Talking About Games: Mechanics vs. Theme
In today’s Patreon-funded essay, we’re dissecting what we talk about when we talk about games — and why we should consider shaking it up.
There’s a reliable conflict in board games, aged about a quarter century, that calls to mind an old feud between noble families, or perhaps a tribal division or a sports rivalry, its root cause lost to the mists of time. Except that isn’t quite true, is it? In this case, we know exactly where the battle-line has been drawn and exactly why.
Mechanics vs. Theme. Ameritrash vs. Eurogames. Both are epithets: one uncouth, the other stodgy; one in need of a bath, the other so polished it’s forgotten what earwax looks like. This conflict has endured longer than many board gamers have been aware that the hobby contains anything more insightful than the Game of Life, more misappropriated than Monopoly, more social than Catan. To those young souls, this divide is the eternal war, the rallying call that says, You can have one but not both, so take your pick. The same goes for countless designers, developers, publishers, investors, reviewers, critics, and media shills. Even when the definitions of these terms evade consistency, as definitions love to do (the little bastards), the divide is marked as plain as day. You know it when you see it.
But it’s all based on a lie. Or at least an oversimplification of terminology run amok.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Pick a game that isn’t an obvious outlier. Something mainstream, something that hit it big and sticks around on store shelves. Now see if you can mentally sort it into either the Pure Mechanics / Eurogame category or the Pure Theme / Ameritrash camp. Chances are, the sorting for any given game is pretty straightforward, even if it makes concessions to the other “side.” There will be outliers and exceptions, but most games fit tidily into either category because they were designed with one or the other in mind.
You read that right. Of the thousand-plus games published each year, a significant proportion are built under the impression that this divide is a design constraint. Pure mechanics or pure theme, hardly any middle ground. Not that this is intentional. But spend enough centuries telling your creatives that only tragedy and comedy exist, and it’ll be a while before you get to watch the Matrix.
Am I blowing this out of proportion? Well, sure. This doesn’t apply to everyone, just as I wouldn’t expect a non-writer to hold strong opinions about William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. But it’s something people on the “inside” should be thinking about, our designers and critics, because by thinking and talking about games as being composed of mechanics and theme alone, and furthermore by placing those in tension, we have inadvertently created a divide that informs our hobby to this very day, to the point that any game attempting both is called a “hybrid.” And do you know another word for “hybrid”? Try mutant.
The good news is that we can fix it, and it’s as simple as updating the way we talk about games. We need a critical vocabulary that describes games accurately without becoming too burdensome or academic. Right about now, it’s tempting to take a shortcut. Hasn’t this already been done for other mediums? Why not simply copy/paste the vocabulary employed elsewhere — like, say, in literature?
Unfortunately, there are some very big problems with that impulse.
You may recognize these. They’re the elements of fiction — essentially, the building blocks of a story — and you were likely forced to memorize them in sixth grade. If you were lucky, you quickly expunged them from your memory and got on with the happier business of doodling in your notebook. If you were me, you grew anxious whenever you couldn’t identify all seven upon completion of any work of fiction.
The problem is that they break down almost immediately when applied to board games.
A piece of fiction is an artifact, subject to interpretation but still normally presented as a firm unchanging thing, bestowed upon you, the reader, listener, or viewer. A board game, on the other hand, doesn’t have the benefit of being entirely static. If anything, a board game is a set of social guidelines with some components. Who’s the character? Not the kingkiller Kvothe, content to merrily trot from one overwritten encounter to the next. The character is you, along with any moods or baggage you’ve dragged into play. The character is also the people you’ve sat down with: an old friend with whom you’re comfortable, a spouse you just had a shouting match with, a high school buddy who always gerrymanders the rules for their own benefit, a newcomer whose status is uncertain but who smells of bad onions and good alcohol. You are both observer and character.
This goes for pretty much all of the other elements as well. Unmoored from the simple thingness of a story, these criteria have all the coherency of taffy. What is the tone of a game, and doubly so a board game where the tone will arise from a negotiated social space between players? Point-of-view is almost entirely nonsense, since it’s filtered through multiple minds at once. And the central struggle is not against nature or Nicky the Nose or the Borg, but usually against the very people you’re trying to have a pleasant evening with. Nearly everything that could normally be determined by the author is now co-determined both by the author and one to six players, ages eight and up, across thirty to ninety minutes.
Here’s an example. In fiction, plots tend to follow certain predictable models, which can be diagrammed as plot arcs. Crafters of fiction don’t often deviate from these models, not because they’re uncreative, but because after centuries of storytelling we’ve learned something about utilizing or breaking up tension, the importance of troughs and crescendos, and that any book that leaves its climactic gunfight half-finished will deserve its D- from Cinemascore.
Now here’s the same plot model except applied to a board game. Player A is excited to teach their new game for the first time but quickly grows frustrated with somebody’s questions; this frustration only deepens as they begin to lose despite their superior knowledge of the rules. Player B is wary of new games, but quickly gains ground — only to have victory snatched away when everyone else gangs up on them. Player C has played this game nine times, which is the same as having played it three hundred times in today’s saturated industry, and anyway spends his time nursing his not-so-subtle attraction to Player B.
Messy, right? Of course, this isn’t to say that board games should elude description or evaluation altogether. Rather, the point is that board games require a new sort of vocabulary for a new sort of experience. Mechanics and theme were functional for years, but have grown overused and underconsidered.
Which is why next time I’ll be talking about the five elements I’ve been applying to my criticism for the past few years, and why I believe they could help elevate the way we talk about games.