The Importance Of Theme In Board Gaming

Not themes like ‘illusion of power’, ‘man vs nature’, or ‘coming of age’. More like, ‘what sort of horrid monsters will be we killing today?’

There are thousands of board games out there. Many of them are very good, others not so much.  And while you could probably dig up several dozen unique game mechanics, there’s still certainly going to be lots of overlap. So, with there being many more games than there are mechanics, what separates them? What makes one game more palatable than any other? And what get players really involved in the story elements of the game?  The answer is… not one single thing, but for this article we’re pretending it is.  That answer is theme.

For the sake of this article, theme will be defined as the compilation of several factors: tone, art style, story, but mostly it’s the universe or setting in which the game takes place. For some players, theme is vital. Whether they realize it or not, theme can make or break a game. Take zombies, for instance. Plenty of people are totally over zombies. No matter how clean the mechanics nor great the gameplay, they don’t want anything to do with the shambling masses of the undead who represent either ourselves as consumers, or our own inescapable mortality. And I get that. Zombie games in particular tend to be fairly story based. The game has a narrative it builds from set up and continues throughout gameplay. If you’re sick and tired of having to hear about zombies, you’re not going to care about the characters’ survival, even if you’re one of them.

Look how sad you’ve made him with your harsh words.

Other players don’t much care about the theme of the game. They’re just having a good time playing the game. These players might get wrapped up in the story elements, but it’s secondary to them. The game itself is the primary focus. Although, the right theme can override that impulse. I’m super into anything with a Lovecraft theme.  If it’s got a time travel story theme to it, I’m there before I even bought it. So with that in mind, consider Dice Forge. We recently played Dice Forge on our Twitch channel but didn’t figure out the theme of the game until halfway through playing it. The story of the game was something about impressing the gods. It didn’t grab me at the time, though I still would highly recommend Dice Forge–the mechanics are very cool, and work together to make a great game. I highly recommend it. But it had this scattershot theme that I couldn’t really connect with, not to rebut my own point here

I take it back. I wanna know this dude’s story.

In either case, whether you care about theme or not, it’s still important. If you were to strip all theme out of a game, you’d have Yahtzee. Don’t get me wrong, Yahtzee is not a bad game. It’s a terrible game. It’s random dice rolls and you have very little way to affect the outcome. The game is entirely decided by the dice, which is fine. But it’s meaningless. It doesn’t represent anything and there’s nothing at stake. However, throw in a little Cthulhu and you got yourself Elder Sign. Sprinkle in a dash of pestilence and you got yourself some Pandemic: The Cure. Slather on a heaping pile of the walking dead and fry for a nice Zombie Dice. The point I’m trying to make here is theme will cause total division between games that would be otherwise fairly similar. Granted, each of these games have plenty of other mechanics and functions for the dice being rolled, but the point stands: the dice are the entire game. That said, with these better options, I don’t know why anyone would choose to play Yahtzee.

To further my point, Rock-Paper-Scissors is a stand-alone game which by itself, is terrible. However, with some proper theming and additional flair, it becomes a fantastic mechanic used in many great games such as Small World. (Board Game Geek doesn’t list Small World as having RPS mechanics, but I’m asserting that it does.)

What themes make or break a game for you? Do you consider theme when buying a new game?

  • dave long island

    Theme is crucial when buying a board game, or any kind of game for that matter. If I’m into the theme I can suffer a less than bug free mechanic for at least long enough to give the game a solid try.

  • Rob Ottelli

    Over the last 4 years AvP, Pirates, Conan & Tanks, with Cthulhu having a soft spot, usually for sacrifice after I have read the book!!!! Never read the book.

  • lee payne

    Space hulk, genestealers. Now there’s a theme. They also appear in lost patrol and deathwatch overkill. They just make a great alien theme for me.