Rick's Adventures in Board Gaming

Making note of my life in the hobby. Occasional attempts at humor included.
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Theme and Mechanics - Two of a Kind

Rick Baptist
United States
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*** Before we get into today's discussion, I wanted to relay that I've created my usual geeklist to document what we did at the recent local Strategicon convention and if it was fun or not (duh!) If you're interested, you can find it here. ***

Hi there.

I'm one of those people that want eurogames to be thematic. There, I said it. Now you know whether you want to keep reading or not. I call myself a hybrid, and it's not just because I like euro and American designs. So what if I can go from delivering spices on the back of an elephant to ripping the heads off Genestealers in a day? I like what I like. But I have to draw the line somewhere. And that's my line -- I want theme. I'm really not asking for much, and my criteria isn't really that tough. I know that there's plenty of designers that start out with a mechanic and then work that into a theme. That's great! I want to encourage that. Then again, there's plenty of games that start with a theme that forgets to add mechanics. No no, I say. We need to walk the line straight here, no wobbles. Let's extrapolate.

Most games in my collection nail it. Colosseum is a terrific example -- you're putting on shows in Rome. Hell yeah! I get it. Bombay is another one I like -- put the fabric onto the elephants back and deliver it to another city. Fun! Take these two examples and think hard about the mechanics in those games. I hope that you've played them both so you can follow, but Colosseum is simply an auction game wrapped up in a set-collecting basket. Maybe I'm giving Wolfgang Kramer too much credit here, but coming up with this theme was genius (it is a Days of Wonder game, after all!) Sitting on the design table, trying to figure out how these mechanics work -- I can't imagine the work involved in that. Without a solid theme, I would have a tough time finishing the project. I have no idea if Mr. Kramer had the theme in mind while he was designing the game, but it works. Without a solid theme, this game wouldn't stand out to me -- if it was about collecting different sets of elements, and then portraying them every few rounds in a classroom, I just couldn't get interested. Thank goodness it's not! Sadly, there's games out there today that do just this. (Okay, I was going to talk about Bombay, but I'm shifting to a new tangent. You probably could figure out what I would say, anyway.)

I'm not sure I'm creative enough to "fix" games. Many people I'm sure have a problem with me saying this, even. I apologize up front, but I have a real hard time playing games like Hansa Teutonica. I can admit it's a good game -- it is! It's very clever. The mechanics are sound, and I have friends that love it and consider it the best game of 2009. But here's the deal. I know nothing about the Hanseatic.league. I have no interest to learn of it. In fact, I had to google to even spell it right. Call me crazy, I don't think it's that popular of a subject these days. I have refrained from putting the dude on the cover in my blog, because I like my blog. Go look at him elsewhere if you want to see him - he's a weird chap! But really, if you're going to have a game like this, the mechanics have to be something that I REALLY like. If I'm going to spend an hour of my life placing cubes next to cities and completing routes, collecting tokens that are supposed to be plates of food, and building a tableau of something or other, I want to be involved. Most of all, I want to have fun. Hansa is well produced and the board and components, theme be damned, are very nice looking and pleasing to the eye. But what exactly am I doing here? The Bobs from Office Space want to know, and so do I.

Sure, I have some exceptions. Thurn and Taxis is a great game, German mail routes and all. I like the way the game plays (although it's crying out for some kind of cool idea). Vikings - awesome. Some might say there's a theme here, but no -- this game doesn't exactly check all the viking boxes that come to mind. Unless you imagine your vikings being nobles. I just can't. But these are great games for me, ratings of 8 and above, that can get away with this stuff. You'll notice they're also short games, about an hour or less. I recently played the game Luna at the convention. Luna is getting some flak recently for being themeless and doing random things for points. I kind of saw that in advance before I played, so I made sure to grab the rulebook ahead of time and read the theme of the game. When I did an action, I reminded myself what I was doing (recruiting a follower, visiting the temple, etc.) Of course, the setting was already beautifully set for me by watching Drakkenstrike's video. Those things together really had me enjoy the game a lot more, forgetting that in itself I could see the dryness of the mechanic.

So maybe it's all a mind game with some titles. But I think you'll find that my favorite games, my 10s and 9s, have the theme built right into it. Pandemic, Stone Age, Descent: Journeys in the Dark -- I love these games. Battlestar Galactica. Cyclades. Awesome stuff. Alien Frontiers. It's not hard to put yourself into the game with these guys. I know every gamer is different. One time I remember bringing out a component-heavy, theme-rich game with a friend, pulling out the pieces and talking about how cool I thought they were and how they integrated the theme well, and he didn't care -- he just wanted to know the rules. He likes games like Innovation, with some of the most g%&-awful art and presentation I've seen, because he really likes the game. That stuff matters to me. I thought Innovation was okay, but those cards and the box turned me off. Am I shallow? I don't know! But that stuff matters. Thank goodness so many companies have become so amazing in developing the components to the game, and taking care to put effort into their productions, adding themes where they see fit. Companies like Days of Wonder and Repos Production are thriving and they deserve to. It's a great trend and one that I hope to see continue through for many years to come. Can you imagine if Pandemic was actually about the Hanseatic league? Think of the missed opportunities.

In closing -- designers, publishers: think twice when you figure out that awesome mechanic. Creating a strong theme will have many gamers putting your game into a class in itself, giving it its own identity to make is stand out from the hundreds of games released every year. Tying that theme into your mechanic is priceless. It makes the best kind of games -- in my opinion, it creates a romance that can never be split. And not to mention, a place on my shelf. When theme and mechanics work together, it truly is a match made in heaven.
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