This is a subject that tickles my brain on a semi-regular basis, most recently based on the discussion of the SUSD review of Wingspan and playing Flamme Rouge the other day.
Whenever I try and think of games where the theme really matches the mechanics, I struggle. Probably because it doesn’t bother me too much when they don’t match, as long as there’s a nice crunchy puzzle or an excuse for general silliness with my friends underneath. However I do appreciate it when a game is really thematic, because it seems like such a feat of design!
Of the games in my collection, the only one I’m confident in describing that way is Flamme Rouge, because the exhaustion mechanic makes me really feel like my team is getting more tired towards the end of the race, as well as the believable treatment of hills and slip-streaming.
I want to include Root in the “thematic” bucket as well, because I think that most of the factions’ abilities support their backstory. There is a distinct possibility that I’m just charmed by the art though…
So, after my waffling: which games do you find properly thematic, and why?
Netrunner: the corp is playing shell games, secretly advancing agendas, while the runner takes gambles and risks death.
Mage Knight: your knight is absurdly powerful, but their moods and magic are fickle, and not entirely under your control. If your mage knight wants to burn down the monastery, you’d better roll with that instead of forcing them to be nice.
Innovation: civilizations aren’t engines that get constantly better, although technology does unlock new possibilities. You’ll suffer setbacks and dark ages and flurries of innovation and cultural advancement.
Twilight Struggle: it’s just a great model of two American Cold War era strategists pretending to Cold War, where domino theory is real and the war hawks must be appeased through military operations.
Napoleon’s Triumph: the fog of war is everything. There’s just no good way to drive out entrenched troops other than flanking them - or throwing hundreds of men to their deaths. No dice rolls are going to save the day. The splintering of your command as corps get split up into isolated units is just perfect.
Space Alert: the time pressure, that grating computer voice, the panicked, interrupted communication with your friends as you try and stop the ship from falling apart.
Generally speaking, games I like tend to become more thematic the more I internalise the mechanisms. The less I think about the rules, the more everything ties together with the theme. Games I don’t like do the opposite - they get stripped down to their component mechanisms, analysed, and played mechanically until I move on.
I’ve never before wanted to play this game. Now I do. Bad @Benkyo
How come Pax Pamir 2 didn’t make your list?
Sure I’ve only ever played that one game of it with you and Chris but in that one I felt like I was manoeuvering chieftain who had to work around the empires and shift allegiances as necessary to hold on to my little corner of the map.
I haven’t played enough Root to have a debate about how thematic it is but I tend to agree.
I want to add how each spirit in Spirit Island has thematic abilities that make each of them unique to play. Like the fire spirit being faster than everyone else and really good at destroying buildings, or the earth spirit being terribly slow but once they get there they crush everything. There’s the woodland spirit that spreads nature everywhere and prevents the invaders from moving in at all and the great serpent beneath the island who strengthens all the other spirits and eventually wakes up and vanquishes the invaders on their own. But I come from a Euro-y corner of gaming so maybe games just need very little thematic elements to make me happy.
Oh, Pax Pamir 2e is on the list - the shifting alliances and allegiances are perfect. The ways in which you weigh the value of allegiances, and the balance of how easy/difficult it is to switch allegiance are very finely crafted. It’s not a metagame consideration, it’s baked into the mechanisms of the game. I just had to stop listing all the games I like at some point.
The crossroads cards in Dead of Winter feel really thematic to me. It’s possible to read them as ‘I have a choice between taking a 50% risk of a bad token for a good token and doing nothing’, but I generally read them as ‘I have an excruciating moral choice between leaving these people hungry and cold or taking them in and giving them shelter, which exposes the whole delicate ecosystem of the colony to increased risk’. The morale system is also really thematic.
My most thematic single game ever was when at the very end of War of the Ring there was about a 50/50 chance of either destroying the ring or succumbing to corruption, and Frodo pulled it off. That game is amazingly thematic altogether. It’s a brilliant piece of game design. We could pretty much hear the eagles coming as the mountain crumbled at the end. It helps to be a Tolkien fan.
Root does not feel thematic to me, because the factions don’t represent anything in real life or even in fiction: there’s no backstory. I agree that Mage Knight feels thematic, but it has a similar problem, though it taps into a sort of generic D&D vibe.
Pax Pamir is an odd one. The cards are thematic, and much of the play seems sort of thematic - you can control mines and crops to be an economic power, or control armies and guns to be a military power… but the rules often seem to take people out of the thematic feel into something more like ‘red will win unless you play that card to betray that card’, which breaks the spell. The fact that the calculations are strict deductions is actually a problem. If it was more like ‘you could try to betray that with an 80% chance of success, but you could also do this desperado move with a 20% chance of success’ it might feel more thematic. And give players competing motivations, depending on how they feel about the situation. Not sure.
Here I Stand and Virgin Queen - thematic to the max. Any game that more or less requires you to wear a mitre or a crown for a day must be on the list.
Firefly goes some way in this direction – the universe is not out to dump on you, it’s just that you happened to be there when there was dumping going on.
Mysterium generates a frustrated ghost almost every time.
(Back in the day I played a lot of BattleTech, and there came a point when instead of “my giant robot shoots your giant robot” I was seeing it as a mesh of probabilities. Which made me a much better player, but I got into it because of the shooty stompy giant robots, and it was less fun to play after that.)
Race for the Galaxy is more thematic than people give it credit for.
You start as a pokey single planet.
When you explore you either go deep (draw fewer and keep two) or go wide (draw lots but keep one)
When you develop you get a card at the cost of others (research direction)
When you settle you either take over by force (Military planets) or by establishing trade links
Consumption is either get money (cards) or prestige (VPs)
Produce represents planets well, producing
The relative merit of Novelty goods being worth less than Alien Tech makes sense from a galactic standpoint.
By the end you’re using Drop Ships full of alien tech found in the Lost Alien Battle Fleet and Space Marines on the Rebel Miners planet whilst the Galactic Trendsetters are just out to have a good time with the stuff they got from the Artist’s Colony.
I find this very interesting, because I think Root does have a backstory - albeit a very basic one. However, the reason I think it is thematic is because the mechanics really conjure up the feeling of the political ecosystem in the woodland, and let’s you build your own story on that. If anything, I imagine I would find that War of the Ring has too much backstory and that I would feel too tied to the books. I haven’t played it though, so could be dead wrong!
It’s like art :). We all know what it is, but we don’t necessarily agree.
What I’m talking about is a feeling of immersion in a story, which is deep enough to affect how I make decisions, and (ideally) the game rewards/encourages those decisions. Gandalf should go to Fangorn forest. That’s where he is discovered to be Gandalf the White. Henry VIII should invade France, and should desperately try to have a male child. Members of a post-apocalyptic community should feel bad about some of the decisions they have to make.
Want to play it differently: go ahead - it’s your choice. And an Ottoman invasion of London or a Protestant invasion of Vienna makes an entertaining alternative history. Ditto a recent Soviet Canada that turned up in a game of Twilight Struggle. I love non-thematic games (I still play loads of chess) but I’m increasingly interested in games that provide immersion and tell a story. Even in Through the Ages, where the theme is very abstracted, there are some amusing moments when, for example, William Shakespeare declares war on Napoleon or Isaac Newton is assassinated by Bill Gates.