The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Recurring Themes

Anthony Simons

April, 2004

Games have been around for millennia, I am sure everybody is aware. They reflect the ascent of man in many ways and are often indicative of many aspects of civilisation and society; for example, as education came to the masses boardgames soon increased in variety and complexity.

There reached a point in the history of the boardgame where demand exceeded supply and manufacturers were forced to come up with new ideas to compete with their fellows. When advances in media and mass production throughout the twentieth century took hold, the competition became hotter; this was particularly true about what some have called the "Golden Age of Boardgames"1, approximately between 1950 and 1980. However while I agree this was an important milestone in gaming history, I imagine the Golden Age to just be dawning around about now.

With this "Golden Age" there came a great deal of competition; to capture the child's mind (which was the best way to sell something to the parents) the big manufacturers had to come up with something to attract children away from their rivals. The result of course was what has become known as "theme". While this term is not exclusive to that era, there can be no dispute that theme became most apparent in these post-war, post-Monopoly years. Indeed, the most apparent themes were tied in to something else, that large glowing box in the corner of the room that nobody could take their eyes off; television. As vicious circles go it wasn't so vicious, but that same box also gave children their first glimpse of something they didn't have through the wonders of advertising. I digress; the point is that themes were now almost as diverse as the games themselves.

Nothing has changed much in that respect; one of the most influential selling points for a game (whether that game is bought to silence a child or to silence our own inner child) is the theme. I know I steer clear of anything girly, for example; there might be a good game waiting to crack out of that electronic shopping mall game, but my inner child is still as masculine and misogynistic in this respect as when I got my first Action Man2 as a boy. Girls were out until I got to "that age" and the only time Barbie got near was when Action Man wanted some, erm, "action".

So before I get all nostalgic again, I will proceed to discuss what I came here to discuss. Because theme is still a great selling-point, and because for a lot of players it adds something to a game which holds interest, I decided it would be a good idea to take a quick look at popular themes of recent years and ramble on a bit about them in a kind of nondescript fashion. After some thought, I changed my mind and decided instead to ramble on about how some themes seem to pop up more often than others. I won't discuss why, as I have probably done so already. I think I'll probably end up rambling anyway, but never mind—just ignore the bits you don't like. The first and most obvious theme will be...


Wargames abound. Wargames are a law unto themselves, and are generally referred to as simulations to differentiate from the allegedly less interesting and bland strategy boardgames we love so dearly. We are all into gamer's snobbery of some description, but the superior air many wargamers have needs to be witnessed to be believed. Every wargamer is an expert; I duly note that despite this there are extremely few that are in fact militarily adept and would truly be in the brown stuff were they to don the mantle of a field commander from any era. Perhaps it's just the sense of power they get that does it?

Bohnaparte in Italy, a typical wargame

As everybody here knows, the average strategy gamer is rather aloof of such petty arrogances (I could be kidding myself here, but I prefer to think so as I am primarily an average strategy gamer); this doesn't stop them playing wargames of course, but the wargames they play are not what wargamers would accept into that definition. So, in being a thoughtful soul I will bow to the wargamer's self-appraisals and point out that they are more war-themed than anything else when played by a strategy gamer.

The reason I started with the theme of war is because conflict is undoubtedly the single most popular theme in boardgames. This applies also to a great deal of traditional games which are arguably war-themed as well as those "Golden Age" titles and many more recent productions.

Recurrences of this theme which have recently fought their way onto the shelves and into our favour are games such as Axis & Allies, Risk, Vinci, Battle Cry, Princes of the Renaissance and A Game of Thrones. Though arguably the last two of those have elements other than war as their theme, war is truly a major element of the theme.


No, I don't refer to anybody's ethnic origins here, this is the more obvious theme of getting past the finish line first. Arguably this theme has been as popular as war in the past, but I don't think so. I would wager, however, racing has overtaken war as a popular theme in recent publications.

From a personal viewpoint, the greatest advantage a racing game has over others is that it is fairly obvious throughout—at least in most cases—whom is leading and who is trailing. There is generally no hidden scoring and the only problem to consider is usually how to get your car, horse, chariot, runner or generic token as far ahead of where it was the previous turn as possible so that it is closer to the finish (hopefully closer than anyone else's). Sometimes there is a bit of race fixing going on too; pulling back a leader is another way to get ahead.

One of my favourite race games zoomed into first in the early 1960s and surprisingly is still fairly popular despite being out of print for over two decades; Formula 1. The simplicity yet control in playing means every so often that old Waddington's 1964 edition is dragged at top gear from the shelf and screeches to a halt on a six-player table.

In all fairness, I should subdivide this theme into different racing types; but then I would have to go back and do the same for war and I really can't be bothered. So, before I complete this lap and move on to another recurring theme I will run a few modern titles which carry this baton; Mississippi Queen, Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix, Ave Caesar, Hare & Tortoise, Arena Maximus and Fette Autos to name but six. They all have their pros and cons, but in particular I would like to say that of all six, Hare & Tortoise stands apart as the one race game in which the leader just might not be.


Almost back in the realm of wargames, we have the political theme. I say almost because not all political themed games use war as a subtheme, but many do.

Take if you will the example of that old favourite Diplomacy. I won't accept this is solely a wargame as much of the game is spent in negotiation in order to achieve one's military ends. One could argue that military manoeuvres are the predominant substance of the game, but by no means is this substance the predominant theme.

This brings me on to what I am describing as a political theme; not necessarily a game about elections or international tension, but if that is the predominant background then I can hardly exclude them. Political themes are where players represent either an entire government or a part of some government or council.

Many political games will require discussion between players as they try to convince each other of the best course of action, but there are others that won't such as the old and fairly rare Election game from Intellect which is all about campaigning and picking up votes.

Again political themed games can be subdivided and the theme can often involve to some extent war; some examples of recent political games are Minister, Saludos Amigos and Liberté. Of these three, only Minister follows the political theme in the sense of electing a government; Saludos Amigos is more about influence in town planning, but that is politics on a local basis, and of course Liberté has a lot to do with the politics of France after the French Revolution; and war creeps in here.

Greater abstractions from the negotiating game include games such as El Grande, Web of Power and San Marco; all three involve players exerting their representative influences in the form of caballeros, cloisters and aristocrats respectively.


Since the advent of Monopoly nothing has dominated the games market more than games of high finance. Overall, there must be more games in which money changes hands than any other game type. Countless play banknotes have been printed; these alone must be responsible for the entire decimation of forests throughout the world, but then perhaps they have kept the paper industry in supply of paper that is worth something—legal tender, of course.

The main trouble with the older games is that the play money is used more as a gimmick than a useful tool and important game mechanism. The terrible Game of Life ceases to interest once a child reaches puberty; no surprise really as it serves only to count the score as a player moves regimentally along a fixed route, the most difficult choices being whether or not to take out fire and life insurance (and what obvious choices they are). Money is a waste of paper for games like these, but is crucial as an element to other games in which business and trade are important. The Business Game originally made by Waddington's in the 1960s is still around in great quantities (please contact me if you want a copy as I have tons of them and despite the game being fairly good for an old game I often have difficulty offloading them). Money was very important in this game of mining, trade and transport; in particular because everything cost. There were two currencies, and the object was to make $1 million through exports having spent pounds sterling on your mining investments. Play money was certainly put to good use here.

Of course many of the best modern trade games do not employ a tangible monetary system but instead use some other method of scoring; the prime example is Medici in which each player's wealth is represented by a token on a scoring track. Classics like Pit use nothing at all; while a lot of trade is constantly occurring during this rowdy game, the object is to corner a single market and score as much as possible for it.

Many games use trade mechanisms because just about everything a theme can be based on costs money or some other commodity. However, holding the trade mechanism alone does not make a game trade themed; if this were the case the under-tens group of doctors and specialists that rake in a fortune extracting writer's cramp or charley horse in the ubiquitous Operation would have to be classed as entrepreneurs in the gaming sense, as opposed to noisy, meddlesome, and sometimes smelly and untidy waifs who want nothing more than to poke each other in the eye with a pair of low-voltage tweezers because they were nudged and lit up the patient's nose while trying to pull his Adam's apple. For this reason alone, games in which trade is often a core mechanism still cannot really be classed as trade themed.

Much better trade games than ever before have been leaked from the German economy in the last decade or so; Modern Art, Shark, Die Händler, Merchants of Amsterdam, Medieval Merchant and Traders of Genoa are just a few. There are so many more that perhaps within the modern strategy gaming niche trade has become the most popular theme; but you are about to find out that the competition is pretty close...


Considering we have covered races already, it would be a surprise to some that transport as a theme does not encapsulate them; of course to the seasoned gamer it is quite obvious that when I refer to transport themed games the theme predominant is railways. And as far as railway games go, there are tons. An absolute myriad of rail games exist, from the heavier 1830 from the 1970s to the simplistic Railroader from the 1960s. Such a popular theme is transport that the recent trend might just put it above trade games as a theme; at least within the strategy gaming hobby. If it doesn't beat it, transport has to be pretty close. Of course in many cases trade and transport go hand-in-hand; Die Händler for example has players sending wagons laden with goods from city to city to trade and make money. However, in the vast majority of cases one theme is predominant. Union Pacific is about expanding railways, and also about earning money by investing in the different rail companies; yet the entire train transport theme is significantly predominant throughout.

Some transport games as we have just seen are more about the overall planning of transport routes, but of course there are others which are about getting from A to B, usually with some sort of delivery. Many rail games are about connecting a number of points and making deliveries; the cumbersome Rail Baron which of course had a financial bent (as most of these game types do) involved making money through delivering goods from one city to another, or by allowing other players to deliver through the use of one's routes—for a fee of course. This game while good in principle is far too long and drawn out for play other than for its small group of enthusiasts (smaller still than our small group of strategy gamers, of course).

In retrospect it can easily and fairly be concluded that transport games of the past were way too long, detailed and inelegant. Those who play the old rail games habitually are akin to the wargamer, but I must qualify that critique by stating they are generally without that air of haughtiness the serious wargamer carries around. Their commonality lies in the detail and simulation they enjoy in their relevant preferred field of gaming; the serious rail gamer is an enthusiast. Other people don anoraks and go out train-spotting, others still spend money and time building their own railway in the attic, loft, garage, shed or (generally the unmarried ones) a dedicated room in the house. The rail gamer will find new maps, new eras and new campaigns in a similar fashion to a wargamer then spend countless hours building and rebuilding railways using crayon and tile. These people gain my admiration for their dedication, their loyalty to the theme and most of all their ability to allocate so much time to one game.

In recent years the common variety of strategy gamer has invaded this secular area of gaming thanks to people like Franz-Benno Delonge, Martin Wallace and Alan Moon. All have designed rail games which are playable in a much shorter time than their predecessors, yet maintain the qualities of those early rail titles. Age of Steam Of particular note is Martin Wallace's Age of Steam; this game forces players to consider operating costs, potential profits, engineering rail links and paying dividends to shareholders. Whilst sounding extremely complex Mr. Wallace has handled the economics in such an abstract and simplified fashion that, though the full effect of the older rail games is not maintained the basic dilemmas are similar and the result is a competitive and intense rail war between three to six players. Non-rail transport games include Clippers, Auf Achse and Airlines. Both Clippers and Airlines were designed by Alan Moon and, not surprisingly by their mechanics, have also been produced with a rail theme (Santa Fe and Union Pacific respectively, though the order in which they occurred in comparison to their seafaring or airline equivalents differs). Whilst traveling, one might consider...


Popular of late is the theme of exploration. This theme too has been around for decades; indeed over a century ago games involving world travel were becoming quite popular. A "Golden Age" title, Exploration (funnily enough), which was taken up by Waddington's in the late 1960s touched upon the more adventurous aspects of discovery. One has to remember this was a decade of adventurers; many were following Sir Edmund Hilary's conquest in the 1950s, sailors were undertaking single-handed circumnavigation of the world (or pretending to3) and with the increased popularity of mass media people could marvel as Jacques Cousteau showed us what it was like underwater, David Attenborough could sneak up on wildlife rarely seen and show pictures to his audience, and Alan Whicker could travel the world exposing interesting people to the nation (ok, those of across the Pond might not know who they are but they were popular here in the UK).

The trouble with a game like Exploration was simple; it was still all about money. Arguably it was just another Monopoly clone in a slightly different guise than the norm. Instead of investing in property, the players invested in teams of adventurers, their equipment and transport. Instead of increasing land value through development and charging escalated rent from other players, the returns for exploration was money for major discoveries and archaeological finds. Later games such as Conquer Everest in the 1970s dealt with specific challenges; in this case there was a gathering of the appropriate tools and equipment as in Exploration, but then it was a race up a three-dimensional Mount Everest, "spending" equipment on the way.

Avalon Hill brought out a game called Source of the Nile which maintains popularity today in some quarters despite containing the typical Avalon Hill rulebook; about as absorbing a read as the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the not-so-short Shorter Oxford Dictionary. Source of the Nile again had an almost wargamey style akin to the rail games of old; it is one of those games that no matter how often I look over it I cannot bring myself to play.

Happily the theme has maintained its adventurous strength in the form of the more modern games, and it appears in several permutations to boot. In a few cases the self same game has had its exploration theme replaced by—another exploration theme. Specifically I am referring to Wildlife Adventure, a game in which players explore the world collecting pictures of rare species. The theme was changed years later to become one of players exploring the world and picking up ancient artifacts in archaeological sites; Expedition. I have never played the latter version but am assured it is at least as good as Wildlife Adventure.

EntdeckerExploration games of note and of recent interest include Tikal, Magellan, Goldland and Entdecker; it is debatable whether Settlers of Catan is worthy of the same thematic classification, as it is more about the colonisation than the exploration of islands. However, there can be no doubt that space exploration is the main theme of Starfarers of Catan, the expensive Sci-Fi epic built on the same mechanics. This brings me to, with some relevance...


There cannot have been many games covering this theme until quite recently; most of the older titles were complex offerings from Avalon Hill and their ilk. Two I haven't played but own include Conquistador by Avalon Hill and Viceroys by Task Force Games. Note I said haven't played; one look at the rules, the map, the tokens and the groups I play with indicate with a near certainty that it will be an extremely long time before I ever do.

However, when a thoughtful chap called Klaus Teuber decided to share his masterpiece with us, and the Settlers of Catan series of games was born. This game is the definitive game of colonisation, but it is not the only one. For example, there is Africa 1880 which has much to do with the colonisation of the Dark Continent by the European superpowers at the end of the nineteenth century. Along with this theme, however, there are implications of a conflict between the powers and of course that is exactly what the game is about. Each player colonises, fraternises and then marmalises4.

Colonies are increasingly common in boardgames, more so than before and in my humble opinion this is all because of the Settlers phenomenon. One recent example that stands out from others is Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum's New England; starting from Plymouth Rock four families build their homesteads and live off the land. The game is quite territorial in its mechanisms and play, but then territory is what colonisation is all about.

We are likely to see more games with this similar theme as time progresses; colonisation is one of those themes that lends itself well to strategy games. Perhaps the primary reason for its increasing popularity as a theme is the territorial aspect.

Some more examples of modern strategy games which employ this theme are El Caballero (which is arguably about exploration, but essentially about the subsequent control of territories explored through colonisation), Tongiaki, Puerto Rico and an entire range of Settlers games.


There is a touch of the Monopoly influence again here; discounting the blocks and Lego and Sticklebricks you might have toyed with as a child, Monopoly was probably the first game in which players built something. Building games involve exactly that, and the theme is repeated in new and exciting ways every year.

There were many property development games to follow Monopoly, but as with Monopoly the predominant theme was finance. Indeed, in many cases one could finish the game without building much at all. The true focus on building came rather later.

A game by the name of Square Mile was perhaps the first true building game. Square Mile had its foundation laid during the "Golden Age" and was surprisingly advanced in terms of game design (looking at it retrospectively, of course). Players had to make difficult decisions regarding how far to develop their tracts of land before selling; the difficulty came from the fact that selling their land once developed was the only way to gain income. This element of the now-popular agonising decision is perhaps the greatest saving grace of this now vintage title. Square Mile must be considered a classic within what was a much neglected theme. Milton Bradley, who produced Square Mile, tried a similar thing over a decade later with Prize Property but the effect was mediocre by comparison and not even the gavel gimmick included could save it.

Another game produced in the 1970s by Waddington's, Land Grab, was a more worthy effort in which players would buy or bid for plots on which to build buildings of the most worth and rake in copious financial gain from their rent. Later incarnations of the building game introduced refreshing concepts and, of course, fantastic components. Metropolis, a German production by an American designer (the late, great Sid Sackson) is a case in point. The effective worth of a property depended both on the type and its locale. Square Mile had a much simplified evaluation system with similar ideas, but nowhere as good as this one. Metropolis was published by Ravensburger around twenty years ago, and back then there was little market for the German range so many of us missed out. Only much later with the world shrinking under the influence of the Internet are we able to taste such delights.

These days the strategy gamer has so many to choose from and they are in general much better than they ever were. The recurring theme of building has shown itself in games such as Manhattan, Big City, Fresh Fish, San Francisco and Attika. Of those mentioned the best to look at is Big City and the best to play (so far) is Attika. Attika's theme sits lightly, however, as even though the game is all about building it is also about connection too—a little abstraction can often go a long way though.


There was a time that historical themes in games were the exclusive territory of the simulative; in the main wargames dominated the historical genre, but wargames aside (as we have gone through those already) there was little else.

In the 1980s we were treated to the delights of History of the World; almost a wargame I grant you but certainly more about making the most out of civilisation after civilisation from world history. Game length was slightly longer than the norm today, but by wargame standards this was quite short and almost achieved what one of its predecessors took hours and hours to do in around half the time.

That predecessor was the famed Civilization. While many consider this a wargame most of us know it isn't; the game is about territorial influence and advancement; war is only a small part of the entire mix. Few games have matched the ingenuity of Francis Tresham's masterpiece, although many have matched the playing time. Archaic by comparison to modern near-equivalents (Vinci for example), all my copy does now is sit on the shelf except for the days I feel like admiring it and contemplating a weekend gaming session which I know will never take place.

Prior to Civilization there was nothing covering the dawn of mankind; ever since there have been many games attempting to achieve a similar epic; few succeed in coming close. But recently there have been numerous attempts (including Vinci mentioned earlier) which seem to try that very difficult task of becoming the Civilization of a new era. Hardcore gamers (why they like to call themselves that I don't know) will disagree, but personally I think many games make a good job of their alternatives to the dawn of civilisation. Immediately coming to mind are Empires of the Ancient World, Tigris & Euphrates and Settlers of the Stone Age (no, this is not about colonisation; it is about the ascent of man).

The historical concepts do not stop there; however it seems to me that particular eras seem to be borrowed as themes for modern strategy games more than any others. Firstly there is Renaissance Europe (Princes of the Renaissance, Princes of Florence, Machiavelli, Condottiere and so on), then there is Ancient Egypt (Ra, Amun-Re, Scarab Lords and Tutanchamun for instance), the Wild West (Way Out West, Lawless, Bang!) and Ancient Rome (Ave Caesar, New Games in Old Rome, Quo Vadis). Needless to say, there is usually some thematic crossover; however in many cases the theme is tacked on so weakly that the historical theme alone is all that stands between the engrossing and the bland.


The last recurring theme I would like to take a look at is that of Pirates. Naturally, we could all pick a particular theme like this rather than a broad theme (such as seafaring) however this particular theme seems to be more common than ever as regards the modern strategy set.

Pirate games have never really been common at all; somewhat a surprise when one surveys the richness of legend and literature (not to mention history). Perhaps the most significant piratical boardgame of the "Golden Age" was Buccaneer manufactured by Waddington's (also known as Trade Winds in the USA). This game went out of print in the UK around twenty years ago, and was released in numerous editions beforehand. The earlier releases (pre 1970) catered for six players, later releases for only four. I am also aware of differences between Buccaneer and Trade Winds5, but have never had the pleasure (or even displeasure as it might be) of playing the US version.

Buccaneer was diceless, a concept not alien to the strategy gamer and one that has resulted in a certain degree of willingness on the gamer's part to play something that was around before he was born (certainly in this gamer's case, anyway).

Of course there were also the complex and simulative attempts at piracy on the high seas in the years following Buccaneer (Blackbeard for example), but not until some time after the game's demise has the theme become popular once more.

Around the mid-1980s Descartes Editeur, a French firm, published a game called Armada. The instant idea one has from reading this title is a mass of Spanish ships sailing to the shores of England to their demise, and not pirates at all. When this first release came out, the theme was closer to the impression given by the title; Armada was all about dominating a group of pseudo-Caribbean islands. The game was republished recently under the same title, with what appears to be the same board and very similar components; but now the theme is a pirate one, and beautifully illustrated action cards have been added. I will go into describing this version no further as I have not played it, but from others' impressions I don't think the thematic alteration has changed it much.

This thematic change will probably go some way to explaining the current popularity of the pirate theme; as criminal and disgusting as their historical models were, strategy game pirates save players from any prejudice. The new theme for Armada adds innocence to the colonialism of the original in which natives were cut to pieces and their islands taken from them.

Some popular piratical pastimes include Armada as mentioned previously, Pirate's Cove, Meuterer, Freibeuter and Corsari.


1 From Spin Again! by Rick Polizzi and Fred Schaefer, ISBN 0-87701-830-8, Chronicle Books 1991

2 Action Man was the UK equivalent of GI Joe; as far as I am aware it was a British toy until the manufacturer was taken over. The name GI Joe was then applied for a short time before there was a decision to revert to Action Man due to the existing popularity of that brand name in the UK.

3 Donald Crowhurst, whose abandoned boat was found in the Atlantic after he had falsified his solo circumnavigation through the medium of radio in an attempt to win the Sunday Times Golden Globe in 1969.

4 Marmalise: A Liverpool term for causing someone or something great physical damage (usually with one's fists).


- Anthony Simons

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