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.]