Friday, December 23, 2005

The Dance of Theme and Mechanics in Games: A Fantasy

Warning: The following blog contains 1686 calories per serving. Serving size is approximately 1 paragraph.

Ava Jarvis is another of the distinguished voices on Boardgamegeek. You probably know her as BilboAtBagEnd.

I hesitate to say that she is one of the distinguished female voices on BGG, because Ava rarely makes an issue of the fact. Her's is the distinguished voice of an experienced gamer. I confess that I no longer pay attention to the "what-game-would-my-wife/girlfriend-like-to-play geeklists", but I think Ava ignores them even more than I do. You will find her making insightful comments on the "best-heavy-abstract-two-player-games-designed-by-Tibetan-monks-and-based-upon-Go geeklists", which, I must confess, I tend to ignore also.

If I were to ever respond to one of those "which-BGGer-would-you-most-want-to-play-with geeklists" Ava would be near the top of my list, and not for a light game either.

At any rate, have a Merry Christmas and heeeeeeeeeere's Ava.

Theme on a game is like icing on a cake: it helps make a cake quite irresistible, usually provides a welcome counterpoint in texture taste compared to what it's covering, and can occasionally save a not very exciting torte. Mechanics, or the cake, must be there. Cake is cake. There may not be a lot, or it may be as thick as a brick, but you need a cake to... have cake. Otherwise icing is merely a moist puddle on the table.

Some people prefer their games with quite a lot of icing, complete sugar masterpieces with little marzipan treasure chests, sugar-spun dragons, and blue-gel lakes. Some people prefer, and even insist upon, a cake with a simple and delicate sugar glazing that barely hides the cake, much less overcomes its flavor. Most of us don't mind either extreme, and are fine with the regular celebratory-cake that is in between.

People can get rather heated up about icing, actually.

"Hey! That cake has barely any on it. How can it be any good? It seems kind of... boring."

"What do you mean barely? Look, there are little *scallops* along the edges, and the berry mixed in really does add something to the taste. It doesn't have to have little sugar meeples to be good, you know."

"That cake is so loaded with icing it makes me sick just looking at it. How can *they* eat it up?"

Perhaps instead of looking at games, I mean cakes, in terms of amount of icing in ratios to amount of cake, we can gain a better understanding of approximately what point people start arguing that an abstract is over-iced, or that a dungeon-crawl is not iced enough...


Moving away from the confectionary comparisons, the issue of theme comes up quite a bit. But for an aspect of games much discussed amongst a population that, in large part, thrives on numbers, theme is a very touchy-feely quality. People usually say, "that theme is pasted on", referring to an actually large range of theme scale points (if such a thing existed). Or else they say, "it drips with theme", while talking about German games. We talk as though a game either has theme or hasn't, as if theme were some afterthought we could just slather on in the right proportions, and the game author either put on too much or too little.

But theme and mechanics dance through many games. Sometimes theme leads, and sometimes mechanics do. Sometimes theme and mechanics both tango together, and sometimes mechanics is left to dance on its own in the spotlight. It all comes down, as in many games, to numbers. And that number is four, and three, and two, and one. I think of them as the four spheres.... although perhaps it's better to think of them as the four points, since they are less locations as milestone markers on the path....

FOUR is the least number of points needed to form a three-dimensional shape: the tetrahedron.

Any less, and you have at best a plane. Three-dimensional shapes are "real" in the sense that they are in our world and we can grasp them, manipulate them in ways that we can easily relate to. Here you find the games that definitely do drip in theme, and few people, if any, would disagree. Typically these are the adventure games of great and sometimes exhaustive detail, for it is detail that brings ideas to life. Magic Realm very firmly anchors this point of the path. Talisman, Descent extend it, and you can see, farther up the path, Return of the Heroes.

In the games that live here, or that exist near here, theme leads the dance, and mechanics serves theme. Suppose that we were to pick the theme of panning for gold in some Lost Valley. Why, there are different kinds of gold in different kinds of locations. Mountain gold would be harder to pick... yes, it would require special equipment that you make out of the raw materials of the land. There will be wild animals and fish, they can be a sort of resource, alongside the timber wood, which you can more effectively chop with special equipment...

In the question of chicken and egg, theme seems to have come first, and the mechanics were chosen to support the theme.

But this is not the only relationship mechanics and theme can have, you'll note as we walk up this path, past small wooden houses and little encounter tiles, until we reach...

THREE is the smallest number of points that describe (and will always describe) a plane.

In terms of three dimensions, planes can be looked upon from many angles, and I think this is why so many arguments can crop up in this area, between Four and Two. What looks flat and linear to one person will look almost tetrahedral to someone else.

But if you look straight on, you'll see the loop. At Three, we find games that effect a peculiar synergy between mechanics and theme. Mechanics and theme inform each other, affect one another. But the mechanics were formed first.

The seminal game here is Lord of the Rings. Like any Knizia, the mechanics are sound and could almost exist by themselves---indeed, they are recognizable variants of mechanics from other games of his. The Hobbit cards people will recognize from Taj Mahal and Ivanhoe. Appropriate card suits---friendship, travel, fighting, hiding, and the Ring as the joker---are used here. But the theme does not stop there. Theme informs mechanics: different scenario boards require different suit focus, yield different rewards, and are harder or easier in particular suits depending on what scene from Tolkien's epic is being played. In Moria, you will need to fight well to get out of Balen's Tomb and out of the mines (and fighting is the main suit that needs to be advanced on that board), but only some well-timed fleeing will get you enough life tokens to stay out of harm's way. Yet fight not enough, and you will not be able to stop the taxing and horrifying events from occurring. Some events you can stop---be well-hidden and far enough through the mines, and you won't fall prey to being trapped between a Balrog and a hard place. But the mechanics don't stop there. Mechanics inform theme: the Hobbits must cooperate, and divide their attentions efficiently in order to get through a scenario. Sacrifices must be identified, judged, and---most importantly---made.

Note that there's actually quite a lot of road between Three and Two. Take a look at Shear Panic. At its heart, it's just another abstract, but the scoring track really shears the theme for all its wool. "Staying close to Roger the Ram" or "Staying as far away from the shearer" carries as much thematic weight in the world of Shear Panic as "making sure that Shelob doesn't attack" does in Lord of the Rings (both game and book).

Not all games between Three and Two are completely coupled to their theme. If we take a look at Richard Breese's Reef Encounter, it is arguable that another theme can be applied. But that theme would have to wedge itself into the conceptual niches of the coral-scoring parrotfish, the protective shrimp, and the breeding and moving corals. You need thematic components that "eat" tiles, protect tiles, and a thematic representation for the tiles themselves that could grow and spawn, and attack overnight in strange stomach-turning ways (yes, I watched Blue Planet's Coral Seas episode, from which this game is based).

I could even have used Tigris & Euphrates as an example, which has a river-valley civilization theme that would need to be quite rudely uprooted and replaced, not just with respect to the leaders and temples, farming and the river, or the marketplaces and flexibility.... but also with respect to the two rivers wending their way on the board.

You'll note that the path is rather crowded here, as we begin to walk into....

TWO points will always form a line.

The idea of "two" is that of balance---duality, Yin and Yang, brother and sister, twins. But balance is a concept that belongs to mechanics---and not to theme. In this area of the path, theme serves mechanics, and there is much less of a relationship between the game and its theme. Mechanics wear themes light around here.

This is not to say that theme is entirely dispensable, and there are undoubtedly quite a few shades of gray between the feedback loop and the flatline.

Around and about here are games like Torres---whose theme of knights and towers is a pleasant decoration of an abstract of height and action point manipulation. But while knights and towers are associated in mind, it's more in the way that a knight and a rook would go together in chess. The relationship of knights and towers to scoring go a bit beyond typical association, although it does help to think in terms of knights controlling higher towers in larger castles as having more worth.

Ra is another example, and more likely closer to the seat of this area: suitable Egyptian objects are used for the sets that we wish to collect, but apart from that, there is not much in the way of Egyptology-orientated meaning. It's nice to have one of each of those monuments, or to have a couple of gods to spend within the current epoch, but another theme involving commonly associated objects could fit in (and did---as the less classy but more modern gangster theme of Razzia! showed, although it would have been nice if more elements from Ra, like the disasters, had also been added in).

The games here could do without theme, but they would be harder to grasp. Associativity, even light associativity, is a wonderful thing for understanding. The towers in Torres have doors that the knights can walk through, and which help express a certain attribute of movement in the game that would otherwise be difficult to describe elegantly. But we understand doors in towers. Likewise, whatever the theme used in Ra, it helps that if we have one set category that comprises eight related but distinct items (like monuments), a set category with a relationship that can be expressed as one-requiring-many (the niles and floods), appropriate disaster examples for a set, etc.

We're starting to reach a rather overly bright bank of light, like a Steven Spielberg special effect gone haywire...

ONE is a single point in anywhere---from one dimension up to as many dimensions as you like.

From one comes the rest---so we may regard this point of the path as belonging to games of pure mechanics, no theme need apply. At the single point, games here need to be elegant and simple, since there is no theme to hang associations upon. The time-honored Chess may actually be considered to be a little bit off from this final location, towards Two: the knight on horse jumps, the rook moves like a siege engine, and the pawns are reminiscent in power and scope like foot soldiers. Games like Hive would be in a similar position.

But with the simplest of games---such as Go or the games in the GIPF family---there is no theme between you and the game. There does not need to be: in this sphere (and this place may, perhaps, truly be thought of as a sphere, a much more localized and polarized point), the mechanics can become almost like theme, or perhaps they are theme. Go is often thought of, written of, and played like military formations and movements, with tactics that sometimes seem straight out of The Art of War. YINSH is often described as feeling "highly energetic"---a much different feeling, brought out by its mechanics, than the methodical pushing that is GIPF itself, or the harried race-the-clock flipping of TAMSK.

One question occurs: If mechanics are theme, then are theme mechanics?

And here endeth the tale. I'm glad you made it all the way through, and hope you enjoyed it, or were at least a little bit amused.



Joe Gola said...


Speaking of the Gipf Project and theme, I'm amazed at how these black-and-white abstracts each have their own distinct feel to them, for me perhaps more so than games which try harder to approximate a real-world experience. The way the different forces and pressures interact with each other within the games create six different gestalts. Gipf to me is studious but mysterious, with slow massings of forces and surprising outcomes, and the rhythm of the game is that of waves that build and break. Tamsk is like a prison escape, with stops and starts, sprints and hushed pauses, blind alleys and mad runs to freedom. Zertz is a nasty game of traps and trickery—not Othello but Iago. Dvonn is a game of subtle, indirect potentiality crystalizing into an outcome. Yinsh is wild and wooly yet somehow constricted, like a knife fight in a phone booth. Punct is a nonchalant creeping up to a shoving match, something like sumo wrestling where players try to get just that one extra bit of leverage to send their opponent toppling.

I think that within the circle there is a game for every personality type, and it's telling that if you ask a group of fans of the series which is their favorite game, the responses tend to be distributed evenly between five of the six (Tamsk gets a bum rap, I think).

Anyway, I think it's interesting that the more you try to make a game like real life, the more messy and unpredictable it must become.

Anonymous said...

First a minor nit. Three lines don't define a plane if they are colinear.

Next, a hearty thank you for a very interesting way to conceptualize the everpresent relationship of theme to mechanics.

I am a cake man myself and will admire the icing, but tend to ignore it completely while playing the game. No amount of icing will save a flawed game, but barely smeared on icing is appreciated if it will snare an unwary potential gamer in its grasp long enough for them to enjoy the cake.

Interestingly, this preference carries over to real life in that I gravitate towards cake with little or no icing. (Except for German Chocolate, must have lots of coconut!)