Talking About Games: Mechanics vs. Theme

Aw. Wee Aquinas is growing into his heritage! Soon he'll be talking about heady theological conundrums!

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.

In the middle: weird games about geishas and French nurses and hot Nazis.

The board gaming no man’s land.

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.

The seven elements of inflicting boredom on your middle school students, more like.

The seven elements of narrative.

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.


… applied to board games.

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.

giggle giggle

A plot diagram!

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.

My friends should immediately try to guess which participant represents them most accurately.

… applied to board games.

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.

Part Two can be found on Patreon right now for supporters. Cheapskates will be able to find it here in a few weeks! EDIT: Part two is now on Space-Biff! You can read it here.

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on June 5, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. I’m really looking forward to the upcoming essays! I’m starting to suspect that I enjoy just thinking about board games in the abstract way that you do in this essay just as much if not more than I enjoy actually playing games.

    • Perhaps we’re kindred spirits! I’m often asked how I can stand to play so many new games every year. Don’t I get burned out? Don’t I just want to play the same stuff?

      And, well, sure, I like to revisit old favorites. But for me, the hobby isn’t about playing games. It’s about evaluating and writing about games.

  2. Really enjoy the way your writing is heading and can eat this stuff for breakfast, lunch and tea – thank you and keep up the excellent work, Dan.

  3. I love that you chose to call a spade a spade and use the term media shills to describe self-appointed “content creators”. I’m a bit behind in my reading, so I’ll go catch up over on Patreon where I’m happy to support your critical analysis and thoughtful writing.

    • The conversation over there is exactly what I was hoping for, in particular how it’s revealing some of the weaknesses in my description of the five terms.

      As for the spade… that’s such a huge topic (and such a live wire) that I probably shouldn’t say anything until I’m good and ready.

  4. Excellent post! I especially loved the last diagram 🙂

  5. herodotos484

    So who’s the Jean-Luc Godard of boardgames?

  6. I have found Eclipse to be one of the stronger ‘hybrid’-contenders on the market. Combining euro-style resource management with ameritrash theme, allowing players to create an epic narrative together while having enough overview for solid, strategic descisions. The mechanics are quite simple and have a certain ‘logic’ to them, which allows players to understand them within the first round.

    Would love to hear other potentials in this category.

    • There are loads! Especially as more designers realize they don’t need to do “only” theme or mechanics. Most recently I was deeply impressed with Pax Pamir’s second edition. But naming a Cole Wehrle game might be cheating, since he’s been stepping beyond the usual design dichotomy for a while now.

      • Thijs van Tienen

        Pax Pamir was a limited print, am I right? I’ve been eyeing it, since Wehrle’s Root rushed into my top 3 games of all time, but lacked the funds to back a KS.

      • Yes, but I believe they’re still selling copies.

      • Ah, that’s nice to hear. Who knows. 🙂 Perhaps there is some way to get it around here (netherlands). I’m not gonna pay for shipping and import taxes, and I haven’t seen it as an add-on for Root expansion campaign.

        Thanks for the tip though. 😉

  7. More! (He demanded eagerly).

    Are we finally moving towards actual board game critique? Are you blazing the trail for us?

    I ended up here some months back due to a talk you did somewhere (video of course). Have you written more along these lines? And is there an easy place to find it?

    • My goal is always critique, although there’s often a slender line between that and a review. I’ll settle for doing better every day, regardless of how my writing is labeled!

      As for thinkpieces, I’ve done a few here and there, but I’m planning on doing more now than before. Some will be limited to Patreon, and other stuff will release there early. The main articles will always eventually be released here, though.

  8. Good stuff as always Dan. I think the interesting juggling act here is that every player is the hero of their own story and so how do you build an in game “plot” around that? The most memorable experiences I find are based on moments here and there that are usually based around turning a potential conflict in to a real conflict, or a player swindling a win away in a most unexpected way. That’s a pretty short story to extract from a gaming experience, but that’s not really the goal for most games. Theme and mechanics are much more easy to control for a designer.

    I spend no emotional energy before playing a game as to whether it is a Euro or Amerithrash. They seem more and more meaningless all the time anyhow. Count me among the lucky who watch a movie or read a book and stay blissfully unaware of the structure until I’ve explored it several times. The same generally goes for games, although I’m much more likely to drift off to sleep thinking of the last game played and it’s nuts and bolts then the last TV show I watched. Although last night’s ‘Street Food’ episode did look delicious.

    Looking forward to the next post on this!

    • Right, which is why I think looking for a game’s narrative isn’t quite the right way to go. We can still talk about what a game does, says, or evokes, but the “story” told by most games isn’t where the fire is at.

      And I’m always happy to hear people casting off the shackles of the Euro/Ameritrash divide! It’s such a boring way to look at games.

  9. My model of game theminess is a definition of ‘premise’ I read somewhere. Which is “the goals of the characters and the ways they achieve them/obstacles in their way”. This says a lot more that just colour and setting. For example, if I said a story was set in a medieval world of myth and magic, it wouldnt tell you anything about the story, in the same way it wouldnt tell you anything about a game. But using that definition of premise, DnD is “we aim to level up and get rich by killing monsters and swiping their stuff” That describes the game well. I think if you can come up with a premise for a game based on its goals and activities/obstacles that sounds ‘themey’, then the game will feel themey to play. If the premise sounds dry the game will feel dry. Take Scythe as a popular example. Dripping in setting/artwork etc.. what is the premise? Its kind of hard to describe the mix of things you score points for and the way you do it. Perhaps “we aim to advance our country and keep our people happy (goals) using efficient administration (activities)”? Something like that. And thats how the game feels to play, Whereas something like Chaos in the old world, for instance, would be “we aim to dominate and corrupt the land (goals) by summoning demons and casting spells (activites) / in murderous competition with rival gods (obstacles)” And thats pretty much how that game fels to play.

    • Interesting! Sort of like… reducing a game to an elevator pitch that describes its central arc?

      • Yep, but specifically a pitch in the format of goals and activities/obstacles of the *players*. People often describe games as being thematic or not, and thats a feeling they get from playing the game, but what is it that causes that feeling? I think its that the goals/activities/obstacles of the players are in line with the theme, and also specific and concrete, rather than vague. Like, I think its very difficult for point-salad games, for one example, to feel thematic because the player has many small, optional goals.

      • Sure, I can see that. I’ll have to mull it over. That might be a useful way to explain my problem with salad games.

  10. Interesting essay to start off with. And although I agree that reading a (linear) novel and playing a (multidirectional) game demand different input designs, I think that the graph comparison is skewered. The story graph represents the structure of an intended experience going in, so it’s from the writer’s POV, while the game graph represents the modified experience of players coming out of a game. It’s not as if the game designer intended these three players to have the experiences they had. I could just as well overlay my own personal experience of reading (what I percieved to be) a badly written book over the top graph and also match one of the lines in the game graph. Still, I get where you’re going with this, so I’m in for the ride! Onwards to the next post! Thx.

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