Theme, Setting and Mechanics in Games


chess pieces

There’s a problem in how hobby gamers talk about tabletop games (board games + RPGs). Many discussions revolve around the dichotomy of “Theme vs. Mechanics.”

In these discussions, the theme is generally thought of as your artwork, components, and the concept of the game. Is it a Viking game? A trading game? A pick-up-and-deliver train game? Collectively, this is the theme.

The mechanics are just that: the mechanical means through which the game plays. Card drafting, deck building, worker placement, secret bidding, etc.

But those two ideas miss a third dimension that often gets lost.

Theme vs. Setting – A Literary Reimagining

I’d argue that what I just described as the theme above is, in fact, the game’s setting. Think of it like a novel: if your story is set in Victorian England, that’s its setting.

And the theme could be…well, anything! Maybe it’s a cautionary tale about the pursuit of power. Maybe it’s a coming-of-age story about the universal trials of youth. Or a hundred other things.

I’m a writer and avid reader, so when I see “theme” being used to describe elements that I consider to be setting, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance.

Redefining Theme

Your theme is what the game is about in terms of the experience it’s attempting to impart.

To stick with the book analogy, what is the book about? You wouldn’t say it’s about Vikings. Or, you might, but that would be surface-level analysis, at best. You might say that a book about Vikings is about the historical struggles of warring clans as they vie for prominence and security in a vicious world. Or you might say it’s a character study about a particular historical figure.

So is your Viking game about Vikings? I’d argue no, it probably isn’t. So what is it actually about?

The answers will vary, but I’d tie it closely to the emotional response the game is trying to elicit. Some games are dense puzzles, and the satisfaction comes with embedding yourself in them and working through them. The cognitive engagement is the theme. Not Vikings, or whatever else.

In a “press your luck” game, the central experience is usually the heart attack moment when you Do The Thing, and are either successful or unsuccessful. And so on.

Gaming Themes Brought to Life

So in that push-your-luck game, how fully is that heart attack moment brought to life? That’s the central question I’m trying to answer when I play (and review) a game. Whether or not the theme is brought to life through dice rolling, card draws, or some other mechanic, is almost secondary to me. If it creates and retains that central tension, it has fulfilled its theme wonderfully.

Examples and Case Studies

Game: Quacks of Quedlinburg
Theme: the visceral tension of continuing or stopping one’s efforts
Setting: potion-making in a vaguely magical, medieval setting
Mechanics: bag building, press your luck, set collection, etc.

Game: Dungeons & Dragons
Theme: (generally) heroic adventures of wonder, creativity and suspense
Setting: usually High Fantasy, but varies wildly depending on the setting being used, which can imply equally different tones
Mechanics: dice rolling, improvisational acting, etc.

Game: Tigris & Euphrates
Theme: the rise and fall of civilizations and the capricious events that destroy or sustain them
Setting: Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia
Mechanics: tile-laying, area control, etc.

Tigris & Euphrates is often cited as being “themeless” because its artwork and components are almost laughably minimalist. But this is why we need to talk about ALL dimensions of a game. Because I don’t disagree with that assessment of the artwork, but I (and many others) find T&E to be vibrant and alive with thematic material. But it’s because the theme is the central experience of the thing. The setting and mechanics are there to bring it to life, but aren’t the theme itself.

Chess has a strong theme to me, for another stark example. On the surface, it’s entirely abstract. Just pieces and mechanics on a board, with no theme.

But the theme is the battle of wits between two cerebral but intense opponents. If Chess didn’t have thematic heft to it, how can it be such a centerpiece of movies and TV? The mere presence of a Chess board in a painting, movie or other scene evokes an emotional response in many people. So it’s intensely thematic. It’s just the Setting (black & white pieces on a board) that’s austere and abstract.

Muddying the Lexical Waters

In reusing the term “theme,” I realize I’m confusing the issue, because it’s already in use in games and refers to what I’d call the Setting. There’s no getting around some confusion in online discussions when I use the terms this way.

But the preexisting problem is worse, wherein we often ignore deeper themes entirely and speak only of the setting and its aesthetic and genre trappings.

So I don’t pretend to be creating a new lexicon, or to be clarifying anything in hobby discourse. I’m not the first to make these observations. But I do think it’s worth thinking of this third dimension of games, because it’s arguably the most important aspect of a game. It informs every review I write, and I consider it almost criminal that I’m using a different way of framing than nearly all hobby discussion that I see.

So whatever you call it, identifying and assessing each of these dimensions is crucial to the impact I think tabletop roleplaying games and board games can have.

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