Weeeeeeeeell, this is awkward.
As you know Nick Mariner is one of the contributors to the podcast. His recent bit on controversial themes in gaming is very observant and spot-on. You should give it a listen, if you haven’t already. He also has a blog called icalledyellow.com on which he further espouses his opinions on all things boardgamey. One of those things being the dreaded theme vs mechanics argument, and where he stands on the issue. He has recorded a segment on that very topic on our first episode, but has expanded some of his thoughts when reposting it on his blog.
I remember listening to it back when we released the episode, and nodding along with it and chuckling in agreement at Mariner’s Law. Some time has passed since then, and while I haven’t become more powerful than you could possibly imagine (saving that up for the first anniversary of the podcast), my position on questions of theme and mechanics has become a little more decisive. Or put differently, I’ve found myself disagreeing quite fundamentally with the esteemed Nick Mariner.
It seems to me that the main disagreement can be traced back to the term “theme” and the number of ideas and concepts it is used for in the gaming community. Specifically the lack of overlap in how it is used within the article, and what it is supposed to refer to in the minds of those who value and enjoy so-called “thematic games”.
When Nick argues that mechanics trump theme, because “zombies” is not a game, “dungeons” is not a game. He is right, of course. But only for a very narrow meaning of “theme”. So narrow in fact that it is actually better referred to as “setting” instead. A distinction that he is perhaps vaguely aware of when he describes theme as “a really interesting set piece that provides context, plot, and atmosphere”. What he is clearly arguing isn’t theme vs mechanics, but setting vs mechanics. Thus making the long-running debate over which is more important somewhat moot. As the arguments he brings forth against setting are both solid and without fault. Settings are not a game, mechanics are.
(It should go without saying that this isn’t a binary distinction no matter how much the terminology implies otherwise. Most, if not all, well-regarded games allow for a mixture of both, because players generally like playing for both teams.)
This is a bit of an issue when talking about theme, as it is very common to use that word for a cohesive art style, a simulationist bent of the rules as well as the experience of actually playing the game. All of this is referred to as theme, but not all of it is actually the same thing. A “thematic” look of a game generally refers to a genre-based art direction of the components. The visuals of the game all conform to a certain genre, style or era. Gamers use “thematic” to describe games that emphasise the visual element of board games this way.
But “theme” is also used to describe rules that seem to clearly simulate or mirror something that the game’s setting suggests. Games set in the Cthulhu mythos often include rules and resources concerning character sanity, which serve to simulate the slow descent into madness that is deeply ingrained in Lovecraftian fiction. Such rules are considered “thematic” when they can quickly and easily be traced back to what they refer to. It is this reading of “theme” that Nick focuses on and wherein he argues that if you just put in a little creative effort, any rule can be made to mirror something in the game’s setting. It must therefore follow that any misgivings when it comes to unthematic rules aren’t actually the games’ fault, but are caused by players unwilling to “use their imagination”. And that assumes that players are even bothered by this incongruence between rules and setting.
My issue with Mariner’s Law, though, stems from the third meaning of “theme” in boardgames, and the one that I am strong believer in. I don’t think that Nick touches on it in any meaningful way before dismissing “pasted-on theme” as an illegitimate criticism. That meaning being theme as a quality and dimension of play. Put differently, theme is experienced and created through play. The game teases out a sense of immersion by having us think, visualise or conceptualise our play and strategy in accordance to the game’s setting and not its rules.
Immersion is a term, that I’ve borrowed from film studies, but it is still a kind of murky concept, so let’s delve into it for a moment. The knee-jerk dismissal when bringing up immersion as tied to theme, comes in the form of arguing that pushing plastic miniatures across colourfully printed cardboard does not “feel” more like space battle than doing the same thing with wooden cubes across a board in muted colours. While that is true, it is also disingenuous.
Immersion in regard to films is used to describe the pleasant attentiveness that audiences experience when watching a movie. So pleasant in fact, that they will seek out to repeat the experience with new and different movies when they can. And despite urban legends to the contrary, when people were shown a film clip of an oncoming train in the early 20th century, they didn’t flee the theatre in panic because they couldn’t tell the difference between reality and fiction. Gamers, who like a strong theme, aren’t hoping to lose their grip on reality either. They are fully aware of sitting at a table, with friends, trying to play as well as they can. Just as moviegoers know full well that they are not actually in a galaxy far, far away or that hobbits aren’t real. Immersion doesn’t work like that.
Instead the immersive experience of a thematic game has to do with how we think about our play and our strategy. It has to do with how and why we make a decision within the game, and what we take into consideration when we do. Because theme is a result of mechanics being put to use and not some gloss you apply to make the abstract seem tangible.
So when the criticism of pasted-on theme is voiced, it’s not because the rules inadequately simulate the setting, but because in order to play well, you can’t think within the setting’s logic. The game forces you into thinking within the constraints of probabilities, rule synergies and in some cases creative applications of game effects. It’s comparable to moviewatchers experiencing the movie along the lines of act breaks, character beats and genre subversions as opposed to just seeing characters facing difficult situations and striving to get what they want. When a movie fails to skilfully obscure how it sets up obvious plot points, introduces stereotypical character beats and presents predictable plot twists, we rightfully lament that the script is lazily written or the film shoddily put together. This is the same disappointing experience that some gamers feel when a boardgame forces our attention away from the game’s theme and right into the maths underneath.
I understand that this isn’t a problem for all gamers. Just as it isn’t a problem for all moviegoers. I can enjoy a romantic comedy for example, even if the script’s crutches and hackneyed writing is apparent throughout. There are other elements that keep me entertained and make watching the movie a pleasant experience for me. I have little doubt that there are gamers that feel the same way about games with “pasted on” themes.
But just as I find it a bit out of line to tell people to just come up with a reason why a couple would break up at the start of act three instead of calmly talking out their diffrences, I find it out of place to tell gamers that if they like theme so much to just use their imagination to tie a rule back into the setting. Not only does it not solve the underlying problem of denying immersion into the theme, it dismisses a legitimate criticism as gamers being pernickity and prissy.
Because the truth is, most thematic gamers are willing to give quite a bit of leeway when it comes to rules. Abstractions and simplifications of a setting for gameplay reasons aren’t an issue. It’s only when decision need to be made that don’t take any setting element into account that they’re forced to willfully ignore the man behind the curtain.
It’s not too much to ask for designers to try to keep the curtain closed.