Themes In Board Games
Recently, I found myself at the airport waiting for my plane to board…
To pass the time, I went to the airport bookstore to browse for something to read on the flight. Now, I’m not an avid book reader, I don’t keep up with what’s popular, and I wasn’t looking for anything specific. So, the information I had to work with was limited to the cover art and the synopsis on the back of the book. Based on this alone, I found myself attracted to some titles while immediately rejecting others.
For many of the us, the decision to choose a particular book or movie comes down to its thematic content. We gravitate toward themes which interest us, such as Romance, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Action, Mystery or Historical Fiction. In most cases, the theme of an entertainment product is already reflected in both the title and cover art. If the theme presented in the title and cover art fail to draw our attention, we probably won’t enjoy the narrative of the product.
Theme is just as important when it comes to choosing a board game. Just like books and movies, board games offer us an opportunity step into roles and scenarios outside our everyday experience. In ‘Monopoly’, for example, we take on the role of a wealthy real-estate mogul intent on crushing their competition. In ‘Pandemic’ we take the role of a scientist attempting to save the world from a deadly viral outbreak. In ‘Clue’ we try to solve a murder in a mansion. In ‘Carcassonne’ the goal is to build an ancient castle. I don’t know about you, but most of these experiences are so far removed from my daily life that playing a board game is as close I’ll ever get. Knowing the theme of a game can help us zero in on the kinds of roles and scenarios with the greatest potential for our enjoyment.
Theme is also what gives meaning and purpose to the bare-bones mechanics of a game. I think it is safe to say that a game like ‘Ticket to Ride’ would be a lot less popular if we were just connecting dots on a white board while trading cards of different colours. The fact that the dots represent cities on a map and the connections between them represent train tracks provides meaningful context to gameplay. At its core, a board game may simply be a collection of rules and logical systems, but a good theme allows us to transcend these mechanics, engage our imaginations and immerse ourselves in the narrative.
Of course, there are exceptions to this. There are plenty of fine games that are devoid of any theme. In gaming lingo these games are called ‘abstract games.’ Games like Chess, Checkers, Qwirkle and Connect 4 are popular examples of this genre. In most cases, these games appeal to the purely strategic gamer who thrives on the raw challenge of logical and mathematical puzzle solving.
Also, just as a book cannot always be judged by its cover, a game’s theme may not have much to do with its gameplay. Take ‘Lords of Waterdeep’, for example. The game features cover art depicting knights and warriors but it’s really a strategic worker-placement game at its core that has little to do with adventure or conflict. However, when theme and mechanics do work together in harmony, both are elevated to create an exciting and transcendent experience.
Whether you would like to explore space, solve mysteries, build castles or plant a garden, chances are there’s a game out there with a theme that will resonate with you. So, go explore the world – any world, with a new and exciting board game.
Looking for games in which theme and game mechanics have been artfully joined? Here are my favourites:
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