Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Theme May Be Integral to a Game

A while ago, Mr. Ekted wrote that all themes are veneer. That, even for heavily themed war games, if you stripped off the designs and names, and played the game simply as hexes, tokens, and dice, you would not be able to tell what the theme was. You may be able to say that it is a war game, but not which war.

First of all, I expect that at least some themes can be discerned from the wording of the mechanics, the piece abilities, and the map structure. But I wouldn't swear to it.

In any case, Ekted is making too much of the division between theme and mechanics. You can't strip off the theme to a game and still have the same game, really.

The very way that you describe a mechanic gives it a thematic flavor. Taking a card from a pile might be "drafting", "collecting", "selecting", "purchasing", "accepting", or a host of other thematic names that gives a clue as to what the theme is.

Also, it is a Euro-gamer's perspective that NASCAR Monopoly is the same game as Atlantic City Monopoly, with a simple theme switch. But that is not necessarily true. The pictures, the flavor, the act of moving a car rather than a shoe around a board, have a lot to do with the feel of the game. The mechanics cannot simply be separated out from this experience.

The most you can say is that an individual mechanic cannot be limited to, or ascribed to, a specific theme. Listing the mechanics of a game are simply not enough to describe the game. The mechanics of Atlantic City Monopoly are not Atlantic City Monopoly or even Monopoly; they are only parts of the game.

Or at least, one could argue that.

The point is that taking out the thematic overlays and then claiming that the game's theme is no longer detectable is not really saying much, since the game itself has changed.



Gerald McD said...

Theme is a major enhancement for my gaming experience. If I don't like the theme of a game (lots of violence, drugs, or crime, among others), I don't even consider purchasing it, because I would not enjoy the "atmosphere" of the game. I prefer games that incorporate the theme well and that closely relate the mechanics to the theme, but whether there is a tight connection or not, I still get much of the gaming enjoyment from the theme itself.

ekted said...

You take me out of context. My point was not that theme is bad or useless, just that this notion that some games have "pasted-on theme" is not a very correct one.

However, I disagree without you about the same exact mechanics with a different theme is a different game. If you are doing the same steps, it's the same game.

Theme can "fool" you into liking a game more than you otherwise might. I fall for this myself. It's a good thing. But I am also aware of what's really going on.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Ted: I tried to write my article with as little negative slant as possible to yours. I may not have succeeded.

First of all, for context, everyone can go read Ted's article.

Second of all, I also don't say that theme is good or useful, only that it may be inseperally part of the game.

Now you and I both have strong urge to disagree with this, but that's because we are Euro-gamers, and educated as to what is a mechanic and what is a theme.

But, as I noted in my previous article on No Thanks, what we often see as mechanics is shaped by theme as well.

You can look at drawing a card as a card draw, or as an action, or as a resource acquisition. How you describe it shapes its meaning.

Second of all, you have not established that two games with identical mechanics and different themes are, in fact, the same game. That rests on the assumption that a game is essentially it's mechanics.

We all know that the vast majority of people don't feel that way, and I would not be so quick to dismiss them. Even though that is what I, too, have always done. I want to challenge that way of thinking.

Placing a blue tile, placing a blue ship, and placing a blue soldier may feel like the same game to a highly mathematical abstract thinker. But it is surely not the same exact thing.

In one case, the item placed establishes an abstract threat. In another it might inspire a sense of conquest. In another, it may pose a threat.

Our reacions to these movements are often based on the feel of the game. We may instinctively assign risk assessment based on the thematic type of victory we wish to achieve, based on the thematic nature of the game.

I think it is fair to say that tactics are probably the same for just about any theme. But strategy, which is a purely human idea and therefore charged with both story and emotion, may play out very differently when the pieces are changed.

Anyway, it is something to think about, and not just simply insist.


ekted said...

My name is Jim. :)

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Oops. Yes, I forgot.


ekted said...

I guess when I am in an analytical from of mind, I don't really care about the psychological properties of a game. As in your No Thanks article--which I agree with--you can think of a game in many different ways. But underneath, you are doing the same action. I don't care so much that the description affects the way gullible people play the game. I look for the underlying facts. I think our disagreement is really just one of semantics.

gnome said...

Very interesting article Yehuda, and one that I agree with. Speaking from a strict gamer's point of view that is.

On the other hand ekted does have a point on the tacked on themes...

Star Wars Risk and Lotr risk are actually Risk and nothing more. The theme doesn't even fit the mechanics very well (even though the LoTR game was a bit more than that)