Do All Board Games Have Themes?

“Doesn’t every game have a theme?”, my intelligent and sassy 12-year-old daughter asked me as I was preparing this week’s content. I was walking back and forth in front of our game shelves trying to figure out what games we owned I would classify as an amazing themed game. 

I also have a problem with thinking out loud, so as I was walking back and forth, I was asking myself multiple questions. The most common one being, “which game(s) do we own that I would include in a top five best themed game post?”

As I was struggling to figure this out, she asked her question, which made me go into a deep philosophical thought process to determine if every game really does have a theme. This means I just looked across our games trying to find a game that proved her wrong, but I couldn’t. I could even argue that games like Tak had a theme, even if the game didn’t have some beautiful art to showcase it.

What is Theme?

Theme refers to the setting, topic, background, or subject of a film, piece of literature, or, in our case, a board game. In games, the theme provides context that creates a purpose for the players as they go through gameplay.

The reason I had such a hard time figuring out what board games to include is that “theme” is such a broad term. This allows any tiny aspect of a game to create a theme for that game. However, I didn’t want my post to take on just any game that I could argue had a theme to it.

When I started out on this quest, I wanted to find games where the theme was deeply integrated into the game. What theme does the game have based on imagery, name, and marketing? How well was that theme utilized in gameplay? Is gameplay in line with the theme chosen? Could I identify the theme of the game if I removed the art or name?

I want to play games where I feel immersed in the game because all the actions I take reinforce the theme that the designer chose. I want to find a game based around a theme that I love and am excited to play. Then I want to go through my turns as a player feeling that theme deeply expressed.

Themes In Board Games

Oftentimes, it is easy to see themes in board games because the artwork or the name of the game displays the theme. Yet, when you are wanting to see the theme woven throughout the game, you have to look into more than these items.

Board games tend to display the theme through the rules, mechanics, gameplay, winning conditions, and more. Taking inspiration from the theme itself, the designer(s) is able to determine how the game will play, what components will need to exist, and the experience they want the player to have.

In some cases, the game shares a background story that explains the importance of the actions a player can take. As you take your turns, you notice that the choices you have on your turn make sense because of the theme. 

When done correctly, the theme provides a purpose to the player.

When Themes Go Wrong

The biggest issue that I stumble across is when a board game has a theme slapped on top of an already made game. Playing a game that falls into this category feels like the game was created without consideration for the theme at all. In fact, there’s a chance that the theme didn’t even exist until the game design was complete. 

This is very common when you see games that use well-known intellectual property (IP); or concepts from shows, books, games, and more that are very popular. I believe this happens because they expect the IP itself to sell the game versus the actual enjoyment a player receives from playing the game.

I imagine we are all familiar with a popular economic-themed board game where you might be lucky enough to choose the dog meeple, but will likely end up with the iron. (Does anyone ever choose the iron meeple?!) The base game itself is thematic in its own way and it works when you are playing the base game. Where it goes wrong is that they often slap another theme on top of the game. When they do this, they change imagery, names, and shapes of components, but the gameplay is essentially the same. They didn’t create a new game that worked with the IP, they just laid that IP on top of their game.  

As a disclaimer, I do know some folx design games in this way, they come up with a mechanic or gameplay idea and then add a theme to it later. I believe that if the theme works well with the gameplay or things were adjusted to fit the theme, then it works. I also believe that some designers who work with large IPs can make really great games. In this section, I’m talking more along the lines of designers/board games that follow the way my above-mentioned example operates.

How Absurdist Goes About Theme

One of the main reasons why we decided to become a publication company was to remain in creative control of our games. This is especially true in ensuring that we have the theme we picked out completely integrated into the game. We want our vision brought to life in the best way possible.

Typically, we get a spark of inspiration for a new game that comes in the form of a general theme idea, which we will share some examples below. We create a basic version of the game to play through, to make sure the idea is sound and can be quite fun. From there, we build out the game’s mechanics in line with the theme and from player feedback. Every decision we make to improve the game is run through the theme idea to make sure it still fits.

Churrascaria

While spending a wild evening at a Brazilian steakhouse with some friends after PAX South, the idea of Churrascaria was born. We knew that we had to take this experience and turn it into a game for others to enjoy.

This meant more than creating a game and putting pictures of food on the various components. We used actual actions that our friends made during that dinner and turned them into action cards that players could use during the game.

The double-sided food request tokens that are used at Brazilian steakhouses to let the Passadores know whether or not you are accepting meat is also a component in the game to indicate whether you will receive a new food dish at the end of your turn or not.

Our game recreates the experience we had and it has been a real joy to watch other folx play as they often tune into the vibe that we had on that wild evening.

PaleoVet

When watching Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, we were introduced to Zia Rodriguez, a Paleo-Veterinarian who went to the island to help care for the animals. This gave us our theme of players taking on the role of veterinarians who treat sick dinosaurs.

We were able to get a very basic and fun game created in one night and as we started playtesting with other folx, we ran into a lot of questions. Many of which, we didn’t think about or expect to be a concern.

  • Where are these Dinosaurs we are treating?
  • Are we working at a Dinosaur park? If all the players work at the same park, why are they competing against each other?
  • Why is there a rush to cure these dinosaurs?
  • What happens to the dinosaurs that we don’t cure? Do they die?
  • If we are dinosaur experts, why do we have to research new treatments? Shouldn’t we already know how to treat all the animals?

We used these questions to help us build out our game to ensure that it fit the theme and left players without feeling that the theme was unrealistic.

We added a story to the rulebook to set the scene as to why you are here and where the dinosaurs came from. We did this to help set the scene and answer many of the questions that playtesters had. We also added upgrade cards that allow players to improve their facilities or skills to be better at treating dinosaurs. Every action you can take in the game is designed to help you get better at treating dinosaurs, regardless of which strategy you use to get there.

We could have chosen to just have dinosaurs as art and be done with it when we expressed the theme, but we went further than that. The cards that represent the dinosaur are designed as if they are medical records, which falls into the theme of being a veterinarian. As a call back to the game’s inspiration, we made the wild symbol a DNA helix, and the DNA tokens in the form of chunks of amber.

The game looks beautiful on the table and projects the theme in many obvious and subtle ways. When the game is all laid out, players feel like they are a group of competing Paleo Veterinarians trying to catch and treat sick and injured dinosaurs on a secluded island.

Winter Rabbit

Of course, integrating the theme is not always easy. We have plenty of in-progress games that we are working on that have hit snags or had to be completely redone because it didn’t fit the theme well enough or the initial idea wasn’t actually fun. The theme is still awesome and we hope to still use it, but we haven’t been able to build a game around the idea that we enjoyed playing.

We hope this will be the next game we release, which is based on Will’s Cherokee heritage and Cherokee folklore. It is extremely important that the game feels right and fun to play while also tapping into the Cherokee culture.

We’ve put in some mechanics that made the game feel right or feel fun, but we had to pull it out as we analyzed them and determined that they didn’t make sense given the culture we are basing the game around. However, we have also kept some mechanics that feel right but don’t necessarily fit with the culture, but we have tweaked it to make it fit.

The game has a winning condition wrapped around victory points of a sort. This idea of focusing on making yourself better than others doesn’t tie in well to the Cherokee culture; however, we need a way to determine the winner. Due to this, most of the ways that you earn victory points is by helping the community, which does tie much better with the culture. 

Do All Games Have Themes?

Every game that I can think of when I was looking around our shelves has some sort of theme or I could argue that it had a theme, even if I didn’t think the theme was done well. Whether it be trying to care for the dinosaurs or eating as much meat as possible, the theme is there.

What do you think? Do you think all games have themes, regardless of if they are done well or not?

3 Comments

  1. DC (David Carl)

    While I agree whole-heartedly that slapping a theme onto a game haphazardly is a mistake we see all to often, I think there are numerous examples of games with bottom-up development (where the mechanics came first, and the theme was built later). Top-down development is probably more common among games (theme first, mechanics later), but I would by no means discredit an enjoyable game simply because some key mechanics were developed before the theme. (Admittedly, I can think of at least one game developer who would debate that point, but he and I do quite a few things differently throughout our development processes.)

    Reply
    • David Thomas

      Theme first certainly isn’t the only way, it just tends to be the way we work. That said, there are certainly times where in the middle of a design a specific mechanic may take over, or we might find it doesn’t work in the current game and spin it off into its own design that is then in need of a theme of its own.

      Both Top-down and Bottom-up design can work equally well, but the end goal is that you have a theme and mechanics that support each other rather than one feeling tacked onto the other. So regardless of which we start with, we try to have both from the earliest stages and happily change both as needed during development to make sure they feel fully integrated.

      Some games obviously are much lighter on theme. Chess and checkers for example are about kingdoms at war, and Tak is about building roads. In some games, the theme is even more subtle, Shobu, for instance, is themed only in its use of natural materials and packaging marked with Kanji characters to give the idea of an ancient far east origin to a game designed by pair of Canadians.

      Reply
  2. DC (David Carl)

    *too often
    Gah, no edit feature.

    Reply

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