I want to talk about the word “thematic”. This is a much used word that can have different meanings to different people. It got me thinking. What do I mean when I say that a game is “thematic”? That spawned this mass of text. I apologize up front for the length. If you can make it to the end you will get a reward. Called satisfaction. If that isn’t enough for you, I am truly sorry that you can’t be satisfied with the simple things of life. Enough introduction. Time to dive into the word “thematic”.
I am going to say this up front: drenching a game in art and components does not make a game thematic. Conversely, a game with elegant mechanics and a seemingly thin theme can be very thematic. Also, just because a game falls into the thematic category doesn’t automatically mean it is a good game. I think that so many people like thematic games that the term has come to mean “this is a good game” instead of what it really means, which we will get to.
Let’s start by talking about the two main parts of a potentially thematic game: theme and mechanisms. For my purposes I will use the following definitions:
Theme: a setting or feeling given to a game, intended to evoke a particular situation, historical or future period, culture, etc.
Mechanisms: a system of components and rules working together to create gameplay.
Let’s look at these in the order we gamers encounter them.
Before you tear off the shrink wrap and crack open the box you are presented with art. This is your first taste of theme. This art and the description on the back should give you an indication of the theme contained within. We can also call it the setting. The who, what, where, when, and why.
Then you open the game box and take out all the components. Components with their art and copy are another very important way to convey theme or setting. Then you open up the rule book and begin making sense of the components and how they work together. The ways the rules and components interact make up the mechanisms of the game.
Theme is known, mechanisms are understood and you are set to play the game. This is where we’ll throw in the last piece of the puzzle: narrative. This is the collective experience that players create and share during the time they spend around the table with the game. This is what they will recount to each other when the game is over, perhaps for years to come.
The narrative experience is most often where a game becomes thematic or not. It’s the space where theme and mechanisms can meet and mingle. They both reach into this narrative space from opposite sides and the closer they get to each other and work together the more people will describe the game as thematic. The mechanisms and theme have connected to tell a compelling story that players experience and remember. Sometimes the theme reaches farther into the narrative than the mechanisms and sometimes it is the other way around. The closer these two things work together the more thematic the game feel.
Before we get into thematic games let’s look at ones that don’t fit the thematic bill as it helps to juxtapose one thing with another to see the one more clearly. A game can be considered non-thematic as a result of three things:
1) Pasted on theme – A game where a theme exists but has no real impact on the game. The game would work well without it or just as well with another theme. This category is dominated by themed Monopolies and many (but not all) Eurogames.
2) Theme/mechanism mismatch – A game where the mechanisms do not generate the experience the theme promises to produce. I think Lords of Waterdeep falls into this category. The D&D theme promises a deep narrative experience but the mechanisms feel dry next to the theme. It’s not that the mechanisms are bad they just don’t fulfill the promise that the theme makes of a deep narrative.
3) Themeless – No (or little) theme is present so that the mechanisms dominate the game and have nothing to hook into. This category is made up of abstract strategy games like Chess or Backgammon. If there is no theme the game cannot be thematic. The mechanisms are all the players will talk about after the game.
I will define thematic as this: a measure of how well the theme of a game is evoked through the varied combination of art, components, mechanisms, and narrative.
Let’s go a little further now and talk about the thematic scale and the games on it. I think there are two ends of the thematic scale that games can fall between: Theme-down and Mechanisms-up.
Theme-down thematic games happen when a narrative is created as the theme permeates down to fiddly mechanisms. This type of thematic game results in deep narrative that can be told as a story after the game is finished. These games are more easily labeled as thematic since the theme is so in your face.
Mechanics-up thematic games happen when great mechanisms reach up to tie heavily into a shallower theme. This type of thematic game doesn’t have as deep a narrative but all the things you are doing have the feel you would expect from the theme. These kinds of games have a harder time coming off as thematic but it is very possible.
Agricola is an example of a mechanisms-up thematic game. The mechanisms reach up to support a shallower theme to create a thematic experience. You are placing tiles on a board and pieces on the tiles but the way these things work it actually feels like you are plowing, planting, harvesting, and breeding your animals. This evokes the theme of being a farmer desperately trying to feed a family even though the story doesn’t go very deep.
Descent is an example of a theme-down thematic game. The theme reaches down and hooks into fiddly mechanics to create a thematic experience. There are lots of tokens being moved around and lots of dice being thrown but because of all the art and story being told, players can buy into this and create a story as they play. Again, they will sit around and talk about the story they experienced after the game has ended maybe for years.
Pandemic is an example of a game where theme and mechanics meet in the middle of the narrative experience. The mechanisms reach up to support theme but theme goes just as deep as the mechanisms rise. You are turning over cards and moving cubes around but it feels like disease is spreading and you are out there battling it which can make for some panic-induced fun. And then players sit around afterwards talking about how they almost didn’t save the world but in the end they pulled if off. Or how everyone died but they were this close to saving them.
When I call a game thematic what I am saying is that the theme, mechanisms, components, and art all worked together in such harmony that they created a narrative experience that players dove into and swam around for a while. Whether that was produced by a deep reaching theme with fiddly mechanics, elegant mechanics portraying the theme well, or a mix of the two, as long as they work well together to evoke the theme it is a thematic game. Then I have to answer the question: is it a good thematic game.
Originally posted on BoardGameTheory.com