new trend – games funded through Kickstarter have begun to make waves in the hobby. These are often sold on the basis of their art (both 2D and 3D) and component quality. However, I would argue that this is often at the expense of the quality of their game play. I can only speculate on the reasons behind this. I suspect that games are not playtested thoroughly with new elements that are added during Kickstarter campaigns. Maybe games do not have proper developers as a higher proportion of the costs are absorbed by the artists. Nevertheless, games such as Gloomhaven and Scythe are now in the top 10 on bgg, together with a couple of euro games – Terra Mystica and Caverna – and new hybrids such as Pandemic Legacy. What is clear is that most of these games are thematically rich. The top-ranked example of an older-style euro game that focuses on the mechanics and game play, with theme being of less importance, is Funkenschlag (Power Grid) at number 23.
The reason I wrote this blog, as the title suggests, is to open up a discussion about theme and game mechanics. What is important to you as a designer or as a player? What is important to the board gamers you know? Can theme be conveyed only by the art or does it need to be integrated into the game play through the mechanical elements?