For #Blogmas 2020 reusing an article I originally wrote for Board Games Crate
Good games can work totally fine without themes, but their design is understandably basic. Backgammon and Scrabble, for example, require nothing more than a simple board showing the essentials and some counters or letters. Jenga and Pick Up Sticks go one step simpler as just as a bunch of bricks or sticks. They need nothing else to do what they do well. Granted, Jenga with Limited Edition Bright Red Bricks™ might sell more copies to red-loving gamers, but the colour adds nothing to the game.
As soon as a game expects a bit more engagement from a player, that player will, in turn, expect a bit more from a game. The more complicated Chess, for example has an age of chivalry vibe to it with every piece having a name and look harkening to that era.
A lot of the appeal of games like Magic: The Gathering doesn’t just come from the excellent game-play, but through the design and feel of the theme. One could argue that it would play just as well with no artwork. Action (spell) cards would be titled things like Action #327 or character (minion) cards as Hero #43, but, even with the exact same gameplay rules, no one would want to play it.
Themes (and budgets, don’t forget the budget) should shape how a game looks and develops. A game crafted around a well thought-out theme, at least looks the part. Provided as much effort goes into making the game enjoyable, it should be a winner.
Be wary of generic ‘facelift’ games that have your favourite fandom on the box but the game really could have had any theme and be exactly the same. The gazillions of iterations of Monopoly, for example are, with few exceptions, no different to the original except you get to be Boba Fett, Hermione Granger or Mario instead of a shoe. Also look out for games featuring a great, big plastic MacGuffin that does nothing but shriek “THEME!”
Some themes can really make or break a game, particularly if they’re targeted at the wrong audience. Dinosaurs, Space or Fluffy Kittens can be real crowd pleasers whereas Demons, Sorcery, Zombies and War can be a real turn off to many. Or vice versa, which is what makes themes a really interesting subject.
When looking at a new game, you are probably attracted to it because the theme appeals to you but think, does the theme actually fit the game and, of course, is the game any good? Conversely, if a friend keeps asking you to play a game whose theme rattles you, can you look past it and see the beauty of the game underneath. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it only runs ink deep.
The games that I find work well with their themes are Terraforming Mars, a game so cleverly integrated into its theme that it couldn’t be about anything else and Photosynthesis which uses the direction of sunlight striking trees to generate energy.