Board games have an issue with theme.
Though exceptions exist, Zach Gage’s bizarre Guts of Glory springing to mind immediately, the majority of board games have similar themes. There are hundreds of (mostly) American board games with extremely similar European fantasy themes, soft sci-fi with aliens, and the ever-present zombies. On the other side of the Atlantic, Europe brims with games about farming and being a Roman with a bunch of bricks and spare time. Even stranger, people don’t really seem to tire of these themes, with the exception of zombies, which have worn out their welcome even among a fairly tolerant audience of geeks.
Instead of complaining, or boasting about how my games are different (so far, their themes are “trains”, “superheroes”, and “Elizabethan England”), I wanted to analyze some of gaming’s most common themes and see why they remain enduringly popular.
Die, Skeletons, Die!
Most of the popular American board game themes involve violence of some sort. In fantasy, this is the classic adventuring party of the fighter, the mage, the cleric, and the rogue running into a dungeon and killing goblins, orcs, and skeletons. Sci-fi games take a grander scale, with gigantic spaceships firing lasers at one another. Zombies, superheroes, mafia – all of these themes require the frequent use of violence.
This is not necessarily because the average American gamer is bloodthirsty, but instead plays into a power fantasy. The ability to inflict violence is developed from significant physical skill, something that the majority of gamers, because gaming is a more mental hobby, either don’t or can’t develop. Violence in games translates mental power, which is often subtle and unsatisfying, into physical might.
Pro Farmer 2000 XP
Let’s turn our attention to the peaceful Euro. The running gag about these games is that they are almost invariably about farming, and indeed, the vast majority of them have very pastoral, almost boring themes: The hard-working farmer, the Roman architect, the peaceful village. How do people find the necessary stakes in these themes?
My hypothesis: Scale.
Eurogames give the players the reins over a domain of any size from a family (Village, Agricola) to a village (Catan) to an entire civilization (7 Wonders, Stone Age). Even games where players represent one person, like Last Will, typically has them in positions where they are capable of colossal things. Generally, time is compressed so that a single turn could be representative of weeks, months, or even years in extreme cases; civilizations are built and destroyed over forty-five minutes.
This is a power fantasy of a different sort, one where players aren’t supernaturally powerful but where they can construct something grand. Day-to-day, the average person doesn’t get to design a city, or build a house, or guide a civilization – the biggest decision they get to make is what to have for dinner. Classic Euro themes forego violence but retain the players’ subconscious wish to be something greater than they are.
Stereotypes And The Tautological Argument
It could also be said that these themes are popular because they are popular. One of the most insightful articles in designing theme for board games is Bruno Faidutti’s Postcolonial Catan, an essay that mostly discusses exoticism and stereotypes in board games, explaining their prevalence in tabletop games with this astoundingly profound sentence:
“The game designer, like the painter, cannot enliven his work by complex and subtle storytelling, and must do it only by winks and nods – a camel here, a helmet there. As a result, he makes heavy use of orientalist, ‘medievalist’ or ‘antiquist’ clichés.”
A board game has very little real estate it can use to convey its world. This faces the designer (and illustrator, and graphic designer, if these are three different people) with a dilemma: Do we stick with something familiar, allowing players some insight into how our mechanics work, or do we do something strange at higher risk? Given that theme is not a strong concern for many designers, and most people would prefer to see their game succeed, it isn’t difficult to see that they would immediately jump to something popular.
I don’t know if identifying the reasons board games have fairly homogenous themes will lead to more diversity; some themes just lend themselves better to games than others. However, I feel that theme is a part of games that isn’t talked about as often as mechanics or economics, and one that, if paid attention to more, could result in much wider audiences.