Friday, September 01, 2006

Theme Delivery Systems and the Unconscious Imagination

How’s that for a pretentious title?

I usually check the Best of Boardgames website ( every week to see what others in the hobby are saying. I noticed that two of the latest recommended writers had a bit to say about theme in games. I’m interested in theme for a variety of reasons, and so I’ve decided to throw in my two cents on this topic.

Anthony Simons has an essay about the relationship between theme and gaming mechanisms. Mr. Simons believes that theme must precede game development, and that mechanisms should evolve from the theme. He quotes Reiner Knizia as saying that theme comes first. This is surprising to me because some of Mr. Knizia’s games seem to be thinly-themed. But if a designer as prominent as Mr. Knizia thinks that theme is paramount, I take that as an indication that some mighty smart people believe that many games are really theme delivery systems.

Before we go any further, maybe I should define what I mean by theme. (Chris Farrell scolded me for not defining what I meant by a wargame-euro hybrid in my blog on that subject, and I think he made a valid point). I think of theme as the subject matter of the game. But this subject matter must relate to some separate reality in the real world or in some imaginary world. The more that aspects and mechanisms of the game embody the subject matter, the more richly themed a game is. The more that the aspects and mechanisms of the game reflect nothing but themselves, the more abstract we say the game is.

For example, Go may be one of the most important games of all time, but it is almost entirely an abstract game. Go may have started out as a simulation of warfare, but now we regard Go as merely a stone-placing game, a game that is about nothing but itself.

Contrast this with War of the Ring, a game about Tolkien’s fictional world of Middle Earth. The world that War of the Ring simulates may be a fantasy land that never existed anywhere except in the pages of Tolkien’s books, but it is a very detailed world that the game goes to great lengths to simulate. War of the Ring is very much a theme delivery system. Even gamers who don’t particularly enjoy War of the Ring often acknowledge that it does a good job of simulating the political and military conflicts of Tolkien’s world.

Note that being richly themed or thinly-themed has nothing to do with the overall quality of the game. Chess, Go, and poker are all thinly-themed games that will probably be popular for as long as mankind continues to play games. And a game may be richly themed but still be a lousy game. Or the theme may be shoe-horned into a game whose mechanisms may have little to do with the subject matter (Lord of the Rings Monopoly, Pirates of the Caribbean Monopoly). Or the subject matter may be of such little consequence that it adds little to the game’s appeal. I think Bean Trader is a decent light game, but I doubt that anyone plays it because they are dying to recreate the real-life excitement of bean-trading.

I believe that theme matters in games because players like to use their imaginations to participate in the worlds that games simulate. In a richly-themed game, we project ourselves into the game’s world in much the same way that we enter the world of a novel when we read it.

But I suspect that the gamer’s imagination is participating at a less conscious level than a reader’s imagination. When I read a good novel, I create the scenes of the story in my mind; I see the characters and hear their words. I am very conscious of the fact that my imagination is participating in the creation of the novel’s world.

But the process is somewhat different when I play a game. If I play Arkham Horror, and my character is attacked by an Elder Thing, I don’t picture the character firing his pistol at an alien horror in the streets of a New England town. I look at the abilities of the monster on the game piece, and then I calculate if my character should fight or flee. My conscious mind is more concerned with the odds of success than with imaginary participation in the action that the game is simulating. It may seem that theme in a game just doesn’t work on me in the same powerful direct way that a novel can.

But I don’t believe that my imagination is asleep just because my conscious mind is more concerned with strategies and plans than with vivid images of imaginary actions. Somewhere in my subconscious, my imagination is having a ball pretending to battle a Lovecraftian horror in a street lit by gunfire and forked lightning. Our imaginations want a chance to play, and if we give them the raw materials, they will snatch them like a starving dog spotting a discarded Big Mac. An observer watching a group of serious boardgamers may note that they look a lot more sedate than a group of goofy roleplayers who use silly accents to speak in character, and who swing their arms as if holding invisible swords. But I suspect that the imaginations of many boardgamers are no less active than those of the flamboyant roleplayers.

I have no solid proof of any of this, of course. And I am not a psychologist. But I think there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence that my thesis is true. For one thing, theme makes a difference in game sales. Why else would Lord of the Rings Monopoly even exist? If the essential game mechanisms are the same as original Monopoly, why would gamers be willing to buy a clone with a tacked-on theme unless their imaginations are so desperate to play that they value even a superimposed theme. Why would many gamers be willing to master complex sets of rules when there are so many wonderful easy-to-master games available? Isn’t it because some themes require complex rules, and gamers are willing to pay the price of complexity to get the themes they want?

Why would gamers buy the genre of game that seems the driest, most complex, and least visually interesting of all the subgroups of games? I am referring of course to wargames. Wargames are almost always heavily-themed games because they usually try to simulate a very specific conflict. But the level of complexity that exists in the wargame genre can often give a euro-gamer nightmares. Decision Games has just released their remake of the old SPI game War in the Pacific. This is a game that comes with seven maps and nearly 9000 pieces. I suspect that playing it would feel like fighting World War II in real time. Would any gamer attempt to play this monster if his imagination were not engaged on some level?

In the Sam Shepard movie Fool for Love the old coot played by Harry Dean Stanton announces that “I am married to Barbara Mandrell in my mind.” I suspect that many players of War in the Pacific are Admiral Nimitz or Admiral Yamamoto in their minds.

So who was the other writer recommended by Best of Board Games who touched on theme? It was Mike Siggins in his Gamer’s Notebook article for Mr. Siggins shares my opinion of Arkham Horror although he probably expresses it with greater clarity than I could. Mr. Siggins notes that the game often resembles an inter-dimensional game of “Whack-a-Mole.” He also notes the overly-long playing time and problems with the end of the game. But despite these and other criticisms, Mr. Siggins feels the game redeems itself (at least partially) with a strong theme.

Yes, for many or most of us theme is the key. Brilliantly designed gaming mechanisms may help us love a game once we have it in our hands, but we wait with eager anticipation to receive the latest railroad game, or Civil War game, or World War II tactical slugfest. No one ever sat impatiently waiting for the mailman to deliver the latest innovation in card drafting or a new twist on the area majority mechanism.

Sure, you can claim that you play games solely as a test of skill or as an exercise in inter-active history. And you may push those cardboard chits across the hexmap in stony silence without a hint of emotion showing. But in your subconscious, you hear the rumble of panzer treads or the thunder of a cavalry charge.

As do I.


Jack said...

So Dr. Knizia says theme comes first? Interesting, since his games are, on some occasions (I'm thinking T & E here), tenuously themed.

I've tried to develop games theme-first and mechanics-first. My mechanics-first game is now available, my four theme-first games have not really got out of the early stages of development, as I keep changing the mechanics!

I'm developing a new game now where I thought of the theme and the mechanics simultaneously. I'll be intrigued to find out how that one goes.

Jon Oetting said...

"No one ever sat impatiently waiting for the mailman to deliver the latest innovation in card drafting or a new twist on the area majority mechanism."

Actually, I think there may be such people, judging by some of the posts at BGG and certain blogs. That's just fine, but don't count me among them! I consider playing a game as much about immersing myself in the experience as it is a test of my intellect.

Thanks for another interesting post Kris.

Dave Wilson said...

I actually believe Dr. Knizia when he says his games begin with theme. My theory (and really it's more of a hypothesis, with no hard supporting evidence) is he does start with a theme, but being a mathematician, he processes the theme through myriad forms of multivariable calculus (usually required to support his bizarre scoring processes :-) ) until it is nearly unrecognizable. The derivative of ancient Mesopotamia, over time, equals Tigris & Euphrates. Integrating over the islands of Japan equals Samurai.

Just my opinion, of course.

Fellonmyhead said...

So Dr. Knizia says theme comes first? Interesting, since his games are, on some occasions (I'm thinking T & E here), tenuously themed.

I have to admit I may have paraphrased the quote slightly; it was from his interview on Geekspeak, (I wrote it from memory - my apologies if it was not quite an accurate quote). Dr Knizia's main point was that he envisages the theme and develops the mechanisms from that. The particular case discussed was - almost ironically - E&T!

If I recall correctly, he also mentioned his designs tend to result in a game which looks like an abstract, despite working to a theme.

Gerald McD said...

Since I only purchase games for 6 or 7 players these days, there are few "good" games available to me that do not have themes (I don't buy party games). I'm not aware of any abstract games for that many players. This is fine with me, because I strongly prefer themed games. Coming from an old wargaming background, that is not surprising.

Certainly, some games have the theme well-incorporated, while others may use a background and some art, but do not really involve the theme in the game. I very much prefer games that manage to work the theme intricately into the play of the game.

Nice article. Looking forward to more from you.

Anonymous said...

You say Go is completely abstract, having nothing to do with war, yet I've read many Go commentaries that are completely evocative of war.

Until I read this post, I didn't think of the distinction, but I think you're confusing decoration and theme.

In either case, I think you're right that our imaginations take over, even as we analyze each turn.

Vitas Povilaitis

huzonfirst said...

An interesting and well written article, Kris. I think most of your points are good ones, I'm just not sure of all the absolutes.

First off, to Anthony, you got Knizia's quote right. I've seen it in several places.

But I disagree that theme HAS to come first in a game. Alan Moon was quoted as saying that in some of his games, the theme came first and sometimes the mechanics, and he's one of the most successful designers in the world. I'm sure you could find quite a few other designers who would say the same thing.

And as for people who breathlessly wait on a game due to its mechanics, well, that would be me (at least sometimes). For example, when San Marco was announced, what excited me was the use of the "pie splitting" rule, not the fact that it was set in Renaissance Venice. Now the setting is a good one that adds to the game's charm and even lends itself to some of the mechanics, but it's those mechanics that keep us coming back, not its theme. Similarly, Puerto Rico's appeal came from its role selecting mechanic, not its island setting.

Mind you, I usually need a theme to enjoy a game. But its importance to me is that it makes it easier for the designer to add additional and more varied mechanics, since the theme makes it easier for the players to absorb this added complexity. When a game has strong mechanics that strongly tie into its theme, like in Tikal, then I'm in pig heaven. But even a surface theme is usually enough for me to enjoy a game.

Anonymous said...

Good article, Kris! I certainly agree with you regarding game theme. Wargames would not be compelling unless one has an can you play, say, a Tractor factory scenario in Stalingrad and not get the strong feeling there is a titanic, dangerous struggle going on?

A good themed game also makes for a fun game in terms of table-talk, etc. Arkham Horror will always be a bigger hit in my group than Caylus, mostly because we can have a more social time (Aeiii! The Gug just chewed his head off!) instead of engaging in quiet analysis.

Im developing a theory that former RPGers might prefer strong themes more often than eurogamers without that sort of background. The discourse of heavy, serious eurogamers I know is quite different than myself and my friends that have gamed extensively before eurogames really existed as we know them.

wargamer66 on BGG

David Bofinger said...

According to go's traditional creation story, the original theme was not warfare but irrigation. Imagine raised fields with drainage channels between, and who blocks the channel controls the flow of water.