Guide • Themes

I think today I’d like to talk a little bit about themes in board games, and address some topical questions I get hit with pretty frequently. I think these questions give me the opportunity to open up a wider dialogue regarding theme in games, the potential values and detriments of one theme over another.

How important is theme to a board game?

This actually really depends… So to best understand this, let’s discuss some elements of game design. There are in essence two layers to many games; and therefore by extension, two ways theme can impact a game. And like so many topics in the world of board games, it’s best interpreted as a matter of form (the theme itself) and function (or the game’s abstract).

Just to begin with; for most players, theme forms the lion share of your perception of your game experience. But underneath the art and trapping lies the abstract of the game. Are you just rolling dice, playing cards, and moving pieces around a board? Or are you a pirate, racing around the Isle of Jamaica? In other media, this principle is called ‘suspension of disbelief,’ and it can be very important to a board game experience. Suspension of disbelief operates at varying levels, and allows us to accept that which we know not to be true when experiencing media. I know that Jedi aren’t really roaming around the galaxy chopping up robots with lightsabers- but for a moment it’s fun to believe. Admittedly suspension of disbelief is micro thin in a board game- but it’s often enough to help keep players feeling invested in the experience itself.

Alternately, you can think of the the theme as the outer shell of a game, and the abstract as the core of the experience. The theme is what helps you put the abstract together in your head. The theme tells me that I can turn one chicken into two food. In this case, that chicken is just a token, and those food are just tokens. They are currencies within the economy of the game. In this case, you are paying the chicken token to get two food tokens- and that makes sense. In this way, theme has the potential to be really good at conveying the mechanisms of a game’s economy; helping players make sense of a given rule set.

The waters here are a bit muddied, because there are some games that don’t really have a theme, and gamers tend to have an especially difficult time with fully abstract games. This so much so that I don’t buy fully abstract games at all anymore, despite the fact that I have a weakness for them myself. People don’t like them. On the flip-side, as far as I can figure though, all games possess some sort of abstract. I think social deduction games like werewolf and pen and paper RPGs like “Dungeons & Dragons” come the closest to just being pure theme, but even they have rules. I think these games are great for folks with active imaginations, or a penchant for theatre. They deserve a fair shake.

What’s the best board game theme?

Believe it or not, this is probably the question I am asked most often… And it’s impossible to answer. No one theme is better than another, so I don’t suggest you target one theme over another when looking for a new game; in point of fact, I actively recommend you avoid that practice. It’s very easy to get sick of a particular theme, and I speak from experience (Pirates). Certain subjects can also create a challenge getting other folks to join you at the table- for instance, I don’t care for zombies all that much, and will generally avoid playing games about them.

So, In the end, my final recommendation is this: Don’t marry yourself to a particular theme. In my thinking, the best practice would be to see a variety of themes represented in your library. I’ve found that it’s often the most unlikely of themes that tend to resonate the most with players- consider the run-away success of the Stonemaier Games title Wingspan… Who would have thought that a game about bird watching would be the one that broke the internet? Mix up the themes in your game library, and always give a second look to games you might not normally go for- It will reward you in the long run.

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