The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Is it Really about Theme vs. Mechanics?

Andrew Hardin

February, 2001

One of the great debates in the gaming community is how much theme is needed in a good game, and how much your can sacrifice of your game mechanic to achieve the necessary theme. Rarely in the debate does one side express much interest in a game with a poor theme and a poor mechanic, and both sides tend to love a strong theme and a strong mechanic, so argument tends to involve all those little compromises made to achieve some mix of the two. However, I personally believe the argument is less about which is better, and more about what it takes to become immersed in a game. Even the staunchest defenders of the "theme over mechanism" group will have that favorite they like that has too little theme, and the same applies to the opposite view. I personally fall into the "mechanism over theme" group, but find that I sometimes enjoy games with poor mechanisms (like Talisman).

In my humble opinion, the ongoing debate about theme and mechanism masks the real concern of most players. Simply put, different people become immersed in games in different ways. Several people I work with find games unexciting no matter what kind of game, or how good. They will probably play few games in their life, and wouldn't even if they died and went to gaming heaven. Many people don't want to play anything besides a party game, and some will play just about anything. It's not a question of theme, it's a question of how that theme immerses you in the game. It's not a question of mechanism, it's how that mechanism immerses you in the game.

Some games, such as Chess and Go have no real theme. Interestingly enough, I have observed that the serious players of such games tend to create the theme, build it from the very fabric of ideas and concepts, Go board with stones. instead of having the theme provided for them. Go is often examined in terms of control of territory, and books have been written about how Go reflects the teachings of Sun Tzu and Chess the views of Clauswitz, how the very rules of the game change the way people act. Whether the latter statement has merit or not, the idea of such a thing tends to enhance the experience. In my experience, Chess and Go are seen by regular players as poetry, as a deeper struggle than the rules themselves hint at. Several advertisements for Go point out that the game essentially has only real 10 rules, several of which are fairly mundane (i.e., the board starts out empty). Yet, when I read a book on Go, the writer inevitably talks as if a war is being fought between two generals, and enormous attention is placed upon understanding the principles of strategy and principles of tactics. You can't really play Go (or Chess) regularly without eventually becoming focused on the minutiae, the little details that spin around in your head. At some point, the game becomes bigger than the pieces on the board, bigger than your opponent. One thing I have noticed about those who don't play either game is they never feel that way, they never really feel like they are doing anything. They never become immersed.

On the other hand, a personal favorite of mine is Federation & Empire. It's a bloated game, requiring lots of space, has a thick manual, and takes hours and hours to play. Despite the fact it's just a bunch of counters on a hex map sitting on a table, there is a real feeling that one player really is the Klingon Empire, ready to go stomp the Kzinti, with the big space fleets to go with it. In reality, battles are pure numbers calculations with a bit of randomness on the damage, the fleets follow strict rules of movement, but when that big battle is happening, you feel part of something (at least I do). The Kzinti don't want to let their home worlds get smashed, and the Klingons are desperate to knock them down, and in the middle of the game it really is important who wins that battle, and both sides position and plot and plan how to get that one more turn until the Federation gets ready for war. It's tense, it's exciting, and sometimes it actually feels like the real deal.

The problem of how to maintain the immersion is a real problem for strongly themed games, particularly ones that use complex rules to fill in all the chrome. A perfect example of the problem is Star Fleet Battles. The actual rulebook contains rules for just about everything, or so it feels like. I personally won't play anything but the more limited tournament rules, because the regular rules are unmanageable in practice. Sure, it means the board is fixed and it doesn't seem terribly realistic, and half the interesting rules aren't in the game, but at least I don't have to spend half my time looking for an obscure rule to cover that obscure circumstance. I personally believe much of the conflict of "ruleslawyering" is the concern that it takes away from the immersion, that suddenly everyone steps out of the game and consults rule 5.1.23ac and something is lost. As something of a ruleslawyer myself (if I am not careful), I must admit that sometimes the fight over rules becomes the game, and that is what I am immersed in. For everyone who just wanted to play the actual game, this "metagame" isn't very interesting.

Having said this, theme plays a two critical parts in the success of many games. One, it creates an immediate sense of immersion that enhances the experience. This is perhaps its most important role. It is also why 'weakly themed' games sometimes don't seem quite right. If you are playing a game about the American Civil War, and suddenly the Vulcans intervene on behalf of the Confederacy, the experience is ruined. Interesting enough, if you name those very same Vulcans the British and don't change a single rule otherwise, people will be fine, might even find it a neat little rule. But, and this is the critical thing, nothing actually changed in the game if you just changed the rules. Try playing a Civil War game where the names of both sides are swapped, and it will be difficult. The problem isn't the game, it's not even the theme (after all, it's the Civil War still), but it is your own brain saying "This Isn't Right!". A good theme has the ability to immerse you in the game, make you actually feel like you are doing something.

Magic
      cardsThe second thing a good theme does is make the game easier to play. This may seem like a strange statement, but imagine playing Magic: The Gathering where both sides are not wizards, but instead are just people. Imagine that the cards are not spells, just "things you can do", and the five colors of magic are just Group A, B, C, D, E. Try remembering that Group A doesn't like B and B doesn't like A, and that there is a card that causes Group A to consistently take away points from the player who has a Group B card sitting on the table. Try to form tactics based upon the interrelations of Group C and D, or remember that D has many of the cards necessary to make all the other cards not work. As strange as it seems, the theme is critical to the play of the game, to being able to "make sense" of it. I personally believe this is why few abstract games have complex rules. Your brain has to organize the information, make sense of the rules on some level, and the theme is part of that "making sense". That need for a game to make sense plays a great part in a person's ability to "get into", to be immersed by a game.

Having placed such an emphasis on the usefulness of theme, the discussion can change to the question of mechanism. At the most basic level, it can be argued that you can't have a game without a mechanism. After all, if the entire game consists of one person reading from a novel, then you wouldn't call that a game. On the other hand, if you suddenly asked everyone to recite as much of the last chapter as they can from memory, then you suddenly have a game (if not one I would be very good at). You can have a game without a theme, but I would argue you couldn't have a game without a mechanism, without rules or structures.

Since you have to have a mechanism at some level, the question of mechanism is slightly different: Does the mechanism need to be good for a game to be fun? This part of the debate tends to cause the most contention. When you really get down to it, people rarely object to having a theme in a game. The biggest thematic problem people will have with a game is when the theme is unappealing, or even offensive. The real debate is how much mechanism you have to have before you can become immersed. Conversely, many people find too much mechanism actually ruins the immersion, makes the game so complex that playing it becomes a chore. I personally believe the most common reason the game Die Handler meets with a cold reception is that the game has too many stages, to many steps in each turn. People get distracted. They stop being immersed in the game and instead just wish the turn would end.

When I listen to the discussions about "good games", I find that typical discussions about how to change a game revolve around several basic points. In my experience, the debate tends to revolve around questions such as these:

  1. Does everyone have the same chance of winning?

  2. Does the game play in a reasonable amount of time?

  3. Does the pace of the game seem right?

  4. Can I change the outcome of the game by the choices I make?

  5. Is there only one perfect way to play?

  6. Did the best player win?

  7. Do the rules make sense?

  8. Is the game fun?

Other people might point out other questions, but even these few questions get to the heart of the problem. My argument is you have fun by becoming immersed in the game, when the game meets the criteria above that are most important to yourself. If you don't have the same chance of winning as somebody else, and winning is important to you, there is a natural discouragement that tends to cause you to be less involved, less interested. If the game takes too long, or the pacing seems wrong, boredom sets in. Just as there is a "right" length for a movie, there is a right length for a game. If you can't change the outcome of the game by the choices you make, then it's easy to just sit back and do something stupid, or do nothing instead of playing. If there is only one perfect way to play, then the game becomes predictable and much of the interest goes away. If the best player doesn't win, or at least the best player doesn't win much of the time, then the game doesn't make sense, and the same reaction sets in. If the rules are nonsensical (or worse, impossible to understand), then the mind jumps away from the game and the sense of immersion disappears. Finally, if despite a great mechanism and a wonderful theme, something about the game is unappealing (i.e. if the board artwork makes you sick), you never get immersed and you walk away with a bad opinion. I am sure many people have a game or two they would love if they just hadn't decided to play it on the night they came down with a terrible illness or they got laid off.

In fairness, I have been using the term immersion without providing enough of an explanation. It is my basic contention that people must be involved on some mental and emotional level for a game to be considered a success. One of the appeals of party games is they make people laugh, that people have a "good time". I believe much of the enjoyment of Knizia's Lord of the Rings is that it becomes important that you succeed, that the tension is real. Despite the fact that the game is actually quite weakly themed, you don't really feel that way in the middle of the game. The real difference between gamers is how much mental and emotional involvement is necessary, and how much is intrusive. For me, if the mental effort is not very great, then the emotional involvement must be very strong (and equally important, that involvement must be purely positive). At the same time, too much emotion (particularly negative emotion) will make me dislike a game (my real complaint about luck in most games is how crummy I feel when a good plan goes awry because that 1 in 216 chance actually happened). For other people, however, the emotional involvement is the most important thing. Many who play games are trying to avoid having to tax the brain with some obscure calculation, and I don't blame them one bit. Too many fiddly mechanisms and lot's of small choices requiring a calculator to figure out are just not appealing for most.

I believe this issue of immersion, both emotionally and mentally, is what drives the argument, not the endlessly debated question of theme and mechanism. Both a good theme and a good mechanism increase immersion in a game, but do so in different ways. I need to be thinking, plotting, and planning, and even a game without a theme allows me to do that to some degree. Other people just want to play with friends, have a good time, and do something interesting (as you can tell, I can't really explain these motives very well, because it's not my personality). For many good theme and a decent mechanism tend to do the trick, while other people just want to play a game that is funny and makes everyone laugh.

I personally believe we are at a time in the history of boardgaming where this question will be the most important one in the next ten years. Computer games, by their nature, are immersive and have had considerable success even amongst people that would rarely play a boardgame. Computer games can also be played with less people, and typically require less coordination to setup. I am excited at what I see to be a rebirth of boardgaming in general, and look forward to future, but for that to happen, good games must be made, and the things that make them good must be studied and examined. Equally important, this examination must take place without the entrenchment that I see happening between groups that treat this issue as one that will be resolved in favor of one side or the other. I find it hard to believe that a community of people who spend much of their time solving problems would find this one too hard to tackle.

- Andrew Hardin

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