Thematic Games and Role Differentiation


War of the Ring 2nd edition board game box cover

I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to say that so-called “thematic” board games – as loosely defined by various genre attributes – are those with some light opportunities for roleplaying.

Or if that’s a bit too theatrical, those with the opportunity to inhabit a specific role, either as an individual or a faction. Examples are too numerous to list.

It behooves any thematic game to remember this.

D&D and Class Differentiation

Dungeons & Dragons famously has its classes, which have spawned numerous variants across different media types. Of course, D&D was borrowing from earlier tropes at times as well, but it popularized the concept of many of them in gaming.

Importantly, these archetypes survive and thrive because they inhabit a specific niche. The Rogue is sneaky, stealthy and can break into things. The Ranger is the survivalist, tracker and is at home in nature. The Warrior/Fighter wades into melee combat and absorbs damage for the group.

This is somewhat reductionist, but also true a large majority of the time. D&D diehards could tell you about some oddball Rogue they made that was actually a low-key spellcaster support class. Or their urban Ranger. Or their range-fighting warrior. Or whatever. But these exceptions prove the rule.

More importantly, there’s a lot of non-overlapping expertise among them. Which allows you to inhabit a specific role within a group. Homogenous groups can work as well, but I’d argue there’s a strong psychological reason why class makeup across any medium of games trends toward unique specialists instead of teams of broad generalists.

This is the main point of this blog post: that meaningful differentiation in inhabitable character or faction types is intrinsically important to thematic games, to facilitate both mechanical and thematic immersion.

A Failure of Thematic Differentiation

Aeon’s End isn’t a bad game, and may improve with its many expansions, which I can’t vouch for. But it crystallized my thesis in my head because I believe it’s a good deckbuilder but a bad thematic game. That would rankle the sensibilities of some of the game’s fans, but I stand by it.

Regardless, why do I feel this way?

When I’ve played, it’s been a competent cooperative deckbuilder with an apocalyptic fantasy theme to it, and it clearly wants you to lean into this theme. And there’s a lot of good stuff attempting to bring it to life.

But when we’ve played, there are only so many card types, and thus ways to differentiate yourself. Personal character abilities do exist, but also come with enough of a cost that a lot of times they are never used, or perhaps they’re only used once.

So in practice, if I’m in a 4-player game, there might not be a single spell I cast or item I utilize that is unique to me (ignoring your character’s start card, which is technically unique but not meaningfully or powerfully so). Oh, we’ll try, and sometimes succeed, in carving out small niches for ourselves. But all too often, we’re all just sort of vague arcanists with similar sets of abilities. And it sort of makes my point that we want to do this but often can’t.

So when I play, I struggle to inhabit my role. And it thus becomes a dry, mechanical experience for me, rather than a thematic one. It doesn’t matter how many monster and boss types or card abilities they introduce to the game via expansions. The game is too bounded for this and it’s the personal thematic touches that are lacking.

It’s like the RPG Game Master who tries to wow their players with a ton of worldbuilding details. “Great,” the players will think, “but what’s in it for me?” It’s the difference between being shown a cool world and being asked to feel as though you live in it.

Beyond nit-picking mechanics, the eyeball test works here as well. Does it feel different? Every species feels different in Sidereal Confluence to some extent, and this will inform your play. But in a potentially controversial counter-example, different starting characters in Pax Porfiriana don’t differentiate you much. The game manages thematic immersion in other ways, so it’s an imperfect example overall, but it’s a good example of starting abilities that are occasionally an afterthought and don’t provide you with a unique-feeling role.

This immersion is the design difference between genres, full stop. A modern Eurogame might have some cool thematic touches (and many do), but it’s rarely, if ever, asking you to inhabit a role. The appeal of On Mars for example, despite any thematic touches it may incorpoate, is the mechanical puzzle of the thing. No one’s pretending they’re an astronaut traveling to the stars and claiming that as the reason why the game is a success. Meanwhile, a game like War of the Ring: Second Edition asks you to step into the shoes of the Fellowship, sacrificing lives and settlements for the sake of pushing back the darkness. It’s almost impossible not to feel this personal, emotional tug at certain points. And when reflecting, you’ll largely recount sessions of the game not in terms of mechanics but as a narrative.

Railroading vs. Guiding

I was skeptical of pronounced character- or faction-specific player powers in board games for a long time. Because I saw a lot of them as pushing players toward specific, pre-defined strategies based on their particular expertise.

“Oh, I have a bonus to healing, so I guess I just stack heal potions.”
“This lets me teleport an ally, so I’ll send you all to team up on boss fights after you collect weapons.”
“I have a bonus with firearms, so I’m going to hang out at the police station before I come hunting the rest of you.”

And so on.

And here’s the thing: sometimes that’s true, and the game really does stifle creativity since it demands certain roles of its players. This can be just as bad.

The trick, then, is providing freedom outside of those suggestions.

Take Dune, the board game. Hyper-specific and powerful, game-breaking faction abilities exist, and these – yes – will lend themselves to certain strategic ideas. But the game is too vast, the decision space too broad and ever-changing, for one specific approach to be the correct one. You might find yourselves the warmongers as the Bene Gessirit. Or a loyal ally as the Harkonnen.

Is this rare? Certainly. But not unthinkable. But if I become a damage-dealer with my bonus to healing in another game, I might have sunk any chances the group has to win the game on its hardest difficulty setting.

So the execution matters. If I get to inhabit my role but never feel as though I’m given opportunities for out-of-the-box creativity, it’s a disappointment of a different variety.

One vs. Many

Dune and D&D share another trait that I find important here: they aren’t limited to one or two specific abilities.

Because in any game of D&D with a large enough party, there will be some overlap in abilities, spells available, and skill expertise. But the game is wide enough that there’s still a lot of non-overlapping areas.

So two party members might be good at lying, but only one is also good at lock-picking, making them the more obvious choice for certain situations. While the other can disguise their identity, making them better in other situations.

This also allows for some of that sandbox creativity I mentioned earlier. Multiple non-overlapping unique abilities means that there are more opportunities for creative application of them. The game doesn’t bind you to specific tactics as a result.

X vs. Y or X vs. X+1

Those two games are again good case studies in a related point.

If everyone else does {X} and you do {X+1}, chances are you’ll be doing {X} the most in that game. But if that’s the only thing you do that others don’t, it’s not really going to feel too unique.

A lot of Eurogames feature variable player powers in a technical sense, for instance, but it amounts to things like “gain 1 extra grain when you visit the wheat fields.” This is unique in name only; there’s no true role to inhabit.

In Dune, the Atreides can look at auction cards when others can’t. This is massively powerful, and affords them advantages other factions don’t have. More important, though, is that playing these phases in the game as Atreides feels different than any other faction. You’re the prescient overseers of the land, and can barter with information that others lack.

It’s {Y} vs. {X} rather than merely being X+1, so to speak.

Cosmic Encounter is another good one in this sense. Classic Ameritrash drama, and it feels thematic. Why? You might only have one ability (breaking my One v. Many rule), though several species due numerous unique things. However, if you only have one unique ability, you better believe it’s game-breaking in a way that feels utterly unlike any other alien speices in the game.

Chaos in the Old World also famously does this quite well. I’d liken it to both Dune and Cosmic Encounter in some significant ways in this sense.

Doing It Right

A friend of mine who I have played more D&D with than anyone alive once told me she loved a particular session of the game that I ran. A couple weeks later, she chatted with me again about it, saying that she tried to ask herself why she enjoyed the session so much.

The answer she landed on? That she got to play the character she created in the ways he was intended to thrive.

This wasn’t just in a mechanical sense, though it was that too. In this case, there were a couple key roleplaying scenes that helped to connect to the personality and backstory of the character. AND there were opportunities for her to flex the character’s mechanical muscles in ways other party members couldn’t replicate.

It was the fullest immersion she’d had with the specific character concept she’d created. And thus the most fulfillment she had during that campaign.

This is, almost inarguably, a huge appeal of the game as a whole. And despite the sometimes-arbitrary lines in the sand we draw between TTRPGs and thematic board games, the actualization of this promise matters in them as well.

I don’t have a litany of examples to draw from of games that do this poorly or well, but we can all identify them if we analyze our gaming enough. And realizing this was an eye-opening moment for me in both D&D and thematic board games that I play, and what I want to get out of them.

The Darker Side – Contentification of Abilities

I have gaming friends to whom “variable player powers” and “special abilities” have become memes to mock.

To them, these are simply ways for publishers to claim variability and replayability, print some new tokens or miniatures to sell at a higher price, and bloat a design that does not need them.

These detractors are often correct.

Execution matters, as always, and I think there’s a reason that the majority of my positive examples (and others I could name) come from the realm of Ameritrash, where there’s always been a bit of roleplaying involved. The design intent of this genre lends itself well to role differentiation.

If your design is based on mathematical resource conversions, for instance, introducing truly unique abilities will be difficult or impossible. More likely, the unique abilities are of the X+1 variety that I described earlier.

Conversely, if a game’s core is primarily interpersonal, such as with negotiations/trading games or social deception games, variable player powers can “gamify” the proceedings in ways that take the game further from its core.

Give me base Werewolf/Mafia as opposed to the many unique variants they have in the hobby, for instance, because most of those descendents take me further from the game’s central psychological puzzle. I’m already roleplaying in a rather literal and complete sense; I don’t need to stack mechanics onto that.

There are exceptions we could find, but I believe they again prove the rule.

So I dislike variable player powers as often as I like them, but I see very distinct, defined reasons why some work and others don’t. Saying that all uses of them is bad as a result is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

Takeaways – RPGs, Board Games and Role Differentiation

So my takeaways – if any truly exist here – for designers and publishers would be these:

  1. If you want a deeply thematic or narrative experience, consider truly unique abilities that become a signature of the character/faction being played.
  2. Mechanical overlap is fine, but “moats” around certain types of abilities help characters/factions feel meaningfully differentiated, and thus feel different to play. If a single ability is unique but the other 98% of the game features identical options, you do not have differentiated roles.
  3. Don’t remove the opportunity for sandbox-style creativity outside of these abilities. If the ability necessitates a particular strategic approach, you’ve failed at this portion and once again have a mechanics-first design instead of a narrative/theme-first design.
  4. Truly unique abilities tend to do these things better (e.g. Cosmic Encounter), as opposed to abilities that are simply heightened versions of what all players can do.
  5. One ability alone is often limiting and pigeonholes a player (e.g. Pandemic), or doesn’t do enough to meaningfully differentiate (e.g. Aeon’s End), whereas several smaller ones (e.g. D&D or Dune) afford both unique opportunities and chances for emergent creativity.

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