We talk about buzzwords to capture the trendy popularity of an idea or word or phrase. In board games, themes are like the buzzwords in that space. At the same bar of comparison with game mechanics.
For many, the word is so popular that the meaning has been lost on them. People debate its relevance, usefulness, and comparatively, there are some who feel that mechanics are rather more important than themes in board games.
More like video games, too, themes have become a huge part of gaming objectives, and often dominated reviews and study of their positive or negative inclinations on children, especially based on ratings from Entertainment Software Review Board.
However, players of all ages want an experience that best sums up the exciting, spontaneous, creative side to games. The themes cover that and put games within an artistic setting that informs a good story.
What Are Game Themes?
These are typically the subject matter around which a game is built. They give context and backgrounds to any game, and they also represent their settings and scenarios.
There are games whose themes could be adventure, and others could be mystery.
Organizing a game around themes also allows you to easily find games with shared subject matter to be easily accessible.
This reflects an important reason themes could be useful in board games. That would be expounded on later in this article.
Popular Game Themes
Game around the themes of adventure typically emphasize discoveries and heroism. They often fit into a storyline based on some fantastical elements or an exhibition to some Island in search of a piece or rescue mission.
Furthermore, it could be a story of triumph of their details of escape from kidnap in some remote jungle or pirate island. They could also involve treasure digging in some and sneaking, jumping, and the like in others.
Adventure theme games often centralize ideas around being an inspiring character or personality with distinguishing strengths that are part of solving a problem or riddle that the game addresses.
As that implies, they are games predicated upon fictional characters and worlds, where the use of magic, presence of strange, mythical characters, monsters, or creatures, are the dominant features.
These games, most times, draw from many settings based on historical narratives or from fantasy books.
The likes of the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the recent popular Games of Thrones provide thematic resource that many of such games use. Also with signature fantastic tropes that are recurrent characters in fantasies – the monsters, witches, elves, hobbits and dragons.
Games with fantasy-based themes can blend into other themes in telling of its story, elements like that of adventure and the historical are potential crisscrossing theme for fantasy-based games. Games like Dungeons and Dragons are a great example of this.
Beyond this, games with fantasy themes have very compelling and unique stories in the gameplay that also allow for creativity in play. They are also some of the most popular theme games with colorful designs and more.
A good representation of all these is the board game, Magic: the Gathering and Warhammer. Other examples of some of the top fantasy games include: Dungeon Quest, Battlelore, The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, War of the Ring, Small Word, Descent: Journeys in the Dark, and many more.
The theme emphasized here is for stories that are told to evoke a nostalgic feeling about a certain time in history like the board game on America’s Civil War.
They come in different types, whether it is a specific reference to a historical event or in reference to a historical setting. They are also good story spinners like you have in adventures or fantasies.
While games with such themes have been somewhat criticized not to give room for spontaneous creativity, you can let them pass because of the historical burden of representing events of the period the games are built on as much as they can.
The games that revolve around historical themes do so around the likes of Ancient Rome, the 20th Century Wars, American Civil War, Early American Settlers, Vikings, amongst others.
Building themes revolve around two ideas: Civilization or Construction. The former emphasizes a player’s control of a society’s advancement, production, and development over a period.
The latter, on the other hand, is about building structures or managing projects or even puzzles with resources provided by the game.
The difference between the two games is the explanation behind macro and micro-economic systems. While construction is at a personal, smaller space, Civilization is at a bigger, wider space of society’s resources and citizens.
Whether the focus is on a building or several ones within the game, or it is about processes and institutions of government, in politics, military, economy, the theme’s focus is about completing tasks and nicking a superior civilization compared to others.
v. Science Fiction
What is true of games with fantasy themes apply to science fiction, too, in some ways.
Both thrive on fantastical characters and, many times, from popular books or movies within this genre – like Star Wars, Firefly, Star Trek, etc.
Their fantasy is however futuristic, and some other times, set in other planets different from the real world of humans.
They are themes about galaxies and planets, space and dimensions, about starships and spaceships, about space travels or alien races. When they are set in earth, that’s when they most often point to the future.
Many lovers of this theme allude to what the human condition will look like in an alternate present or distant future.
Popular examples include Scythe, Star Wars: Imperial Assault Cry Havoc, Cosmic Encounter, TIME Stories, Forbidden Start, Ascendency, Euphoria, Galaxy Trucker, XCOM: The Board Game, Star Wars: X-Wing/Armanda Miniatures, Merchant of Venus, Terraforming Mars, and many more.
There are times this theme aligns with themes in Aviation or Flight because of flying devices and machines projected to be used in the future or outer space.
However, Aviation theme revolves mainly around gameplays about flight, that may be airplanes, modern aircraft, helicopters, etc.
There are games whose main theme revolves around animals. Players of these games are expected to assume control or manage animals during play and, in most cases, required to assume the role of the animals themselves.
There are countless games around animals like
- Dogs (game examples: Hounded, Sheepdogs, A Dog’s Life, etc.);
- Cats (Cottage Garden, Kiblle Scuffle, The Isle of Cats, Cobra Paw, Cat Lady, etc.);
- Dragons (Fantasy Realms, Trogdor, Runes and Regulators, Dragon’s Breath, Dragon Island, Looterz);
- Bears (My Little Scythe, Bearicades, Bears! Trail Mix’d);
- Unicorns (Vast: The Fearsome Foes, Vast: The Crystal Caverns, Unstable Unicorns, Unicornus Knights).
There are others around rabbits, sharks, tigers, whales, wolves, owls, octopuses, foxes, elephants, and many more.
This explains games which are driven by most present-day realities. The games borrow ideas from our quotidian, lived experiences, and translate them into enjoyable games.
Their attraction is hinged on their familiarity with players’ worldview and also makes it an easy choice for players to build on.
Beyond the themes that have been mentioned above, there are also other important themes.
For example, family-themed games are one of the most important values you get for board games because they are targeted for families with participation from children, providing opportunities for families to spend time together or for parents to have quality time with children.
There are themes based on fighting or warfare where the game emphasizes battles between players or tactical approach to winning battles based on military strategies and controls, or horror themes that emphasize morbid, fearful imageries, especially of characters that challenge evil or supernatural forces in their quest for freedom or survival.
There are themes also around individual’s relationship with the society. They are themes on the political, economic, amongst others.
One important and distinguishing fact is that a lot of the board game themes can overlap from time to time.
So, you can see a game combining the Political with the Historical, or Fantasy with Adventure, Science Fiction and others among them. In some cases, some themes combine the themes for specific purposes, not just overlap across themes.
For Educational themes, most times, games are designed to test the overall knowledge of players around history, economics, facts and figures, pop culture, or general knowledge.
They, therefore, combine the broader themes into fossilized, specific concepts.
The broader themes can be about countries, cities, and continents, with a historical or cultural peculiarity that make for a game play or storyline.
You can also find themes around sports and video games. Themes around board video games are perhaps one of the most popular in the game industry. They include:
- Boss Monster 2: The Next Level, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game, Pixel Tactics 2, Pixel Tactics 3, BioShock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia, The King’s Armory;
- Video game inspired games like Tiny Epic Quest, Fallout, Plague Inc: The Board Game, Fallout: New California, Doom: The Board Game, Monopoly: Super Mario Bros Edition, Jetpack Joyride, Burger Time: The Card Game, Dark Souls The Board Game, Super Mario Level Up, among other ones.
Themes & Mechanics
There are many who find their themes to be a perfect fit and a defining fun for the game world. For some others, that’s not exactly so. Their mechanics and game flow are not as defined as much as the presence of a themed game.
Then, what exactly are mechanics in a game and how what is their relationship with themes?
The mechanics of a game are the set of rules that dictate how a game is to be played. These procedures not only guide the game players, but they also show how the game responds to the moves of those playing.
The gameplay is often used interchangeably with mechanics and some others see it as mechanics that are specifically deployed to determine what the overall features of a particular game is.
A simple way to distinguish them might be not to see them as different entities within the game set up.
While the gameplay shows what players can do in a game and response to them, the game mechanics show the underlying rule being the action taken by the players.
It makes sense from the afore background to note that it might be somewhat difficult to definitively say that themes are more important than mechanics, or that themes are what inform the influence a player can have on a game. There are no guarantees there.
It is possible that players of games will define the responsive value of themes to games based on the individual rules that define them rather than the broader view of themes.
In games where it appears that a game’s theme and mechanics are connected, players rather get their individual theme through gameplay.
In the War of the Ring game, for example, players are expected to recreate the story from the fantasy book, Lord of the Rings, where players make use of miniatures and detailed map and game rules to project the Lord of the Ring story.
The game is a fantasy theme, even though it has adventure themes, too. A way to see how themes and mechanics tie is looking at this game through the lenses of the game’s rules and how they help you tell the theme story well.
You have to follow the game’s rules and use the game pieces to tell the fantasy story through adventures. What this implies is that you use the game mechanics to shape or create the experience of the game’s theme.
For example, monopoly is about buying and selling. You realize that every event in the game, starting from sharing the money, to throwing of dice are meant to be a linked representation of one activity to another.
So, each rule guiding the play links the game to the ultimate purpose of buying and selling. The economics behind the game is created by following the rules that guide each event in the game.
Importance Of Themes In Board Games
We have established that themes are the setting in which games take place. That universe is what defines what makes a game or break it. They are like the art or backstory to a game and becomes extremely important.
The themes give an immersive experience and they are specifically there to enhance the game experience.
Themes are what give the user experience to a game. They are so important that designers take that approach to creating great games.
The themes naturally enhance intuition and creativity in a game play. They can be the bridge towards crossing a rather difficult set of mechanics that define a game.
You can handle the tedious rules better when the themes are clearly woven to give an outstanding gameplay.
The best way to put this is that a game comes alive, or, through game management, measures to the fun when the theme directs the player-agency.
Take for instance a game like Arkham Horror. The mechanics are not to pronounced but the game gets a push throughout the user experience because of the underlying story it tells.
Often time, many players have complained about the scary effects of themes in gameplays. The concern has largely dovetailed also into researches examining the beneficial components of these themes to the psycho-social and cognitive experiences of children and adults alike.
These kinds of studies have impacted, on a grand scale of social view, the importance and popular views about the significance of themes in games.
Also, themes allow you to group games that share similar genres. Grouping games according to themes make it easier for you to locate new games, recommend them, and easily direct people who show preference for certain theme types.
Game mechanics will remain peculiar to a game, but the themes can be shared by different games, and even overlap in the fun department. This also helps designer and publishers of these games.
Over time, putting games along thematic thrust or categories, like adventure, fantasy and sci-fi, have increased sales for many of them.
While it is a known reality for many games to be themed to increase the level of fun, there are other games that have little or no theme known as abstract games but still offer the same level of peculiar fun that games give.
Abstract games might have themes represented in symbolic ways, like draughts, Onitama, Hive, chess, and Go. These mentioned games, popular in their own individual and collective rights, show how themes might not be so pronounced but still elicit the excitement that thematic games show.
More so, they are also no distraction to games that have, over the years, shown how good games that integrate theme and mechanics prove to be to players and lovers of the game alike.
Themes continue to play an integral part in the overall value and affirmations of board games and would be for long time to come, not necessarily as a competition to mechanics but complement to the overall experience of players.
Essentially, it cannot be denied that the way people play games is heavily influenced by the theme of that game, arguably, more than everything else.