'Theme' is a word that gets used a lot in the board gaming world, but its meaning is surprisingly hard to pin down. In general, it's summing up all the creative aspects of a game beyond the bare bones of mechanics and rules, including the game's setting, story and artwork.
'Theme' can be both a very broad classification, referring to multiple games at once with categories like 'fantasy,' 'science fiction,' 'historical,' or even 'monster' or 'food.'
In other instances, however, the theme of an individual game will be talked about in much more detail. We might talk about the historical spice trading theme of Century: Spice Road, or the unique fantasy war theme of Rising Sun that's based on historical Japanese culture and mythology.
In the first sense, theme is often a way of grouping games together and is used in a similar way to literary genres. By grouping games thematically, you can recommend new games to people who show a preference for one theme or another, or you have another framework in which to compare games that share some kind of similarity. Game publishers will have to consider theme on this level when working on a game, as some categories, like sci-fi and fantasy, have historically sold better than others.
The second sense is used to describe and evaluate a specific game. A reviewer might discuss how the mechanics of a game tie into the setting and story that the theme is creating, or you could describe the theme to give others a clearer idea of what the game is about. Some games are tied very closely to their theme, with the mechanics drawing out the narrative that the creative aspects are telling. Others will simply use the theme to drive the look and feel of the game, but the mechanics themselves will be more or less independent.
Common Themes in Board Games
With thousands of board games being released every year, it's impossible to keep track of every individual theme on the market. However, if we limit our scope to themes in the first sense that we talked about - the category sense - then it does become possible to identify some of the more common trends.
The following is not an exhaustive look at all the major categories, but a glance at a handful of the most popular themes.
Each year, some number of the most popular board games will have a fantasy theme. Fantasy's umbrella is large, including themes from established intellectual properties (like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter), classic fantasy tropes (like elves and dragons), or original fantasy worlds, as seen in the likes of Gloomhaven or Crystal Clans.
Groundbreaking games like Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: the Gathering and Warhammer are all, on some level, fantasy games, and their success has influenced the wider world of board games, with many designers and players looking to create worlds that feel similar to or are inspired by these trailblazing games.
In addition, a fantasy theme gives designers a lot of room to be creative with their game's content. In a fantasy world, the only creative rules that exist are the ones you impose on yourself. There is also an almost unlimited scope for fantasy games to tell unique stories through their gameplay and lore that make them attractive to both design and play. It's no wonder that they've always been so popular.
Science Fiction Games
Most of what has been said about fantasy games can also apply to science fiction, though in this case its popularity stems from intellectual properties from outside the gaming universe, like Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly and countless other hit films and TV shows from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Like fantasy, science fiction is very broad. Of course, it includes a huge range of space games, featuring space ships, space stations, planets and galaxies, but it can also encompass games based on a future Earth, or the colonisation of another planet (as in Terraforming Mars).
Science fiction is a very flexible theme, allowing for games about exploration, war, colonisation and politics. Some of the larger, more popular science fiction games incorporate all of these elements and more! The potential for stories told through the game is just as real as it is in fantasy games, as is the potential for creative originality from designers.
It's rare to talk about these games in a single categry, as 'historical' games should really be broken out into smaller categories and time period. However, for our purposes there are some shared attributes that we can talk about.
Historical games use their theme to evoke the look and feel of a particular historical time period. Sometimes they will attempt to tell a particular historical story (as in Diplomacy), and other times they will use a historical setting for an otherwise unconnected game (as in Istanbul).
Games with historical themes can tell stories that are just as powerful as those in science fiction and fantasy games, but the designer will often have more constraints in how that story is told and presented if they want to be true to their historical period. The game will have to represent something of the time period it's trying to represent, whether that's through a geographical map, components that reflect the technology of the time, or a story that follows real events.
There are games for almost every time period, but a few historical themes that are likely to pop up more than others include:
- Ancient Rome.
- Medieval Europe.
- Early American settlers.
- 20th Century wars.
Like the historical category, real-world is almost too broad to be worth talking about, but it has some attributes that we can mention. Of all the themes we've discussed, games that represent some aspect of present day life tend to be the least story-driven, though that's not always the case.
These games will tend to turn some kind of activity from the real world into a game. Examples include anything from making sushi (Sushi Go) or building a power grid (Power Grid), to building a fast food chain (Food Chain Magnate). These real-world inspirations are often evoked in a lot of depth in the games that represent them, and their familiarity gives many players something familiar to latch on to when they're trying to learn the game.
Like historical games, however, real-world games come with in-built constraints. On some level, they have to represent the real-world activity that they're based on, whether that's in the look of the art or the kinds of mechanics used by the designer. With so many individual themes to choose from, however, it's likely that each game in this category will end up suiting its theme pretty well.
Theme and mechanics
Whatever category of theme a game falls into, there is no guarantee that the theme will strongly influence the way the game actually plays. And when the connection between a game's theme and its mechanics is brought up, gamers are often discussing the individual theme of the game at hand, rather than theme in its broader sense.
For example, in Century: Spice Road we might ask how much the game's theme of 17th century spice trading comes out in the mechanics (answer: not a lot), or how well War of the Ring captures the Lord of the Rings theme (answer: very well).
These answers lead us to two very broad categories:
- Games where the theme is heavily tied to the mechanics.
- Games where the theme is loosely tied to the mechanics (or 'pasted on').
Games where the theme and mechanics are closely tied give players a real taste of their individual theme through the gameplay. We mentioned War of the Ring, where players essentially recreate the look and feel of the Lord of the Rings story through a detailed map, miniatures and rules that evoke the story. This is one way to tie theme and mechanics: using the mechanics to tell the story of the theme.
Another way is to use the mechanics to create the experience of the theme. For example, many horror games will use their mechanics to actually create a sense of fear and unease in players by employing something like the hidden traitor mechanic (where one player in the group is a traitor, but no one else knows who it is) or by slowly building up to more and more terrifying monsters.
These games are generally harder to come across than more loosely thematic games, which we'll look at below. This is partly because it's simply much harder for a designer to create a game where the mechanics evoke the theme - there are far more constraints and they have to aim for the game to create a very precise experience. However, if they pull it off, the game will often win over a lot of fans and garner a lot of praise.
For gamers who like particular themes, this type of game will often be a fantastic experience, though it can be trickier to get others excited about it if they're not already a fan of theme. It's unlikely that many people who don't like Lord of the Rings will want to play War of the Ring, for example. However, the top games in this category often draw a lot of attention and are recognised as some of the best games out there.
Loosely Thematic Games
The larger category is games where the theme is very loosely tied to the mechanics or even completely separate. These are games where you could keep pretty much all the mechanics the same, paste another theme on top and have them still make sense. A lot of more popular, lighter games like Catan and 7 Wonders fall into this category.
A loose theme doesn't make a game worse, it's simply a different kind of experience. It's often the case that the themes offer fewer signposts for people who are trying to pick up the game for the first time, but you're also less likely to run into people who are turned off by the theme from the get-go.
While this kind of game often won't tell a story as strongly as more thematic games, designers have a lot more freedom in the kinds of mechanics they use. It's not surprising that a lot of more innovative games mechanically, like the first deck-building game, Dominion, have very loose themes.
Finally, we should mention abstract games. Abstract games have little to no theme at all, or a theme which is only represented in a symbolic way. Many classic games like chess, draughts and Go are abstract, but there are many very good modern games, like Onitama and Hive, that also fall into this category.
The best abstract games show that a game can be excellent even if it has barely any theme, but they shouldn't detract from the best thematic games, that show how well theme and mechanics can integrate.
The topic of theme serves to show how broad and diverse the board gaming hobby is, highlighting how many completely different kinds of games are out there for us to enjoy.