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Is Theme Important In A Board Game?


There are plenty of abstract games out there that don’t really have a theme. There are others that do, but it’s tenuous at best and hardly rears its head at all during actual game play. Look at Codenames, for example. It’s about spies and assassins (I think) but I certainly don’t give that a second thought while playing it and I’d bet most people are the same. Azul is about decorating a palace but although its tiles are pretty and have feel-appeal, you are placing them in patterns on a player mat and that’s what it feels like. Both these games are extremely successful, and suggest that a theme isn’t especially important.

Other games do have a theme, and you’re vaguely aware of it during the game but it’s kind of there in the background. Tapestry would fall into this category for me. I might know I’m trying to move up the technology track but I couldn’t tell you at any point whether I’ve learned to breed animals on my farm or make lithium batteries, or what the little buildings in different colours are called. Five Tribes is another – we talk about the meeples by colour and know what they do in the game but not necessarily what that represents in the Sultanate of Naqala. Just to be clear – I’m not saying I don’t like or don’t play any of the games I’ve mentioned so far, only that at least for me, theme does not play a big part in them.

I want to talk about games that really draw you in. A lot of my board games are centred around nature and I chose them partly because of that. Yet they are not the ones I get most immersed in, and I wanted to think about that.

I realised that one important factor is whether the game is cooperative. Cooperative games can draw you into the theme because you have to talk about it. Take Pandemic, and some of the things you might say to each other: “Can you make your way over to Riyadh and start dealing with the outbreak there?” Or “I’ll build a research centre and then we can cure the blue disease.” Ok, there are phrases that take you out of the story – ‘take your card’, ‘blue disease’ but it still feels like a mission you are all working together on.

Burgle Bros is one I can really get into. Ever since watching The Great Train Robbery as a child, I’ve fancied myself as some sort of master thief. In burgle bros I get to say “You make your way to the safe and start cracking it.” Or “If I go upstairs the guard on this floor will stay where he is.” Or “I’m just going to hide in the toilets until he’s out of the way.” Of course, it’s not all as realistic (I say this as if I have a lot of experience with robbing a three- storey bank but I assure you I haven’t). Hopefully a bag of donuts wouldn’t prevent a real-life security guard from doing his rounds and who would steal a barking chihuahua from a safe? But there’s something about working together to find the safe, steal the loot and escape up the stairs without getting caught that allows you to get lost in the theme. I also love the way each valuable item you acquire makes your escape more difficult in a fun way.

I’ve just bought a new game (whispering this as my other half hasn’t spotted it yet) and after one play I’m impressed by its immersion factor. The Grand Austria Hotel appealed to me because the mechanics looked interesting and a youtuber said it ‘sings’, in terms of theme. I have to agree with her. You have a café at the front of your hotel. You employ staff if and when you can afford to. It’s not cooperative but even so I found myself asking “Why haven’t you fulfilled the dame’s order yet?” and being told “I haven’t got a room ready for her.” It feels very much like I imagine running a hotel would, making decisions about whether to employ a waiter or a butler and who to tempt into your café from the street. Doing your best to get a guest to their prepared room so that you can free up a table in the café.

In general, I would say that if the actions you take in the game make sense thematically, that goes a long way towards a feeling of accomplishment while you are playing it. Also, it’s easier to learn the game because each thing you do makes sense, so it’s easier to remember. Is theme important in a board game? I conclude that it is, though not necessarily in the way I used to think it was. In future I’ll be choosing games based a little less on whether I like the theme itself, and a little more on how well that theme integrates into the gameplay.


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