Thursday, June 05, 2008

Too Much Theme?

To me, the purpose of theme in rulebooks and game design is to provide a context for the actions you are taking. This makes learning and playing the game easier, and, hopefully, more enjoyable. When mechanics and theme mesh well, you get immersion; what you are doing at the table is somehow analogous to what you are doing in the game's world.

My initial reactions to Race for the Galaxy were not positive. My best explanation was that the game was too complicated for what it was. I like San Juan quite a bit--even more than Puerto Rico--but Race somehow crossed a line. My attempts to explain my attitude in more detail to other gamers were not satisfactory--to them or to myself. Something wasn't right, but I wasn't all that interested in working it out.

One thing I've learned, though, is not to give up on a game too easily. If only one out of five games that I think I dislike is a hidden gem, then it's worth the effort. Did I learn/play it incorrectly? Did I play with the wrong number of players to fully appreciate it? Did some critical aspect of play go unnoticed?

After my first few plays, Maharaja was at the bottom of my game pile, possibly never to be played again. Fortunately, I was in a position years later to really see this game shine. It's now a 10.

So what do I mean by "too much theme"? In this case, I'm referring solely to the game's rules. For me, there was a big disconnect in my ability to associate verb with action, and my mind would not allow me to work just a little harder to get over the hump. Race was supposed to be a light game, after all.

Thematically, exploration is about adding new tiles/areas to the board (eg Lost Valley, Entdecker). Settling is about building villages/bases on already-explored places (eg Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers). Trading is about exchanging resources with other players (eg Settlers of Catan, Traders of Genoa).

In Race, exploration and production are about drawing cards, development and settling are about playing cards, and consumption is about discarding cards for more cards and/or VP's. The complex iconography that supports these actions just added to my mental block. I think the game would be better served by rules that were a little more "mechanical in theme". Reef Encounter could use a similar treatment; its rules read like a marine biology textbook.

After a last-ditch re-read of the rules, I was able to internalize the mental associations between theme and mechanics. From a game play point of view, the theme works well. I just think it doesn't promote a good understanding of the mechanics. The iconography is, in fact, pretty well thought out. The only thing I would change would be to remove the gray background for non-producing worlds, as it serves no purpose. I might also print the titles on the action cards in a much larger size so they can be seen more easily from across the table.

Race is now on my want list. So, a special thanks to all my GeekBuddies, who seem to know me better than I know myself.

Race for the Galaxy image by Rokkr.