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Where does theme come from?

If you read enough on BoardGameGeek, from the blogs to the forums to the videos, you’ll eventually come across a discussion of theme. Why does theme matter? Where does it come from?

Humans are narrative beings. We experience time linearly and inherent in our biology is an understanding of history; what happened before. Some of those stories may educate us, some may cause emotion, and some may strike fear or anger. What drives us most are the stories in which some challenge is overcome or some great task is completed. The nature of that challenge sets the stage for the type of story.

If the challenge is an individual or group against an external force or being, you have the makings for a cooperative or heroic quest. When two or more individuals experience the same events from opposing viewpoints or agendas, two opposing stories occur. Now we have the foundation for the conflict necessary in a game.

Games tell the story of conflict. They must. If there is no conflict, there is no tension, and you ultimately have a bad game.

Theme is the story of that conflict. It holds the mechanisms of the game together. If a game’s story or theme does not match the game mechanisms, that can still make for an interesting game, as long as the tension and energy of the conflict is maintained.

Abstract games, on the other hand, don’t care where the story comes from or what the nature of the player’s agency is all about. All that matters for abstract games is the structure of the conflict. The units in the game simply mark what could be, as in a hypothetical situation.

Because of this, I strongly feel that games with more pasted on themes or themes which really don’t match mechanisms are nothing more than abstract games. For me, this isn’t fun. I dislike abstract games because I don’t connect with a character to play or my objective. This may stem from my roleplaying roots, but without story, I feel lost as an individual.

So if you’re playing a game and don’t feel engaged, ask yourself, is it the theme? Or is it the theme’s connection to the game rules? Discovering this will help you identify what games to seek out and which to pass over.