Monday, September 13, 2010

Implementations of Theme

What is it that makes a game have theme? Is it the bits? The box? The images and graphics? If you answered "yes" to any of these, then the theme is in your head. There's nothing wrong with this. I'm sure many gamers would enjoy the most abstract games (eg Risk) even more if the bits were in the shapes of their favorite themes (eg fantasy armies, spaceships, Jedi, etc.).

So when, in fact, is the theme realized in the game play?

You are designing a fantasy-themed game of conflict with fighters and thieves. Fighters deal 4 damage, and thieves deal 2 damage. Thematic, right? Now let's make it about space combat. Heavy starships deal 4 damage, and light deal 2. How about Jedi? Masters deal 4, and apprentices deal 2.

My point is that taking a theme and "abstracting out the numbers" is not really implementing that theme. You are--at best--creating a system that uses theme as metaphor. The systems in the game map to some fictional or real world theme in a way that helps you learn and remember them. The abstracted core could to mapped onto any number of other themes. This leads to the inevitable "pasted on theme" comments. Again, there's nothing wrong with games of this kind.

So what does it really mean to implement a theme? Is it possible to be taught a game using no metaphor, using only abstracted bits, yet have the game play be still unmistakably linked to something so strongly that most players immediately spot the connection? And if so, what designs do this the best?

5 Comments:

At 3:55 AM, Anonymous Shalom Craimer said...

Brilliant questions! Very thought-provoking.

(I wish I had an answer, though.)

 
At 7:55 AM, Anonymous Just a player said...

mr. ekted from SS? no links on your main page to ss/cont? so sad :(

 
At 1:13 PM, Blogger ekted said...

Yes, from SS/PB. Who are you?

 
At 12:06 PM, Blogger Brian Bowling said...

I would argue that the difference between a game with "pasted on" theme and one that actually implements theme is the degree to which knowledge of the theme helps you in playing the game.
To take one of my favorite games as an example, "Dune" doesn't require any knowledge of the book to play the board game and knowing the book doesn't provide any advantage to the player. Ditto for the "A Game of Thrones" board game, "Age of Conan," etc. etc.
With many of the old Avalon Hill and SPI historical war games, on the other hand, knowledge of the actual events each game is based on is a big help in playing even though their base mechanics tend to be the same if not identical.
Where my argument runs into trouble is with games like Illuminati. I consider it to be a strongly implemented theme. While you could change the names of the groups, it's hard to imagine how the game's mechanic would be used for anything other than an Illuminati-type game. On the other hand, knowledge of how real organizations are subverted and either assimilated or destroyed doesn't really help you play the game.

 
At 5:26 PM, Blogger Josh Edwards said...

Very thought provoking. As I read through it, I was trying to think of what would be a good example of a game that uses a theme and to which the game would not be the same and/or would not work without the theme, and the best example I came up with was this: Battlestar Galactica. Not necessarily because of the general flow the game - it is fairly generic and with your example could probably be pasted elsewhere. However, how the traitor (cylon) concept works seemss to be something that leans heavily on the BSG Universe in which you know someone will betray you but you don't know when.

Josh
Board Game Reviews by Josh

 

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