I’ve been thinking a lot about theme lately; it started when my friend Mark and I were playing 51st State, which I discussed not too long ago in a post about engine-builders. We were talking about how the mechanics of the game fit the post-apocalyptic theme really well, and discussing other games where this was the case.
Any subject matter can be called a theme; civilization in Through the Ages, high fantasy in The War of the Ring, wine-making in Viticulture, superheroes in Heroes Wanted!, space exploration and combat in Twilight Imperium . . . the possibilities are unlimited. You could even argue that chess has a war theme.
But these are really just backdrops; even abstract games like Hive, Kahuna, and Patchwork have themes, though you probably wouldn’t call those games “thematic.” So what separates a game with a theme from a game that’s thematic? Let’s do a little exploring.
What makes a game thematic?
As (almost) always, the answer to our question begins at BoardGameGeek. One of the Types available to classify games is “Thematic.” The description of that Type says the following:
Thematic Games contain a strong theme which drives the overall game experience, creating a dramatic story (“narrative”) similar to a book or action movie. . . . A Thematic Game is usually created around its main dramatic theme, which its rules and mechanics aim to depict. Themes typically involve fighting or good-versus-evil conflicts with heroes and villains.
Seems pretty straightforward. And when you look at the top-ranked games for that Type, you see a lot of games where that definitely applies; Pandemic: Legacy, Star Wars: Rebellion, Mage Knight, Star Wars: Imperial Assault, Blood Rage, Robinson Crusoe, Eldritch Horror, and so on. The games you might expect.
But what about 51st State? Yes, the rules of the game work really well with the post-apocalyptic backdrop . . . but those rules also work really well in Imperial Settlers, which has a completely different theme (the rules are slightly different, but the same in most regards). If the same(-ish) rules can work equally well for two vastly different settings, do they really “aim to depict” either one? It’s a tough call.
Note: this seems like a good place to note that the categorization of games on BGG is by player vote, which isn’t exactly scientific. And many of the games only have a handful of votes for any specific Type. In general, they seem pretty well agreed upon, but there may be discrepancies and there’s certainly room for interpretation.
Anyway, the stereotypically thematic games—sci-fi and fantasy games with miniatures and direct player conflict—we can all pretty much agree are highly thematic. There’s a plot to it, though how clear that plot is might be up for debate (in Twilight Imperium, for example, it’s the story of who takes the galactic throne; in Blood Rage, which clan earns the most glory before Ragnarok).
But there are a number of games that blend theme and abstract strategy very well—and I played a great example of this kind of game recently.
The story of Pueblo in cardboard
A few nights ago, I played Knightworks’ Forged in Steel, which reenacts the development of Pueblo, Colorado at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Players buy land; build houses, factories, and commercial buildings; mine resources; and play cards to wreak havoc with other players’ infrastructure.
(If you get a chance, pick up a copy of this game. It’s a hell of a lot of fun.)
If you look at this game, it looks pretty abstract; while there’s a map of Pueblo, there are a lot of wooden cubes, money is completely abstract, mines give you points instead of resources (interestingly, Tony Faber brought up this very issue in a tweet), and so on.
But there are some rather thematic elements, as well; for example, each neighborhood gets a number of mayoral votes, and whoever has control of that neighborhood gets the votes; get the most votes, and you get to be the mayor next turn. The mayor receives kickbacks from designating specific plots of land as public; the mining official scores more points from mines, the mob boss can raze buildings, and other roles have similarly thematic abilities.
The cards have images of Pueblo from the time period of the game, and they have titles and effects related to actual events; flooding, for example, or the introduction of indoor plumbing. All very thematic. But placing cubes to indicate that you bought a plot of land with one of your Municipal Muscle points? Definitely abstract. Getting extra votes from commercial buildings and mansions? Abstract.
So Forged in Steel presents a solid hybrid of theme and abstract strategy. What I found interesting in relation to theme, however, was how Matt and Edward and I played the game.
For instance, I played a card called “Indoor Plumbing” that benefited me and caused my opponents to increase their Unrest. Why would the installation of indoor plumbing in my neighborhoods increase my rivals’ unrest? We had to know.
I believe it was Matt who came up with the solution: “You just funneled your sewage into his back yard!”
We had a great laugh over this, and started telling more stories based on the cards. Edward stole my card called “Beer” and proceeded to seize one of my houses as well: “You got tired of my sewage being dumped in your neighborhood, so you stole my house and drank my beer!”
I attributed my complete lack of mayoral votes to taking too many kickbacks in my previous two terms. Edward built brick sewers to vengefully send his own sewage into my neighborhood. We discussed the Spanish Flu. Bemoaned the unfortunate placement of houses near heavily industrialized areas when there were no other options.
In short, we were playing thematically. We allowed ourselves to become immersed in the setting of the game. While Forged in Steel places a visual emphasis on the theme—largely through art and photography—I wouldn’t say that it’s inherently story-driven like many other “thematic” games. The reason that it allowed us to so easily dive into character and inhabit the world of turn-of-the-century Pueblo is that it gave us a scaffolding around which to build our own story.
We weren’t simply handed the story; we had to build it. And that cooperative building of story, I think, is what really makes a play experience thematic. It’s not a game that’s thematic—it’s a play experience.
Take Chrononauts, for example, a game that Rachelle and I enjoy. 44% of BGG voters called it a thematic game . . . but I don’t find that playing it is a thematic experience. That’s not to say it’s not good or fun; it is. But I don’t get immersed in the game like I did with Forged in Steel. It gives you theme, but doesn’t have as great of an opportunity for you to build your own story around it.
Interestingly, this is very closely related to what Mark and I were talking about after we played 51st State. We were discussing a number of games, and Mark brought up Tigris & Euphrates, a game that many people find to be extremely abstract (only 1% of BGG voters called it “thematic”). Mark made the argument, however, that it’s very thematic if you look at it in the right way—as a high-level, time-lapse view of the emergence of civilization.
He said that he considers it to be even more thematic than games like Eldritch Horror, where you’re given all of the thematic information in the flavor text on the cards and other components. You don’t have to do any mental work yourself; the game does it all for you. He called this sort of game “theme-on-rails,” which I think is a very apt moniker.
Theme-on-rails games don’t require an effort on the part of the player to really see the story; it’s all presented there in flavor text and scenario descriptions. Again, this isn’t a bad thing—it’s just a different way of presenting theme, and obviously works for a lot of people.
But in the end, based on our sewage-slinging, beer-stealing, land-seizing Forged in Steel game and the thoughts of some fellow players on what makes a game thematic, I’ve come to the conclusion that “thematic” isn’t a good description of a game. It’s a better description of a play experience, and games can give players more or less resources to make that happen. I’ve only recently come to this conclusion, so I’ll be paying close attention to this idea in the future and reporting back on it.
In the meantime, what do you think makes a game thematic? Do you agree that a play experience, more than a game itself, is what’s really driving immersion in the theme? Or do you think I’m way off here?