Does Theme Matter?

Does the theme of a game really matter, or is it all about the mechanics?

Some games are thoroughly themed, while others have had a somewhat shaky theme pasted onto the game mechanics once they were finished. Other games are totally abstract and have no theme at all. I tend to pay more attention to the mechanics than the theme, and enjoy several games that in my opinion are very poorly themed. At one point I thought that I didn’t really care about theme at all.

The game that taught me that I did care about theme was Go.

If I wanted to asses how good a set of game mechanics were, I would base it on three main criteria. Firstly, I would want to know how complex the strategic reasoning involved was, and how large an effect getting that reasoning right had on your chances of winning. Secondly, I would consider how long it takes to learn the rules – the less rule complexity required for a given level of strategic complexity the better. Finally, I would check how much inter-game variation there is, but this would only be a factor if I was going to play the same game many times.

I have tried playing Go, and I did not enjoy it. This surprised me, because according to my own assessment the mechanics are brilliant. The ratio of strategic complexity to rule complexity is enormous, higher than in almost any other game I have played. There is admittedly no inter-game variation at all, but given that I only tried playing it twice this would not yet have been a factor in determining my enjoyment of it. Perhaps setting a number of stones of a third faction out onto randomly selected spaces before a game starts would liven things up a bit for experienced players! In any case, I was forced to conclude that the only reason I had for not enjoying it was that it is unthemed.

When I think about this response, I suppose it does ultimately make sense. The mechanics side of a game is a kind of mental puzzle that we try to solve as best we can, but if that was all we got out of playing a game we would just as readily devote our minds to tackling real problems that it would actually be useful to solve… The only reason I can think of why most people should enjoy games more than, for example, solving maths or physics problems, is that they have a theme we can relate to on an emotional level. I therefore reach the conclusion that theme does matter.

Readers who disagree may want to consider how much they enjoyed reading this post – a post which I have deliberately written in a completely dry way with no attempt at humour or emotional engagement.

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I am a physicist who lives in Nottingham and I have been boardgaming for the last 10 years. My favourite boardgame is Agricola. I also enjoy playing the Yetis in Terra Mystica, hence the profile pic. I should also credit Sophie for drawing most of the cartoons that feature in the blog. Without her, there would be no grumpy oxen.

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