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.


At 4:06 PM, Blogger Seth Jaffee said...

I'm glad to see you came around to rethinking Race for the Galaxy - not because I love the game (I think it's a good 2-player game, but I'd rather not bother with 3 or 4 most of the time), but because of the reasoning that you allude to in this post.

I've heard a lot of people complain about the "complicated" icons, but as you mention they are really pretty well thought out. It took less than 1 game for me, and I expect no more than 1 or 2 games for almost any person to internalize what the icons mean as they are largely self explanatory if you know what all the phases do.

Your description of exploration (adding new tiles/areas to the board), Settling (building villages/bases on already-explored places), and Trading (exchanging resources with other players) is pretty narrow minded... it's true in certain games, but I wouldn't say it's true in general. You imply that those phases aren't thematically consistent in Race...

In the Exploration phase you are looking around, seeing new parts of the board. in a card game, getting more cards in hand, more options of where to settle, is exactly analogous. Settling is building a settlement in an explored area? If the area you've explored is in your hand, then is playing a settlement (world) out of your hand not the same thing? Production of 'stuff' on your settlements represented by cards is exactly the same as San Juan, so any complaint you'd levy here would have to apply there as well - personally I don't see how an upside down card is any different than a colored cube. And Trading in RftG, while not with other players, means getting rid of 'stuff' in exchange for 'resources' - just as in Puerto Rico and San Juan.

I can't disagree with people for not liking games, that's their prerogative. What I can't stand is when people make up ridiculous reasons for things. this is why I'm glad you've come around to giving Race a second look and realizing that those particular complaints aren't really an issue at all. I suspect if you were disliking the game and blaming those complaints, that there was really another reason you didn't like it - whether or not you know what that was.

At 4:09 PM, Blogger ekted said...

Now that I have made the internal association between Explore -> draw cards, etc., it makes sense. But it definitely was a thematic hump that I needed to get over.

At 9:46 AM, Blogger Mark Johnson said...

I agree completely, and I'll add Victory & Honor to the list. That one, RftG, and Reef Encounter are all games that I really enjoy . . . but it took a measure of faith and perseverance to get through the initial plays. Especially if you were the one reading the rulebook. I'm a gamer that really likes theme, likes explaining games in terms of their theme, but these got to be too much.

You're right on the money with the RftG iconography, too. It's great for people who already know how to play the game, but rough on beginners.



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