I’ve been thinking quite a bit about theme lately. We have reviewed quite a few games so far on the podcast, and I’m always the one who cares the most about the theme, but I don’t think that I’ve quite articulated exactly why I feel the way I do.
To me the theme of a game has the fantastic opportunity to make me feel something. I’ve heard that in sales and in writing that the ultimate goal is to make your audience “feel” or “care” about the product/writing, and I think that a board game is no different. I understand completely that different types of games will feel differently and care differently about various games, mechanics, and themes. This post is simply how I perceive theme.
1. The Theme Must Matter!
This is the big one for me. If you have a Lovecraftian game, the theme has to be important to the game. It has to be a part of the experience besides just the names of cards and locations. There has to be a sense of mystery and danger. There has to be some kind of Sanity mechanic and a consequence for loosing all of it. There has to be a sense of good and evil and an impending DOOM! If not, the art and the names aren’t going to be enough to make it feel like a Lovecraftian horror.
If you put the King in Yellow on a card and that card doesn’t feel like a King in Yellow card, you’ve likely lost me. The game might be fun, but I’ll likely be thinking too much about what the game could have been if the theme really mattered to really enjoy it.
2. The Theme isn’t the Most Important Thing!
The game should still be good without a theme or by changing the theme. If it is not, it will never be great with a fantastic theme that fits into the rest of my list. The theme will elevate a good game, but it will not help a mediocre game become good. Let’s use Monopoly as an example. No matter what theme gets slapped onto the box, the game has never gotten any better, ever.
But somehow, for me at least, Solar Quest transcends the Monopoly mold by making the theme mean something. Your pieces are spaceships traversing our galaxy buying up planets and moons. You need fuel to fly your ship. You have to get a certain roll on the dice or the gravity of the planet will prevent you from leaving orbit. Oh, and lasers!
3. The Theme must Resonate with the Mechanics and with the Players
This is one of the most important aspects of theme that I cannot stress enough. What I mean is that when you have a creature, a vampire for example, in a game, the mechanics, art, gameplay, and feel of that creature must meet the players expectation of a vampire in some way. Better yet, in every way.
Wizards of the Coast has mastered this aspect of theme over the years with Magic: The Gathering. In the early stages, several of the art for creatures would show a creature with wings, but the card would not have the ability to fly (or vice versa). As much as they tried to point out that the art didn’t matter to the game play, players would constantly play the card incorrectly and complain about the disconnect.
A piece of theme resonates when the component meets the player’s expectations in some way, or surprises them in a pleasant way. Magic: the Gathering, whether doing a top-down design (theme first) or a bottom up design (mechanics first) does a fantastic job making the theme and mechanics resonate.
To illustrate, consider the card Dromoka, the Eternal.
Wizards doesn’t normally have dragons that aren’t red, but this set deals with dragons of all colors. Wizards, in making this card, wanted the card to feel both white and green, to feel like a dragon, to be distinct from a traditional red dragon, and above all to be a great card. If games designers put that much effort on single cards, I would have far less to complain about.
One game that fails miserable at this is Nightfall, a game oozing with theme. The problem is that the monster types rarely matter at all, and the game boils down to colors. You never have to see if someone played a vampire. You only care if they played a card that had a blue or yellow circle on the card. Some of the cards have a bit of mechanical resonance, but overall, the game does not “feel” right to me.
Another way resonance is important is that it can help players learn and teach the game. If I were to tell a new player that vampires can only be played at night, they instantly understand and will likely remember the rule. It makes sense. Creatures with large wings fly. Traveling by plane gets you long distances faster than by car.
Another example has to do with Binoculars as an item in a game. Mechanically, the binoculars could do whatever the designer wanted them to, but if the designer wanted the card to resonate with the players, he or she should consider what the players might expect from binoculars. In one game, the binoculars card helped you evade threats, which seems reasonable as you can see said threat coming sooner. The problem is that this game also had a search mechanic, and in my head, the binoculars should have been tied to that mechanic, and it always felt off to me.
4. The theme must enhance the game play!
This might be the same thing as resonance, but I guess I can’t stress it enough. The theme must enhance the gameplay and never get in the way. Kingsport Festival is a new Lovecraftian themed game, just dripping with theme, but after finally playing the game, the theme just felt flat to me.
In Kingsport Festival, you play a cultist enlisting the help of creatures and gods of the mythos to win the game. Seems reasonable enough, but in the end it boils down to points—cult points. To get said arbitrary cult points, you accumulate cubes that represent evil, death, and destruction, but are just resources. I’m still confused about the theme of these cubes. Do they represent how evil you are? Do they represent how much destruction you can cause? Unclear. And to make this worse, you use these cubes of evil, death, and destruction to move your influence marker into buildings within the city. Am I spreading death and destruction? Not really. I’m not destroying the building. I’m gaining a new ability by being there.
These disconnects don’t really get in the way of the game play, but the game just does not resonate with me. I love Lovcraftian games, but in this one, the theme failed me. I’m a cultist vying against other cultist to be the one with the most cult points. Does that make me the most evil cultist? Or the most successful cultist? Does Cthulhu or Azathoth rise and devour me first for my achievements? Nope. I just win.
Adam Kazimierczak in a thread on Board Game Geek sums it up well: “It’s hard to cubify evil without losing something in translation.”
5. Strapping on a loose theme will not make your game better (though it might make it sell better)
It seems tempting to paste Zombies or Cthulhu onto a game and feel like you have something that will resonate with players. In my case, though, if you do it sloppily, you will get the opposite effect from what you intended.
If your game doesn’t care about theme, I’d consider avoiding a theme that already has excellent games that have done justice to the theme, like what Dead of Winter is for Zombie survival and what Eldrich Horror is for Lovcraftian horror. If your game can’t compete with resonance, get out of the icky green sludge.