The way the word “theme” is often used in reference to board games isn’t particularly useful. I’m not here to dictate to people how they define words, but I do think I can make a pretty good case that we should open our minds to a different and more complex understanding of what theme can be.
Perhaps you’ve heard this before. Perhaps you’ve read Dan Thurot’s excellent article where he discusses his five categories of games. This is my version of that article. It’s not so much a response as it is an alternative perspective. Maybe he’d disagree, but I’d like to think that there’s this nebulous concept lying on the grass and I’m poking it with a stick from my own angle. Dan’s already…poked at it and left? Ok, no more metaphors today.
Tell me, what’s the theme of Star Wars? There are a number of valid answers. If I asked a random board gamer what the theme of Star Wars: Rebellion is, there’s a good chance they’d say “Star Wars”. That’s like saying the theme of Star Wars is Star Wars, which is less than helpful.
“Ok, Marc, but the first Star Wars didn’t have the context we have today. Back in ‘77 we’d say it was a sci-fi movie, but now we’d say that The Force Awakens is a Star Wars movie because we have that shared knowledge”
Sure, but that’s still not how the word “theme” is used in the context of movies. You could say that the themes of Star Wars might be heroism, or hope, or the virtues of rebellion against evil governments. Sci-fi is a genre description that might imply a good likelihood of certain themes, but it’s not a description of what the theme is.
There’s an idea of theme from literature that’s been ported over to movies and other artforms, so we can simply use that idea for board games and we’re good, right? Not quite. Because board games are often different than movies or books in that they’re often not trying to say anything particularly thematic. Sure, war games pretty much inherently make arguments about their subject due do how they depict it, there’s a weird relationship between eurogames and colonialism, and if you squint hard enough you could find something academic to talk about in the most benign of subjects. But apart from those games that are very clearly trying to make some kind of specific argument (think This Guilty Land or The Cost), this kind of thematic analysis doesn’t seem to quite cover all of it.
I mean, from a literary-thematic point of view, what’s the typical eurogame about? What kind of ideas does it play with? That efficiency wins? I suppose you could write up some kind of Weberian critique about that (and I’ve thought about it) but it would be the same argument game after game.
I’m not trying to dismiss this sort of critique, as some of the best board game critique I’ve ever seen is about the historical arguments games make or the cultural assumptions the designers carry through their designs. This is great, valuable stuff and I hope to do more work along these lines. But it doesn’t quite cover everything.
Here’s where it gets messy and where Dan’s way of labelling these concepts is, indeed, cleaner. But I’m stubborn so I’m going to talk about this as another aspect of theme. See, many people conflate the setting of the game with the word “theme”. This is where we get the idea of the theme of Star Wars: Rebellion being Star Wars. It’s not an incorrect usage of the word according to the dictionary, just an alternate one. When we use the word this way it’s like when we say that Rainforest Cafe is a rainforest-themed restaurant.
But beyond presenting a setting, board games can be more or less evocative of that setting. Part of that can be due to the art and components and such, but immersion (at least for me) is much more often driven by the mechanisms of the game itself. When the game is effective at evoking its setting we call that “thematic” or, in Dan’s model, “effective feedback”.
I’m getting less invested in the particular words as I write this, but the point is that games have something that other art forms almost completely lack: choice.
When you read a novel, watch a movie, or look at a painting, typically your only choice is to continue with the experience or not. The full length and breadth of the creator’s vision is there in front of you. There are exceptions–interactive art installations, choose your own adventure books, and Baldersnatch–but I’m going to ignore those because that’s how I’m living my life right now.
In a board game you get a sort of scaffolding with which the game, as a thing, happens. The designer creates a web of incentives for the players to navigate, and their method of interacting with the game is through making decisions. How thematic a game is (i.e. evocative of the setting) is mostly dependent on this system of cause and effect; choice and consequence.
Now the inspiration for writing all of this in the first place. We can break this idea down even further into what I call micro- and macro-theming. I’ve not seen anyone else talk about this before but it’s more and more apparent to me as I play more and more games.
Micro-theming is when individual parts of the game behave in a manner similar to what they’re supposed to represent. I think this is what most people are talking about when they say that a game’s mechanisms are thematic, or when they highlight an individual part of a game as thematic.
Examples are everywhere. Take any dungeon crawler you can think of. There’s probably someone in there who wields a sword. The sword behaves sword-y, insofar as you can activate it to try to do physical damage to someone else. Maybe there’s an axe that does more damage but causes the character to move more slowly because it’s so heavy. Perhaps there’s a dagger that allows the character to perform sneak attacks. All of this is micro-thematic.
We see this everywhere because it’s a very easy way to begin the process of designing a game. Think of a setting. Populate that setting with nouns (people, places, and things). Verb up those nouns by having them do abstracted versions of what they actually do in reality. Even the driest eurogames have at least some half-hearted, vague attempt at this.
Macro-theming is interconnected but distinct from micro-theming. Macro-theming is about the relationship between the players and the mechanisms of the game, beyond the simple notion of activation. It’s about the game putting the players in the same headspace as the agents they’re supposed to be playing as. It’s about creating the same sort of choices their characters are supposed to be encountering.
I’ll explain by example. A lot of people say that Dominion isn’t thematic at all. I disagree. I think Dominion has a good amount of micro-theming and essentially no macro-theming. Many of the card interactions function in a really neat, thematic way (though I admit that they’ve gotten better at it over time). Guide lets you discard your hand and draw 5 new cards–guiding you out of a bad situation. Wishing Well has you literally wish for a card. Cutpurse forces opponents to discard a copper. I mean, look at what they did with Nocturne, where you can utilize lucky fools or have a vampire that turns into a bat and then back into a vampire again!
But do you actually feel like someone trying to expand a kingdom when you’re playing Dominion? Not really. I suppose there’s some vague notion of growth, but beyond that you mostly feel like someone playing a card game who is trying to find good combos and synergies.
Let’s flip it around. What game has a high amount of macro-theming but low micro? Modern Art comes to mind. The individual parts of the game fall apart, thematically, when put under scrutiny. Why can you bid on a piece of art you control and buy it? Why do you gain money from art you sell but if you buy that same piece the money goes to the bank? Why are there specific auction types tied to specific pieces of art? The individual pieces are often thematically confounding, but the overall effect is quite strong. Playing Modern Art you really feel like you’re immersed in the strange world of art speculation. Your choices are largely speculative in nature, even if many of the details don’t map one to one to how, for instance, art auctions actually work.
I think Pipeline fits into this category as well. The pipe-construction part of the game has no direct relationship to…well, anything, really. However, the effect it has on the player is strong. It forces them to plan ahead, adjust to sudden obstacles, and work through labyrinthine mind puzzles. Sounds like logistics to me.
Of course, both ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. They often play into each other, and many times a good number of micro-thematic features create a macro-thematic experience. Sometimes it doesn’t. But I think it’s important for designers to consider both when they’re designing, especially if they’re trying to create a particular experience with their game. Straight abstraction of the different parts of the game may not work for the whole experience!
Two tangential thoughts. First, the more I reflect the more I realize that the aesthetics of the game are so much more a supporting role to the crunchy mechanical core of the game when it comes to theme/immersion/feedback. Scythe is the perfect example. I quite like Scythe, but like many people I was initially drawn in by the spectacular art. It communicates so much about the setting of that game, but ultimately can’t save the game from feeling stale on a macro-thematic level. Perhaps I’m on a thin sliver of the bell curve when it comes to art’s influence over my experience, but I still posit that Scythe is an interesting case study.
Second, some games play with micro-theming in a self-referential, postmodern way that I find endearing. Directly to my left as I type this sit Dungeon Lords and Food Chain Magnate, two games that revel in micro-thematic absurdities. Dungeon Lords contains a rulebook full of silly reasons for why the action spaces resolve the way they do or why, for instance, the heroes invading your dungeon patiently queue outside of the entrance. Food Chain Magnate has billboards that only work on houses directly adjacent to them and gardens that make people spend twice as much for food. I don’t think most games should pave over their micro-thematic inconsistencies with an awareness of their own absurdities, but with these two games it works in service of a greater whole.
I’ve run out of thoughts so I should probably stop writing. I’m curious to hear your comments on these ideas. I think the more we delve into is idea of theme (as fuzzy as that word is), the more we can begin to understand what it is about games that create the experiences we have with them.
A fundamental assumption I’ve maintained as I’ve written on this humble site is that games criticism is a mix of the subjective and objective. We have individual experiences when we play, yes, but those experiences are heavily informed by the structure of the game itself. There’s something about the game that drives us towards the experience we have. Another assumption I’ve maintained is that we’re only at the infancy of board game criticism. Every half-baked, poorly organized diatribe I write up is an effort to push my mind (and hopefully other’s minds) towards a better understanding of the games we love.