Monday, August 07, 2006

Theme Redux

We all have our favorite themes in games. Whether it's fantasy, science fiction, World War II, the Italian Renaissance, trains, building cities, shipping goods, ancient Egypt, or medieval Europe, playing games that evoke events and imagery from books, movies, and historic periods helps create the setting, the mood, and the slow of the game.

If you love fantasy, you will be much more likely to enjoy "swinging your sword at the dragon" rather than "rolling the die to see if you get to remove the red cube"--even if they are mechanically the same. The theme helps you to keep the sequence of play in mind. It helps to put all the actions and events into a complete whole. And it certainly can help the designer figure out if the mechanics "make sense", and suggest possible additional ideas. But I have to say it...

All Themes Are Pasted On

Every game, no matter how "thematic" you think it is, has a pasted on theme. By this I do not mean that it was designed as an abstract with the theme added later. I mean that the theme is simply a veneer covering what is essentially a set of completely abstract concepts.

I support this notion as follows. Take any game you think has a theme. Remove all imagery. Make all maps point-to-point with lines showing connectivity. All named components become A's, B's, and C's. All shaped components become cubes and discs. All concepts, actions, and events get described in generic and mathematical terms.

Now teach this game to someone who has never played it, and ask them what the game is about. Sure, they can say the game has conflict, or trading, or auctions, or pick-up-and-deliver. But can they honestly say the game evokes anything about the Battle of the Bulge, or Italy, or ancient Egypt? Of course not.

I'm sure some of you are now thinking, "Well, you just removed the theme. Of course it has no theme now!" That is my point. If you can strip away the theme and still play exactly the same game without even knowing what it's about, then the theme is essentially meaningless, other than for your pretense. For a theme not to be pasted on, the mechanics themselves would have to evoke the specific context of the game's design and intent. I have never seen a game with this property.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't talk about theme, but please, let's not pretend it's anything more than a facade. If you like games with rich themes, fine. So do I, sometimes. But when you put down a game for having less theme than yours, do not forget how shallow a thing it is you bear.

[Die Dolmengötter image by GeoMan.]


At 8:43 PM, Blogger Jon said...

Do not forget that the main reason that theme is in a game is to help make the mechanisms of the game cohesive.

At 9:19 PM, Blogger Naturelich said...

Die Dolmengötter is a wonderful example of a somewhat pasted on theme. There is a grid that's used to place "the round tiles" in somewhat symmetrical spots. There is also these bigger cubes used to gain some points. Many people have complained about this game's graphic design as it is really abstract.

But you have a point in saying that the rules and the flow of the game are much easier to understand once you have the Die Dolmengötter theme.

Thurn und Taxis is a similar example. You could have done this game in a more abstract design like Die Dolmengötter. Would TuT have been as successful as it is now? I guess not...

At 9:42 PM, Anonymous Greg Aleknevicus said...

I agree with your general premise but not your absolute declaration. As a counter-example, I believe that En Garde (Duell) by Knizia reveals itself as a fencing match even when stripped to its mechanisms.

At 10:18 PM, Blogger ekted said...

I don't know the game, but I'll assume that other than a direct hit, you can win by pushing the opponent off the mat? How is this different from tug-of-war or the Grail/Excalibur quests of Shadows Over Camelot?

At 11:11 PM, Anonymous Greg Aleknevicus said...

Yes, you can win a point by pushing your opponent off the mat. (Technically, what happens is that you leave them with no option but to move off on their turn.)

I'd say that, while there are similarities, the differences between En Garde and the SoC subgames are significant. Most obvious is the fact that there are two "positions" in En Garde (the fencers) and it's the distance between the two that is of utmost importance, not their absolute position.

While it's possible to win a round by advancing further across the board than your opponent, it really feels nothing like a game of tug-o-war. En Garde is not about mindlessly moving closer to your enemy (the games you cite ARE), but about positioning.

At 9:06 AM, Blogger Fellonmyhead said...

All Themes Are Pasted On

I almost completely disagree; one could as easily argue that if you strip away the mechanisms then all you are left with is a theme. Does that not imply all mechanisms are "pasted on"?

Theme and mechanisms have never really been directly related essentially; one is merely a means of modelling the other. That's the main reason I find any "pasted on" statement to be unacceptable.

There are similar real-life examples to support this philosophy; for example whales have hearts, lungs, a spine and are warm blooded; however they are not human despite the basic "model" being the same.

At 11:39 AM, Blogger hibikir said...

There might be a good way of disagreeing with ekted's point, but fellon, your arguments are not it.

A game is defined by a set of rules. If two games have the same rules, there's little point in arguing they are different games. Removing the mechanics of a game means that you don't have a game anymore: you might have a setting or a story, but you need a very broad definition of a game to claim that 'german elections' is a game.

In the same manner, your whale example is rather weak. A whale and a human are the same in the same way as Tikal and Torres are the same: they both use action points and pieces.

If you wanted to make a somewhat defensible counter-argument, you could go for the gaming experience angle: To many people, a game without a theme, or with a theme that doesn't make any sense, is just not enjoyable. Thus, changing a theme, or removing a theme, changes the nature of the game for some people.

At 4:39 PM, Blogger Jason Little said...

I definitely agree with the veneer analogy, and to some degree, feel that themese are fairly interchangeable. However, there are some games that by the nature of their very mechanics, scream to me of a different theme than the one supplied... Examples include Bridges of Shangri-La (feels like a virus/cancer working through a person's body) or Australia (the "aggressive conservation" feels so patently wrong) ...

The right theme does add a sense of cohesion to the game elements and mechanics. But the wrong theme can be fairly jarring.

At 3:50 AM, Blogger Fellonmyhead said...


In the same manner, your whale example is rather weak. A whale and a human are the same in the same way as Tikal and Torres are the same: they both use action points and pieces.

This whale example is not supportng a counter-argument, but refuting an existing argument. And your (slightly inaccurate) comparison with the Torres-Tikal relation only goes further to support this refutation.

What I am saying is if you take anything and break it down it becomes unrecognisable as it's whole. From your response I think you missed that.

Regardless of what Ekted professes this is all about cause and effect; if I take the theme of excavation from Tikal and try to introduce the mechanisms from Torres it clearly won't work; yet if I take the model from, say, Web of Power and add the theme of China then clearly it does (although some elements and mechanisms had to be changed in the model to make it work).

Yes, themes are often like a veneer, but to argue they are "pasted on" using this as a basis does not work when one goes on to redefine "pasted on" as having nothing to do with which came first.

To me, your gaming experience argument seems weaker in this context; whether or not you feel theme adds to the gaming experience has nothing to do with whether or not it was "pasted on".

Further to this, I stated I almost completely disagree because much of what Ekted says is true of many games - strip away the theme and you will have something unidentifiable; however I'd like to see anybody try it with a game in which the theme is inexorably tied to the mechanisms - such as Once Upon a Time. One would at least need to provide an alternate theme for this to work (you cannot tell a story in abstract); so the statement "All themes are pasted on" is clearly untrue.

At 9:37 AM, Blogger ekted said...

Finally, some good discussion! :)

At 4:44 PM, Anonymous Strabo said...

"But can they honestly say the game evokes anything about the Battle of the Bulge, or Italy, or ancient Egypt?"

Yes, yes you can. Try playing ASL. Or Warhammer.

You are correct that the vast, vast, majority of eurogamer don't have themes strong enough for you to do this.

At 4:51 PM, Blogger ekted said...

Wargames may feel like wargames when stripped of theme, but you will not be able to tell what battle it is. I do play ASL.

At 9:16 PM, Blogger Gerald McD said...

I prefer thematic games to clean abstracts, although many games I enjoy are very obviously abstracts with make-up and fancy clothes. Nevertheless, I probably would not have purchased those games, if they did not have the neat artwork and other trappings of the theme.

Having enjoyed wargaming in the past, I found the theme to be the motivating force for my purchase and play of the game. Tactics II had wargame mechanics and a theme of sorts, but the quality of the theme of that game could not compare to that of Wooden Ships & Iron Men.

I no longer play wargames, but most likely from that previous experience, I developed a preference for thematic games. I do not care whether the theme pushes the game to more of a simulation, like a wargame, or whether it just presents an attractive board and nice bits. I thoroughly enjoy the theme of Princes of Florence, Around the World in 80 Days, and similar games. Are these games just mechanics with fancy covers? Yes, but so what? You can almost always buy generic things, but it's the "theme" or fancy features (sometimes completely unnecessary) that sells the non-generic items at a higher price and a higher quantity.

Nice observations, Jim. Created some good discussion.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Ryan Walberg said...

Dunno how Bloglines missed this post for me, but I'm glad I found it. Good points, and I agree 100%.

At 1:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At heart this is an argument of definitions. One says that the definition of a "game" is explicitly mathemtical and the other says that the definition of a "game" is explicitly subjective/experiential. There are also some mid-points between the two, but that is the primary tension in the definition spectra: Mathmatic definition vs perception description.

I don't believe that this dispute can be resolved without defining an additional term which is currently missing(?) from the lexicon. A term for potentially competitive subjective experiences. I don't know of a convenient noun for that. Do you?

Meanwhile I stay with games being defined as systems of goals, barriers to those goals, and abilities able to be used in pursuit of those goals.

At 2:21 AM, Anonymous blindspot said...

The sentence "All themes are pasted on" is incomplete.

The complete sentence, in all of its redundant and obvious pointlessnes, should be:

"ALL themes of real life systems are pasted onto abstract games."

It's a true statement because all games are, by their nature, sets of abstract concepts. They can be, and most often are, inspired by real systems, but once they are games, they are abstract and not the real system. Thus any attempt to relate them to their inspiring real system results in a pasting on of a thin cover (veneer) that we call theme.

All games have their themes pasted on. So then it is meaningless to attempt to a distinguish any game by saying that its theme has been pasted on.

At 8:31 AM, Anonymous DarrellKH said...

I'm in the same camp with Greg A. - "I agree with your general premise but not your absolute declaration."

I agree with your premise, except in that case where the game mechanics model physics.

Two examples come to mind. The first is the tactical battle module in SPI's Battlefleet Mars. Here you have a representation of Newtonian movement within a 3-dimensional grid. After observing the behavior of objects retaining inertia, applying new force vectors to alter current vectors in the expected, Newtonian way across 3 sets of spatial coordinates, it would be obvious to anyone familiar with Newtonian motion exactly what the model represents.

Second case in point - SPI's Air War, for essentially the same reasons. Although an altitude marker (that you would presumably call the X marker) represents the third dimension, the rules of movement permitting the bleeding off of velocity, the rules handling the loss of movement and subsequent loss of control (stall), would be just a few of the indicators that would make it pretty clear just what was being modelled.

I believe one could formulate an equation to express the relationship of theme and game mechanics, and I have little doubt just what one would find as a result of that equation - that the closer the rules come to express the laws of physics (i.e., the more the game becomes a "simulation"), the more insignificant the degree of abstraction, and the more the "theme" becomes integral to the model. Perhaps your own experiences with games have not touched upon the more complex conflict simulations, and so this aspect did not occur to you.


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