The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

When Good Games Have Bad Themes

Larry Levy

October, 2000

Few things inspire more gamers and more game sales than an attractive theme. We all have our favorites; almost everyone's collection is filled to the brim with games aimed at our personal weakness. And just about everyone agrees that a good theme can really enhance your enjoyment of a game.

But is the converse true? Will you probably dislike a game if the theme leaves you flat? Many gamers think so, and I'm afraid they may be missing out on some great games as a result. Here's my reasons for looking past an uninspiring theme when considering whether you'd like to try out a game.

Perhaps the best example of a game with a theme that was viewed as problematic is Uwe Rosenberg's great creation Bohnanza. When this was first released, I remember several reviewers saying they had been reluctant to try it, because who could get excited about a game dealing with bean farming? No doubt many other gamers felt the same way. Of course, the game eventually became such a runaway hit that sheer word of mouth probably caused most players to try it eventually and fall in love with it.

My point is, it shouldn't have been an issue in the first place. Sure the topic of bean farming is less than enthralling. But we are talking about a card game here, one featuring trading, not economics. There's a silly picture of an anthropomorphic bean on the cover and the box clearly states that the game takes only 45 minutes. Would anyone in their right mind think that this is a simulation of bean farming? Like so many German card games, the theme is just something slapped on to give the game atmosphere and let the illustrator come up with some funny pictures. And yet, a lot of gamers almost let this one get by.

Lesson #1: Don't get too concerned with a game's theme if it's obviously just window dressing.

Sometimes the problem isn't the theme, but the fact that it doesn't match the gameplay. Reiner Knizia's Vampire is an interesting rummy-like card game that features a goodly number of tough decisions. The theme is vampire hunting, which again has little to do with the game, but at least it's more intriguing than planting beans. The problem is that when the game first came out, many people picked it up thinking it was about garlic and wooden stakes and mad dashes through Transylvania. When they realized it was actually rummy on steroids, disappointment set in. Consequently, the early reviews on this one were negative and it's only recently that the game has been viewed in a favorable light. I just wonder how many people deprived themselves of enjoying a good game because the theme led them to expect something different than what they got.

But in this case, I actually do have a problem with the theme of this game: it's inappropriate for its potential audience. Because Vampire is a thought-provoking game that is nonetheless rooted in fairly traditional mechanics, it is an ideal game to play with non-gamers, particularly parents or in-laws, who are usually familiar with rummy-style games. Unfortunately, Aunt Sadie isn't going to be too thrilled with a game about offing the Lord of the Undead. Nor will she be overly pleased with the illustrations, which naturally are a little gory. By slapping on yet another facile, but potentially offensive theme, Goldsieber may have missed out on a sizable audience.

Lesson #2: Don't give up on a game just because it's different than the theme led you to believe it would be.

What initially hurt Vampire wasn't a poor theme, but people's expectations. Another example of this is Knizia's Ra. Ra This is an auction game with equipment and scoring rules steeped in the appearance and terminology of ancient Egypt. Despite all the gods and pyramids and such, the mechanics of the game have nothing to do with the theme, which is pretty much par for the course with Knizia. There were two sharply divided views on this game. One group immediately loved it and found that the window dressing only added to their enjoyment. The second group, equally entranced by Egyptian culture, were bitterly disappointed when they realized a game they thought would portray 1500 years of Egyptian civilization (the game descriptions in the rules were a bit ripe) turned out to be yet another auction game. Many of these players have never warmed to the game. The irony is that, given Knizia's popularity, if Ra had had a less evocative theme, it might have captured most of the first group without turning off any of the second group. No doubt such thoughts keep game company executives awake for a major portion of the night.

Lesson #3: Evocative themes are great, but be ready to look beyond them to the game itself if they promise more than they deliver.

Even if a theme accurately reflects a game's mechanics, it can still lead to false expectations about the kind of mechanics being used. Consider the Wolfgang Kramer/Richard Ulrich game Die Händler. I've never played this one, but a few players have reported that they were initially disappointed in it, but later grew to appreciate it. They said the problem was that the theme led them to believe that this would be a game featuring trading, when in fact it really emphasizes movement and negotiation. In their first few games, when they looked to the trading to carry the game, it seemed underdeveloped; it wasn't until they began to explore other aspects of the design that the game's virtues became apparent. It's possible that the mixed reviews this game has received are due at least in part to players expecting the game to be something it is not.

This happens more often than you might think. One of my favorite Knizia games is Stephenson's Rocket, which is based around the early days of railroading in Britain. This game has an unusually strong theme for a Knizia game. However, many veterans of the genre have dismissed it, saying that it is not a "train game". I believe what they are really saying is that it doesn't reflect the realities of railroading in the manner of the classic "train game", Stephensons Rocket Francis Tresham's 1830. But I would contend that 1830, with its restrictive tile laying rules, convoluted train routes, and extreme manipulations of the stock market, is just as abstract and non-realistic a game as Stephenson's Rocket. Don't get me wrong—1830 is a great and marvelously designed game. But it is in no way a realistic simulation of the railroad industry—nor does it attempt to be. So when its fans reject a similarly themed game as somehow unqualified to represent the genre, I think they're simply reacting to the fact that the game in question is different, rather than not as good. Their expectations about what a "train game" should be may get in the way of their appreciating other excellent games.

Lesson #4: A theme doesn't necessarily dictate a game's mechanics—keep an open mind.

So am I saying a game's theme doesn't matter? Of course not. To me, a good theme is particularly welcome in a game I probably would have liked anyway. For example, the historical themes of El Grande (Kramer/Ulrich) and Web of Power (Michael Schacht) do an excellent job of hiding the fact that these are actually fairly abstract games. And many of my favorite games, including such titles as Tikal (Kramer/Michael Kiesling) and Serenissima (Dominique Erhard/Duccio Vitale), have themes which are completely and engrossingly interwoven with the game play. The themes of these games add immeasurably to the experience of playing them. But, while I'm always glad when a theme enhances a game, I try not to let less appropriate themes serve as a negative. As a result, I think this has kept my mind open to a wider selection of games.

Wortelboer cardOf course, if you're a confirmed theme-watcher, don't fret. The game manufacturers of the world are willing to work with you. For example, last year, Gerard Mulder and Johan Schuyl came out with a game called Wortelboer that featured carrots and foxes and cute little bunnies. However, many players thought the gameplay was too aggressive and nasty for this pastoral theme and the game languished. Consequently, Rio Grande Games will be re-releasing it this year with a slightly more assertive theme. The name of the new game? Genghis Khan!

Now there's a theme for you.

- Larry Levy

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