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What's In a Theme?

How much does the theme of a game affect your enjoyment of it?

Imagine with me for a moment that you're sitting at the table hovered over one of your favorite games. You have a worker meeple in hand and it's now your turn. There it is…the perfect placement spot…nobody took it! With exuberance, you slam your worker down, collect a mountain of resources, and draw a card from the bonus deck. Sweet!

In your mind's eye, what game did you imagine playing? Were you collecting gems from an archeological dig site? Were you harvesting crystals on an alien moon? Were you gathering food to feed your people? How about that bonus card you drew; is it going to help you build an ancient civilization, make a scientific breakthrough, or defeat an elder god? And. perhaps the most important question, does it even matter?

In the boardgame hobby we often see gameplay mechanisms repeat themselves. Sometimes there are new iterations and combinations that push the boundaries of familiarity, but it's usually not hard to recognize the mechanical DNA of most games. Why, then, do we need a dozen different deck-building games on the shelf? Who needs all those worker placement games? Honestly, if you’ve played one trick-taking game, haven't you played them all? While many games may be very similar in the mechanisms they use, most of them are trying to tell players very different stories…and I love that! To better understand what I mean, let's look at a few examples.

Everdell is a delightful game designed by James Wilson that features truly stunning artwork by Andrew Bosley and Dann May. At its core it is a very straightforward worker placement game: place a worker, gather resources, spend resources to play cards, trigger card abilities, collect end-game points, highest point total wins. These mechanisms are used by hundreds of games sitting on shelves the world over. So why is Everdell special? Because of the theme! Workers aren't just nameless meeples, they are hard working woodland creatures. Resources take the form of logs, stone, and resin needed to build a wondrous woodland realm. The art, abilities, and text on every card tell a different story about the pint-sized denizens of your tableau. Victory points aren't some arbitrary form of determining a winner, they represent the peace and prosperity of a magical city in the forest. Everdell’s theme transforms its mechanisms into something that feels special and unique.

Two games that get compared quite a bit these days are Lost Ruins of Arnak and Dune: Imperium. On a mechanical level, both of these games have a lot in common. They each allow only a stingy number of workers to be placed on the board. They both let players build custom decks of cards. They each require resource management. And, each is limited by a certain number of rounds. While they play very similarly, the themes of these two games separates them by miles and miles. In Lost Ruins of Arnak, players take on the role of intrepid explorers seeking a great temple swallowed by the jungle and guarded by ancient powers. In Dune: Imperium, players engage in political intrigue and challenge the inhospitable desert sands of Arakis. Despite their similarities in gameplay, their themes make them feel like completely different experiences. I would never want to choose just having one or the other, they both belong on my shelf.

If the theme of a game is what sucks a player in, then it can be assumed that the theme of a game may be what drives a player away as well. While every player is different, there may be themes that alienate certain people. I am not a cat person! There are few things a developer could do to their game to drive me away faster than making a game that features cats, has the word cat in the title, or shows a cat on the cover. No thank you! It's just a personal preference thing, and despite my aversions, games like Calico and Isle of Cats will continue to be loved and played by the board game community at large. As they say, one person’s junk theme is another person’s treasure!

My intent here is not to suggest that all games are made or broken by their theme. There are many games with little to no theme that still pack a great punch. My wife and I were recently talking about a little roll and write game we love called Silver and Gold. While there is a very loose “finding treasure on an island” theme, the game is almost completely a mechanisms-based experience where players simply use different shapes to fill up grids on cards.

The Crew is another game that relies on its mechanisms rather than its theme to gather players around the table. The Crew comes in two flavors: the space exploration themed Quest for Planet Nine, and the nautical themed Mission Deep Sea. While each game deploys a different method for setting up the missions players will attempt, they each play about the same. The true genius behind either of The Crew games is not their generic themes, but rather the very clever cooperative trick-taking gameplay they both offer.

At the end of the day, we all just want to have fun around the table. For me, the theme makes a huge difference in how much I enjoy a game. While I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling this way, I do recognize that opinions vary widely and everyone's mileage will vary from game to game and theme to theme.

What themes are your favorite?

What themes drive you away?

And, when are we going to get a dragon themed Wingspan?...I mean seriously!

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