Tabletop Showdown: Theme vs. Abstraction

Why Theme Matters

I don’t know if you’ve ever played an abstract game; things like Go, Chess, and Checkers, and Hive (pictured below) come to mind. The purpose of these games is not to pretend you are a superhero, a general leading an army, or whatever. It’s solely the puzzle of the game that’s the draw. If you can figure out the potential ways to manipulate the mechanics in your favor, you’ll best your opponent. If not, you’ll lose.

It’s no wonder Chess has been used as a metaphor in everything from Bergman films to Robert Downey Jr.’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. It is a game that can stand for many things: from the clever conflict between two people (Holmes and Moriarty) to the inevitability of death, in Bergman’s case.

Chess is basically a game mechanic without a theme: it’s the raw programming without a user-friendly interface. If you get the programming, the game can be endlessly fascinating; if you don’t, there’s no theme there to help you envision what you’re doing (o.k. maybe capturing the King is a nominal theme).

If you are old enough to have stared down a blinking command prompt awaiting your input, you may have a sense of what approaching a game without a theme is like, in this loose metaphor. The command prompt was the only way to get around the computer; then we got a computer mouse, and a more user-friendly interface, and the rest is history (if my memory serves, that’s how it went).

Theme as a Guide

Hive is abstract; the others are more thematic.
Hive is abstract; the others are more thematic.

Now, a theme may not help someone who isn’t used to complex mechanics grasp a game; but sometimes, it can point them in the right direction. It can also elevate a mechanic, like Yahtzee-style dice rolling into a trip to the nightmare worlds of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, or collecting victory points into building a dragon’s treasure hoard.

Let’s look at a few examples. In Sylvion, mechanically, I’m keeping cards from moving to the last row of a grid, but the theme gives me a clue as to how to win: I’m trying to prevent a bunch of fire elementals from burning down the forest. Most people at know from experience–or at least news reports–that fire reaching trees in a forest is bad.

The fire cards are moving toward the row of trees on the left...
The fire cards are moving toward the row of trees on the left… The cards in between are obstacles or aids to their progress.

Similarly, I may be able to tell someone that Dead of Winter is a game where I need to gather food, fuel, ammo, and so on to survive the zombie apocalypse. Just like The Walking Dead. The theme is that user-friendly program that helps players interact with the mechanics operating under the surface. Players need to manipulate those mechanics to win, but the theme can help them know what is a good strategy.

If players understand the theme, I have an instant connection or “aha” moment with them (assuming they’ve heard of The Walking Dead or some other zombie movie). This is tremendously useful when getting them through the rules. I always lead with what the game is simulating, and then teach the rules.

So, we’ve seen why theme is a great addition to games, but not all themes are created equal. In fact, they introduce a great deal of subjectivity to gaming.

Not All Themes are Created Equal

Just like some people have a favorite User Interface (Android vs. iOS, for example) and programs that run on it (I keep my iPad around because I like the apps), so too do people have favorite themes. Also, most people have some themes that leave them cold.

I wish I could say I’ve never met a theme I didn’t like.

Truth is: I’ve met several. From the scatological to the sarcastic to the bland, games range over a broad section of human experience. Indeed, there seems to be a perennial subgenre of the party games on Kickstarter devoted to emulating the style and success of Cards Against Humanity. (Shut Up and Sit Down does a great review that closely matches my feelings on CAH.)

With so many imaginative and evocative themes to choose from, I’m not sure why I’d gravitate toward the deliberately crude, rude, and lewd. But, I support the right of designers, companies, and players to do as they please.

After all, no one made me the Arbiter of Decency in Games–and I’d refuse the post if there were such a thing. I’d rather vote with my dollars than by enforcing my preferences as some law governing what others may buy.

But, what does interest me is the question: what is the connection between theme and mechanics? Why do some themes work when others fall short? The answer is, as I’ve said, ultimately, subjective, but has some shared elements of reality that we can pick out.

Good Themes

Good Themes are Evocative of Interesting Experiences.

Let me run two hypothetical games by you: in one, you are teacher’s assistants and must grade your way through stacks of students’ papers; you want to finish fastest. In the other, you are excavating the ruins of an ancient civilization with magic artifacts hidden beneath the dirt; you want to find them first.

Both games could theoretically have the same mechanics: working your way through stacks, adding more to other players’ stacks, and so on. Both are evocative of experiences. But, I’d argue that finding magical artifacts beats out grading papers, just from an interest standpoint.

Good Themes are Sensibly Connected to their Gameplay.

One game that I had fun with, yet struggled with accepting the mechanics as integrated with the theme, was the DC Deckbuilding Game. I could beat up the Joker or other villains and put them into my deck, and now they gave me some sort of attack power or other ability.

It wasn’t really clear why. I mean–they wouldn’t willingly help a hero catch other villains, and a hero likely wouldn’t take them out to fight crime. Also, in that game, I got to use powers my hero wouldn’t have had: when I played as Batman, I could use Superman’s heat vision, or something like that.

The mechanics were fun; but, at times, they almost worked against the theme of the game. Theme should help understand the gameplay, not work against that understanding.

Good Themes are Partly in the Background

Now, I believe–as I’ve just said–that a game can betray it’s theme by introducing mechanics that seem to run contrary to that theme.

But, a game can also be hijacked by its theme.

In a survival game, for example, I don’t care that my characters would logically need a latrine–and would need to spend time using it. In Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, it’s surviving the weather, wild animals, volcanoes, and cannibals that is interesting. Digging a toilet pit and spending a game turn sitting on it? Not as much. (Note that the game doesn’t make you spend turns to use the “restroom.”)

Think of the latest action flick (or any other type of movie) for that matter. In most movies, you only see what you need to see to advance the plot. In Mad Max, we don’t learn much about Max other than that he is haunted by some past event that is never described. We know he failed to save some people from their horrible fate, but that’s about it.

We don’t know much about the other lead, Furiosa, either. She has a place she’s from and she’s headed back there. That’s about it.

We assume that they take care of eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, etc. because that’s what people do. We assume they have a past that makes sense and influences their lives today, because that’s what people have.

Similarly with games, it’s the interesting parts that we want to play through. I don’t want it to take lots of time to move from point A to point B on a map, unless that’s the whole point of your game (like Salvation Road on Kickstarter–as of this writing–or Galaxy Trucker on iOS). In those games, the journey plus the collection and delivery of goods is the whole point–even though the challenges along the way are different for each game, in keeping with their respective themes.

In short, if it’s not an integral part of a game’s theme, I shouldn’t have to play through it.

Theme and You

Ultimately, however, theme is in the eye of the beholder. What might be non-essential elements of a theme for some gamers, might be integral for others. Similarly, what might be an overdone theme (zombies, post-apocalyptic, farming, ancient civilizations, dungeon crawls) for lots of people, could still appeal to others.

So, when game shopping, (or if any designers are reading this) it’s worth considering how the game mechanics appeal to you and your game group (or target player demographic).

Or maybe, it’s the puzzle of the game that you’re into, and you can look past the theme, like my friend who enjoys the DC Deckbuilder.

Whatever the case for you, I hope this has helped you think about the ways theme influences what you and others play, so you can maximize your group’s enjoyment of the hobby.


Twitter: @ptboardgames

YouTube: Playthrough Boardgames

2 thoughts on “Tabletop Showdown: Theme vs. Abstraction

  1. Theme is interesting from a design standpoint, too.  I've designed games from different starting points and it always changes things.  It's a nice exercise to start with theme, or start with game mechanics, or even just with art, and see what happens.  All are important, and all will be a part of a successful final game, but it's interesting to see what happens when one drives the others.

    As for what I look for as a player, theme/art is what catches my eye on the shopping rack, but if it's not backed up with solid gameplay, it doesn't matter.

    Great article!

    1. Thanks. Glad you liked it. I could see designing a game as being quite challenging from that standpoint. I’m guessing you have to balance fidelity to the theme with overall playability. But the possibilities seem exciting as well.

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