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March 8, 2014 / Jett

The Importance of Theme in a Board Game

We’ve been taught since the dawn of time (or at least since the dawn of books) to not judge a book by its cover. Well, when it comes to board games, cover-judging has been a huge part of my decision-making process. Before making inroads with the scene a few years ago, I’d be immediately off-put just by looking at any visual material for games like Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer or Magic: The Gathering. I dislike pretty much everything medieval fantasy across all forms of media, which acts as a deal-breaker for these and many other designer board games long before I could judge it on its merits.


Ironically, my gateway game into the scene is medieval-themed. Dominion is a game set in medieval times where players are trying to claim the most land. Had I not been in a situation where skipping it was an option, I would have taken it based on the theme alone. However, I gave it an honest try and loved it. With that said, I don’t play Dominion as a means of living through that theme. When I play it, I simply strip everything down in my head to numbers and mechanics, which hold up extremely well on their own.

That initial experience got me thinking that maybe theme wasn’t important. If the gameplay mechanics were tight, then everything around it was just superficial. Then I played DC Comics Deck-Building Game. While it is mechanically similar to Dominion, my expectations for the role of theme changed because it starred characters that I’m invested in. I think the game at a mechanical level is great, but thematically it does not really make sense. Why would Batman recruit Harley Quinn to beat the Joker? Why does the Green Lantern get to use Aquaman’s trident? Why are the superheroes constantly trying to screw each other over when they’re all working towards taking out the supervillains? I still enjoy playing this one a lot, but this is a case where I wish the theme would connect better with the mechanics.

Formula DSince then, I’ve played a number of games that really tie the concepts of theme and gameplay together to form an exciting and immersive experience. Munchkin, another medieval-themed game, seamlessly ties together its dungeon raiding and combat mechanics with hilariously titled monsters, weapons and plot twists. Formula D effectively uses dice to simulate the sensation of racing. Yomi goes to tremendous lengths to translate Street Fighter into a card game and the end result is amazing. Even Legendary: A Marvel Deck-Building Game takes the same core mechanic and cohesively ties it with a theme to create an epic battle between good and evil.

Any way I slice it, theme is always going to be an important part of the board game experience. It’s going to impact the games I choose to play or not play. It’s also going to impact how much I enjoy a particular game. Medieval fantasy games will never be my cup of tea and that’s fine. As this scene continues to grow, there’s a wealth of games that are based around themes and mechanics that are more appealing to my evolving taste. I think we can all agree though that when a game captures the right balance of theme and mechanics, the end result is likely to be awesome.

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