Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Today's Theme is Theme

The theme of a game is the basic concept which unites the mechanics and pieces of the game into a single representative whole. Many games do not require a theme to provide a logical reason for the moves such as Go, Checkers, Chess, Blokus and the GIPF series of games. Their rules are simple and their objective is clear but their options for play are so varied that it can take years to master (such as Go).

Why, then, do so many people demand that a game have a deep theme that immerses them in another place or time? There are many strategy/Euro-games that have simple rules with well-defined objectives which are basically abstract games but have had a theme added which adds flavor and fun to the game.

I have often heard that Through the Desert is “dry” and the theme is “pasted on”. Would the game then be better as a purely abstract game with no basis in reality? Could we place a wooden marker on most of the starred spaces on the board and declare that you win points for placing one of your pieces adjacent to it, then place randomly chosen chits of varying values on spots on the board stating that you can pick these up when you place one of your pieces on it? I don’t think it would be as popular as the oasis trees and the watering hole chits but the game play would be the same. If the theme is pasted on, it was done with a creative and colorful brush.

Let’s look at Torres, another game which has a pasted on theme. There are no beautifully crafted miniatures representing the King and Knights so the game takes on the appearance of being totally abstract. Do we need a logical reason why a group of blocks are to be built no higher than they are wide any more than we need to know why the Bishop in Chess can only move diagonally? No, but it does add something to the game play so why ignore a brilliant game simply because you cannot immerse yourself in the trials of your Knights?

Some games do require a theme, however thin, which will not just add to the atmosphere of the game but help to make sense of the rules themselves. Games like Reef Encounter, Vinci and Capitol need the theme to hold the rules together but does that theme immerse you in the time and place? I doubt it but I also doubt that the game would sell without it.

I hate to hear “it’s a good game but the theme is pasted on” as if that’s a bad thing and detracts from the game play itself. For myself, I don’t care if I’m playing the part of a King, a merchant, a pirate or a disgruntled postal worker; it’s how the game plays that counts. The next time you think that a game’s theme isn’t rich enough or doesn’t make you want to speak with a funny accent, think what it would be like with no theme at all.

A couple weeks ago I saw someone on BGG asking if there are any gamers in the Rapid City area so I contacted Jeremy Likens and planned a game night with him and Mike on a day when both Richard and Cori would be home, Dec. 4th. Late in the morning of that day I received a phone call from Mike who told me he and Teresa wouldn’t be able to come because he’d just become a father that morning. How’s that for a good reason to miss a game night? Congratulations to Mike and Teresa, and welcome to the gaming world, Brin.

Jeremy had requested several games that he’d like to try so the four of us sat down to Stephenson’s Rocket. I’d only played it a couple of times and that was a while ago so we were on pretty even footing as to strategy. Jeremy started with the Blue line and collecting city tokens, Cori quickly moved the Green to merge with Orange, Richard concentrated on Purple’s southward movement taking over any lines in the way, and I took the Yellow in the southeast and the Grey in the north. Being the first game for Jeremy and Cori, we really didn’t concentrate on the veto very much, which I’m sure is not a good idea in a cutthroat game, so we all pretty much did as we wanted most of the time, feeling out how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. As the game progressed, Purple ate up everything in it’s path and earning Richard and I money for 1st and 2nd place stations, respectively. Blue also did well, meandering to cities so Jeremy could earn money for his goods tokens, and picking off the Yellow and Grey lines in the process. When the final merger saw Blue gobble up Purple, the majority of the shares fell to me. Jeremy’s majority in most of the goods was not enough to give him the win and my majority of shares fell short of what I needed to beat Richard who had made considerable money from his stations during the game.

As we were finishing up SR, Cori’s friend, Melissa, showed up so when the game was over, we sent Richard for pizza while the 4 of us played Through the Desert, another game Jeremy had wanted to try. The only Euro-game Melissa has played is Settlers but TtD is an easy game to teach and play so there were very few questions or misunderstandings. Everyone played well and there was plenty of nastiness, which I don’t often see with the new players I’ve taught. The game end was close but I just can’t remember if Cori won or I did.

We were just setting up Taj Mahal when my son, Chris, arrived after a fun day of snow-boarding and with a bump on his head. Ah, the joys of winter sports. So we dealt in another hand and I proceeded with the rules explanation, which I thought I did pretty well. Keep in mind that the only game of TM I’ve played is an online one where the interface makes sure the rules are followed so you take it for granted. We spent a lot of time going over nuances of the rules and re-explaining how the different items work but in the end we all agreed that this was a game we’d like to play again. The scores were very close, especially since 4 of the players had never played before. I squeaked in the win with 35, Jeremy close on my heels with 33, Cori right behind him with 31, followed closely by Melissa with 29 and Chris with 27.
Until next time remember: only the mediocre are always at their best.



ekted said...

I can vouch for the fact that playing lots of games online makes one "rules stupid". You just let the server handle all the fiddly stuff, and take your turn. Even with games I know well online, the first time I played them face-to-face, I had to comb the rules for setup, and other small stuff: Medina, Ra, Meuterer, St Petersburg, etc.

huzonfirst said...

The Disgruntled Postal Worker Game??!! Brilliant! Double your salary, Weisbeck!

Coldfoot said...

Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.

Rick said...

Mary, I'm disappointed. Torres has a very rich and strong theme. You cannot divorce the theme from the game's mechanisms. If that is done, the whole thing suffers. I believe that's the reason why Torres won the 2000 Spiel des Jahres - it has the perfect blend of fairy tale backstory, whimsical graphic design, and theme-to-mechanism integration. It's the best game ever awarded the Spiel des Jahres! Sure, it's abstract, but I'm not sure we would want to play a game where knights have to polish their armor, sharpen their swords, drink gallons of mean and eat whole roasted calves before they can clank slowly up staircases. It would be even more tedious for us to go through the entire process of building castles brick by brick. So it's all abstracted, quite excellently, into one of the best Eurogames ever made. :)

Coldfoot said...

I agree, Rick, that the theme is perfect for the game play but it doesn't *drip* with theme, especially if you know nothing of the game. My point is that many people do not *feel* the theme of a game unless it's so thick that it can't be mistaken for anything but what it is. Pirate's Cove, for instance, which I've never played, is without a doubt a pirate game. Look at the ships, the treasure chests, etc. and you know what the theme is. And some people require a game's theme to be that thick while you and I can see a simpler version of the theme and enjoy the game for its characteristics.

huzonfirst said...

Rick, I think you may be nipping a bit at the mead yourself! :-) I bet I could go up to a dozen Torres lovers and no more than one or two could give me any details about the game's theme. It's about as close to a pure abstract as a themed game can get.

Melissa said...

I was taught to play Ys one day. The four of us playing (taught by a non-player) were all confused, and didn't enjoy the game at all. It wasn't until after we'd finished, and looked at the box, that we learned what the theme was. How much more interesting the game would have been if we'd known what the little blocks of wood we were placing so randomly were meant to represent!

Pawnstar said...

Melissa, that's a very interesting point. This explains why I have so strongly objected when people have called the theme to Web of Power "pasted on"; it just makes more sense to say I am exerting influence over Europe through the church and the nobility rather than placing pieces of wood on marked points.

That doesn't mean Connect 4 becomes an attractive option if you slap a medieval politics theme on it. Hmmm, could red be the Church and yellow the Crown?