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Subject: Theme and narrative rss

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Pablo Schulman
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If we keep this discussion, I'm pretty sure we will end up at the old question of "what is an abstract game". let's not go down this rabbit hole, please.

In other forums, I've seen people making a case about differentiating between a "setting" and a "theme".

A theme would be the central dilemma of the game, what players feel when playing.

A setting would be the dressing of the game (what people generally call "theme" on BGG).

If you want to expand, you can also include narrative as another characteristics. Let's say it is "how the match unfolds", and this can be told in more setting-wise or more mechanical-wise terms.

I'd argue that our abstract games have a theme and a narrative, but may not have a setting. When they do have a setting, it mostly works as a mnemonic device, a facilitator.

I'd also argue that just because a game is an abstract game, that doesn't mean it was designed mechanics first. Maybe it was stripped down so much of its subject complexity that first thing you feel when playing is the geometry of the board, the interaction between pieces, the mathematics behind it.

For example: Tank Chess is an abstract combinatorial game that has a feasible setting, but doesn't attempt at all to be a simulation. The setting was the start and is certainly a facilitator, but surely could be changed to, say, armored squirrels with flamethrowers.

Another one: Tako judo is a game about two octopuses trying to entangle each other. In my mind, there's no way the designer didn't start with such whimsical setting. Does that mean it's important for playing or that simulates octopus wrestling? Nope.

Having said that, I'm fascinated with the attempts of putting settings in games that don't require them. For the most purists of us, those attempts feel childish and unnecessary. For the non-initiated, it's something that masks the rawness (is that even a word?) of such designs. It lightens up the gravitas of said games, and most people want to "have fun", not a battle of wits.
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christian freeling
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PSchulman wrote:
I'd also argue that just because a game is an abstract game, that doesn't mean it was designed mechanics first.
I've written quite extensively about that in On 'inside out' inventing. But I've invented a couple 'goal first' like say Hanniball or Yari Shogi. But eventually I went mainly 'inside out', searching for core behaviour and going from there.

PSchulman wrote:
Having said that, I'm fascinated with the attempts of putting settings in games that don't require them.
And you're not alone.
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Myron Samsin
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PSchulman wrote:
If we keep this discussion, I'm pretty sure we will end up at the old question of "what is an abstract game". let's not go down this rabbit hole, please.


This isn't really the place for it, but you know, I think there are still things to be said. The discussion here has happened again and again, but it's been kind of terrible, going around in circles and obstinately determined to miss the point in the way that online arguments usually do, when they become more about pissing contests than anything else. It could use a really good treatment.

Quote:

In other forums, I've seen people making a case about differentiating between a "setting" and a "theme".

A theme would be the central dilemma of the game, what players feel when playing.

A setting would be the dressing of the game (what people generally call "theme" on BGG).



Hmm.., this seems to be rephrasing the distinction between emergent narrative and theme, but in different words. I suppose it's a good sign that the distinction is on to something, if it crops up repeatedly in various guises.

Quote:

Having said that, I'm fascinated with the attempts of putting settings in games that don't require them.



Eurogames?
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Peter Ward
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I like abstract games like everyone else here, and I can appreciate the black vs white cleanliness of my yunzi Go stones on the shin-kaya board. However, I definitely like when abstract games are given a veneer of theme pasted on it just to make things unique. TZAAR to me is a great game and my personal favorite of the GPIF series. Yet I don't own a copy. If someone made a version though which slapped a vibrant tree canopy on each piece so rather than black vs white Tzaar, Tzarras, Totts fights, it's now spring vs autumn cherry blossoms, maples, and pine trees trying to grow in a forest, then I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

I sometimes wonder if there is a presumption that themeless games will have a mechanical elegance that themed games lack. The market seems to be heading more towards "themed-abstract games" (for whatever that means) such as Haru Ichiban, Seikatsu, etc so this fuzziness will probably only increase as time passes. This is not to say that the market for pure abstracts will disappear. There will always be fans of clean timeless games like that (myself included).
 
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David Ploog
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Many thanks for all the replies! They have definitely informed my text.

If you're interested how it turned it, you can read it here (4 pages). It's not polished but readable.

The main structural change is that I now distinguish between setting, theme, narrative, an idea straight from this thread. There's also a quote by Michael -- tell me if you're unhappy with it. I couldn't have said it better.

I've also typed up something on "abstract games" as such (which I call "Not a definition"). I'll spare you yet another round of this eternal debate in the forum. If someone is curious, just tell me.
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christian freeling
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I've read it and I think it is a good new and concise piece. Minor points:

- You name elimination as one of the primordial themes (it doesn't have one, it is one), so why should Fanorona be an outlier?

- I don't know whether games with a potential theme have an easier time reaching an audience, but I always disliked names that are too explicitly descriptive.

You more or less gave this article of Andrew Hardin but I find it a bit too much of a good thing. The questions for instance aren't all that interesting or bright ("Can I change the outcome of the game by the choices I make?" No, certainly not!), but the opinions are. So I'd shorten it somewhat and provide a link to the original article.

Edit:
dpeggie wrote:
I've also typed up something on "abstract games" as such (which I call "Not a definition"). I'll spare you yet another round of this eternal debate in the forum. If someone is curious, just tell me.
I think I know what you consider abstract games in the narrower sense. It's good not to give a definition but merely to refer to the examples you give. If someone doesn't get it from that then he/she is clearly not a great loss to the community to begin with.
But of course I'd like to read it!

Edit: Ah, it's there already, thanks.
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David Ploog
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christianF wrote:
I've read it and I think it is a good new and concise piece.
Many thanks for reading!

I've uploaded an improved version:

Here it is.

It now gives an argument why Fanorona and Nine Men's Morris feel less "primal" than other elimination games (to me, it's the less direct capturing mechanism).

The large text by Andrew Hardin was supposed to be "sorted out later". You know how this goes... I've just sat down and took two bits from his article and made proper quotes out of them.

Quote:
I don't know whether games with a potential theme have an easier time reaching an audience, but I always disliked names that are too explicitly descriptive.
Yes, same for me. But I think we're non-normal consumers in this regard. Would be interesting to get a more profound opinion on this matter. I think I've read something by Nick...

As a bonus, I've included my blurb on "abstract games" too. The linked text is now 1.5+3.5 pages.
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David Ploog
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Cortez527 wrote:
However, I definitely like when abstract games are given a veneer of theme pasted on it just to make things unique.
It is intriguing to me that you mention uniqueness here. I like purity in abstracts so much that I'll play a themed one only grudgingly. It just doesn't feel right to me. However, I do play non-abstract games, and then I care about theme, and especially integration of theme and gameplay. (Some games which pull this off excellently, in my opinion: Chaos in the Old World, Evolution, Mouse & Mystics, Through the Ages.)

My question to you is this: do you like to have unique themes in general? I find many Euros to feel alike, with their victory points obsessions. (This is particularly bad for economy games.) And I don't mind RPG-style board games (Descent etc.) but their themes can be pretty convergent, too.

Quote:
TZAAR to me is a great game and my personal favorite of the GPIF series. Yet I don't own a copy. If someone made a version though which slapped a vibrant tree canopy on each piece so rather than black vs white Tzaar, Tzarras, Totts fights, it's now spring vs autumn cherry blossoms, maples, and pine trees trying to grow in a forest, then I'd buy it in a heartbeat.
Is this is a visual or a mental thing: would it suffice if the pieces were simply called something real, or would it be necessary for them to look like that?
I find arbitrary terminology off-putting, and Burms' games sting in that regard. I can look past that, and play them, but it doesn't feel right to me. (So I wouldn't buy them but for a completely different reason.)

Quote:
I sometimes wonder if there is a presumption that themeless games will have a mechanical elegance that themed games lack.
Yes. I'm sure at least part of this is the usual arrogance of the smaller niche over the larger mainstream. Few but proud etc.

At its core, the whole matter is very simple:
(1) You can dis/like any game for its mechanics.
(2) You can dis/like a themed game for its theme.
(3) You can dis/like a themed game for the integration of theme & gameplay.

Any themed game can be re-themed or un-themed, and any abstract game can be themed. All of this is just a matter of preferences. Nothing of this has anything to do with "good" or "elegant" game. For example, it is interesting to observe that Japanese designers of abstract board games seem to theme their games differently than those elsewhere.
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Peter Ward
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dpeggie wrote:
It is intriguing to me that you mention uniqueness here. I like purity in abstracts so much that I'll play a themed one only grudgingly. It just doesn't feel right to me. However, I do play non-abstract games, and then I care about theme, and especially integration of theme and gameplay. (Some games which pull this off excellently, in my opinion: Chaos in the Old World, Evolution, Mouse & Mystics, Through the Ages.)

My question to you is this: do you like to have unique themes in general? I find many Euros to feel alike, with their victory points obsessions. (This is particularly bad for economy games.) And I don't mind RPG-style board games (Descent etc.) but their themes can be pretty convergent, too.

I think for me I prefer the way abstract games play compared to point-based games, especially classic Euro games. I'm a huge fan of grid movements/placements and the emergent properties which arise from the physical attributes of the board. For example, nets, ladders, and life/death of groups in Go. Or pins, forks, and skewers in Chess.

But I think I'd like more differences between game pieces in abstract games. Five Tribes is effectively Kalah but I like that the pieces are meeples rather than pebbles. Or Through the Desert using marshmallow-looking camels instead of Go stones. By removing the board entirely Hive is a chess-like game which is completely unique within the family.

So to answer the question, I think I prefer unique themes in general. My collection doesn't generally have much overlap of similar themes as I tend to use one to fill the niche of many. E.g. I have Arkham Horror: The Card Game but no other Lovecraftian games. Same with farm-based Euros. I have Viticulture so I don't need similar games.

Quote:
Is this is a visual or a mental thing: would it suffice if the pieces were simply called something real, or would it be necessary for them to look like that?
I find arbitrary terminology off-putting, and Burms' games sting in that regard. I can look past that, and play them, but it doesn't feel right to me. (So I wouldn't buy them but for a completely different reason.)

For me it's both a mental thing and visual thing. I find some of the pieces look a little samey if I haven't played in a while. Plus needing reminders of which name corresponds to which piece can be off-putting as you mentioned.

The big part for me is I would like the game with colorful art for the same reason other players would avoid it. My favorite abstract games will always be in the Chess family and a large part of that is the variety in pieces, from the classic Staunton and Isle of Lewis pieces to fun character-based franchises in Chess itself, the wedges in Shogi, or the disks in Xiangqi. By having a minimal theme of "combat" in the broadest sense possible, they were able to make a uniqueness of pieces I wouldn't expect to find in the GIPF series (for example, not to always pick on them. They are great games).


Quote:
Yes. I'm sure at least part of this is the usual arrogance of the smaller niche over the larger mainstream. Few but proud etc.

At its core, the whole matter is very simple:
(1) You can dis/like any game for its mechanics.
(2) You can dis/like a themed game for its theme.
(3) You can dis/like a themed game for the integration of theme & gameplay.

Any themed game can be re-themed or un-themed, and any abstract game can be themed. All of this is just a matter of preferences. Nothing of this has anything to do with "good" or "elegant" game. For example, it is interesting to observe that Japanese designers of abstract board games seem to theme their games differently than those elsewhere.

I think Nestor of Nestorgames once mentioned that themed abstracts don't tend to sell as well as pure abstract games. I wonder how universal that is, or if the chosen theme itself matters.
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Nick Bentley
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dpeggie wrote:

Quote:
I don't know whether games with a potential theme have an easier time reaching an audience, but I always disliked names that are too explicitly descriptive.
Yes, same for me. But I think we're non-normal consumers in this regard. Would be interesting to get a more profound opinion on this matter. I think I've read something by Nick...
Indeed, in commercial games, a vivid concreteness is among the most valuable things a game can have, starting with the name. The difference in the amount of interest one can generate is staggering.

Earlier this spring, I ran a Kickstarter campaign for a game on which I was lead designer. The game is called Oceans, and it's about marine biology: players build and evolve marine creatures in a collectively created ecosystem. BGG doesn't allow links to Kickstarter campaigns so you'll have to find the campaign yourself if you want to see it.

Between the Kickstarter campaign and the still-running pledge manager, we've raised more than $1,100,000 for it so far. I would be profoundly lucky to raise 1/10th of that for a game that wasn't concretely about something.

We abstract enthusiasts represent a tiny little backwater in the world of board games. I wish it weren't so. Among other things, it means if you want to make a living at board games, you have to learn to think like more typical game hobbyists, whose enthusiasms are in many ways opposite from those of abstract game enthusiasts.

Doing that has required me to cultivate a lot of openness to views to which I'm not naturally inclined. But it has given me a way understand others better, and a way to exercise my empathy muscles, and that's turned out be a great thing for me.
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christian freeling
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milomilo122 wrote:
We abstract enthusiasts represent a tiny little backwater in the world of board games. I wish it weren't so. Among other things, it means if you want to make a living at board games, you have to learn to think like more typical game hobbyists, whose enthusiasms are in many ways opposite from those of abstract game enthusiasts.

Doing that has required me to cultivate a lot of openness to views to which I'm not naturally inclined. But it has given me a way understand others better, and a way to exercise my empathy muscles, and that's turned out be a great thing for me.
I was never inclined to make a living but was yet reluctantly dragged into it at times. What can you do? But not by going commecial because I love games more than money and you don't need much money to play them. And I wish you nothing but success, but isn't 'understanding others' (read 'commecial interests') taking away your freedom of thought? By replacement so to say?
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Pablo Schulman
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althus wrote:

Quote:

Having said that, I'm fascinated with the attempts of putting settings in games that don't require them.



Eurogames?

No LOL mostly abstract games with cute animals haha

For example, when Splits became Battle Sheep or Gyges became Kang. The theme is there in as much as mnemonic and for the cuteness factor.

I compiled several of those games (and also possible rethemes) in a private geeklist that I can provide if anybody is interested. Having a 9-year old girl, I so want her to like abstract games and I thought the cuteness would help.
 
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Nick Bentley
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christianF wrote:
but isn't 'understanding others' (read 'commecial interests') taking away your freedom of thought? By replacement so to say?
It doesn't feel that way from the inside. Of course it affects my freedom of time: it's the usual conflict between making a living and pursuing an avocation. But I'd face that conflict in any case, and this way I get to look at games from different angles all day long.
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David Ploog
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christianF wrote:
you don't need much money to play them
This is indeed part of the appeal to me, and one reason why I prefer simple material and no theme. These games work without shopping. Non-capitalist entertainment, if you like

milomilo wrote:
Of course it affects my freedom of time: it's the usual conflict between making a living and pursuing an avocation.
I'm trying not to put moral(istic) emphasis on a decision like this. On the one hand, if you have the luxury to pursue something non-commercially (like most abstract designers, or like I do with my book project), then you're totally free. That's good. On the other hand, if you're working professionally, then you reach much, much larger audiences, which is also good.

In the end, it depends on personalities and circumstances. I also don't think that you sell your soul or something like that. After all, you didn't become a politician
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Les Marshall
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dpeggie wrote:



Sorry for skipping the preamble this time, thus obfuscating my intentions, and many thanks for your input!

Thanks for the interesting response. I have a better understanding of what you are reaching for and the task you have set for yourself. Hope the outcome rewards the effort.
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christian freeling
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We're honoured to have NASA name a mission after one of our games. Dragonfly is now officially themed as being situated on Titan. Don't breathe! gulp
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David Ploog
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christianF wrote:
We're honoured to have NASA name a mission after one of our games. Dragonfly is now officially themed as being situated on Titan.
I'm missing some news -- please explain yourself!
 
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christian freeling
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dpeggie wrote:
christianF wrote:
We're honoured to have NASA name a mission after one of our games. Dragonfly is now officially themed as being situated on Titan.
I'm missing some news -- please explain yourself!
NASA has announced a mission sending a drone to Saturn's largest moon Titan. It can fly because Titan has an atmosphere. But it's a bit cold there. The drone's name is Dragonfly.
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dale walton
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Re Narratives in abstract games.
I think any interesting game has narratives. Narratives emerge from recognizing tactics and strategies and giving names to them, and observing how they shift.

For example, my narratives for Fire and Ice are about how soon a diversity of inner island positions are gained and which player dominates each. Also about dominating islands by having more pieces than the other player, and controlling them with (3-in-a-rows)- but mainly about the way the focus shifts on each move. (Focus here is the island that both players need to gain control of because it is disputed and they each dominate two islands in line with it.

Shifting focus is the narrative that makes the game interesting to me, even though it is not a very complex game.

I think any interesting game must have at least one strategic narrative, a nameable strategy or tactic that must be monitored and adjusted in response to challenges from the opponent to be of interest at all.
 
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Laurentiu Cristofor
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Sorry for late drop.

dpeggie wrote:

To me, as a mathematician, abstraction has a very simple and basic meaning: stripping off superflous context, i.e. going for the core content.

Right. But the way to apply this meaning should not be just about the stripping of the theme, which is why a thematic game stripped of theme should not necessarily turn into an abstract game. The rules of an abstract game should make some sense on their own and not just be a random collection of rules thrown together.

Maybe one way to determine if a game is abstract is to remove its theme and then see if its rules still make sense together or if they seem to have been arbitrarily put together.
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dale walton
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I think the play of an abstract game has a distinct flavor to it, which I like.

How much can the pasting on of a theme either taint that flavor to the purist (or others), or on the other hand make it palatable to those who don't like the bitter (You are responsible for your mistakes) or woody (This takes a lot of hard thought) flavors of such games?

Can people simply ignore the themes? When do they actually enhance the flavor for everyone?
 
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