I was recently listening to episode 134 of the Every Night is Game Night podcast, which included a great discussion on games with theme. I enjoyed listening to this particular show as I love when board games do a good job of evoking the intended theme. Now, theme does not a good board game make — I can have a blast with a really good abstract game just for the gameplay itself. But…it does make me happier to play a well-designed game that also executes on its theme / its setting.
My intention on today’s blog post, though, is not to rehash the conversation of Jason, Paul, and Marc. A discussion on games that do and don’t have theme is fun, but in the end, I can’t do anything about it. The game designers will either create theme that is easily connected with or not.
No, where I want to focus is on the way we as gamers “pump up” the theme in games.
The best way to add a little Theme Juice to your gaming experience is to insert that theme into the way you play. Now, some games make this easy. For instance — The Pursuit of Happiness — in this game, it is easy to start getting into the mindset of your character, as you start making choices on what activities to participate in, what job to pursue, what (if any) dating partner you will hangout with…’Pursuit’ is a game designed to help you get into character. At least, if that’s what you are wanting out of a game [I have some game mates who just want to see a game for its mechanisms, and that’s fine too!]
There are also games that provide characters, but in the end, don’t have much of a storyline — because of that, it can become very easy to lose sight of the theme of the game and just focus on the turn-by-turn decisions needed to try and win the game. An example at this level is Smash Up. One of the endearing qualities of this franchise is the creative and unique factions to be played with — along with the opportunity to ‘smash’ two of those factions together to create a new combo team. Pretty soon, you will be able to create your fantasy Sumo Wrestling Mounties squad to take down your opponent’s Kaiju Bear crew. Sounds amazing!! Yet, too often in games like this, the “character” of the game starts to fade and the strategic components of a team move to the forefront. We start to think of these teams as decks –> we start to think of these cool people and beasts as “attack-heavy”, “controlling”, “card-drawing”, “take that”, “fast”, etc.
And that’s okay! But if you like theme, if you like story in your games — then I urge you, don’t take it out of a game that’s trying to give it to you. Take what a board game gives you and run with it! I like to play with the Dinosaur faction; thus I may occasionally roar as I place down one of my behemoths; I may describe how my giant lizard just turned your fierce pirate into a peg-leg. I also lament when a magical hole opens underneath my war raptors and they suddenly find themselves relocated to a different world.
This story-telling attitude can be used even in games with not much more than a basic setting and/or a light theme. In Century: Golem edition, describe the business empire you are building based on each unique golem that you add to your work squad. In Downforce, share the tale of blue’s quest for revenge against orange and her ruthless tactics in the last grand prix; how green has just recovered from surgery and is excited to get back in the game and show he can still compete with the best.
In Gizmos, turn those colored marbles into actual items: machinery, robots, food, whatever! and describe your new inventions and how they work.
Most games give us some level of building block in which to tell a story. The question is are we interested in and willing to run with it!? Not every game will be designed to tell a story, like Call to Adventureor Gloom. That doesn’t mean the potential is not there. It is perfectly fine for a board game to just be what it is — and all the enjoyment you need can come from that. I believe the experience can go much further, though…be much more memorable if we insert some theme…if we insert “ourselves” and our own creativity into the games we play.
I would also urge us thematic-loving gamers to avoid the mistake of stripping the story elements out of games. An example that comes to mind is Roll Player by Thunderworks Games. The concept of this title is to take the character creation aspect of an RPG and turn it into a board game. There is a lot of strategic gameplay in Roll Player: which die to draft, which card to draft, is the color of the die important or the number, which trait should I put that die in, which ability do I want to trigger this turn, do I focus on a card with an immediate ability, do I go for the card which helps my set collection, do I need to focus on coins….and more! Roll Player is a great game mechanically with some excruciating decision points. My hope, though, is that players don’t forget to enjoy the aspect of creating a character. Let the mechanisms drive round-by-round actions, but at the end of the game, return to the RPG core. Tell the story of your newly created character. Maybe his wisdom is a little lacking (since you decided to stick all your 1’s and 2’s in that category) and thus, your noble, pure-hearted Elf is sought after by many town leaders for his strength and shooting accuracy — but he always needs a companion with him, so as to be reminded of what color the enemy is wearing.
Now, some of you may read this and think that putting this much effort into games is a little taxing. Just play the game, do the things, and try to win. Again, that’s fine. There are some games that I treat that way — the strategy of the game is so compelling that I don’t worry about theme insertion. When I play Santorini, I don’t get caught up in the character of my Hero/God, I stay focused on my abilities, my opponent’s abilities, and watching out for whatever trap is no-doubt being laid for me.
That said, whenever you elevate a board game beyond a competition, but to a fun, thematic, narrative event — I find that the end result has a narrower impact on my enjoyment of the experience. Some games are naturally fun…and some players know how to make a game fun.
What kind of gamer are you? Do you go out of your way to tell a story or do you prefer to focus on strategy, turns, and actions?