Talking About Games: Five Categories
Following up on my previous Patreon-funded essay, we’re talking about the five categories I use when thinking and writing about board games, and how they might help revolutionize games criticism forever. Hey, I’m nothing if not humble.
The seven elements of fiction. That’s where we left off last time. Character, theme, plot, setting, point of view, struggle, and tone. Seven concepts that are almost universally recognizable to anyone who’s completed a primary education, and which concisely break down nearly any story into its component building blocks. Even those who couldn’t list them off the top of their head would almost certainly recognize them if pressed. “What’s a plot?” they would sputter. “What do you mean, What is a plot? It’s what happens in a story. That or a conspiracy, or maybe a division of farmland. Now please step back, street person with an uncanny interest in the seven elements of style.”
At least that’s what happened when I conducted an informal poll downtown.
The problem, you might recall from part one, is that these seven elements don’t quite fit when applied to an interactive social experience like board games. Which is why today we’re going to talk about some that do. These are the five terms I apply to every game I evaluate, and which I would submit as a helpful alternative to anyone hoping to break away from our wretched default dichotomy of theme vs. mechanics.
In other words, this is great news for people who love vocabulary lessons!
But before we begin, let’s lay down some guidelines.
The goal with these terms is clarity, accessibility, and universality. Much like the elements of style, which are easily recognizable by pretty much anybody, our goal is to craft an evaluative language we can use semi-casually, both as critics and designers.
And this language ought to be as universal as possible. Although there will be outliers, the terms we choose should apply to most cases. Just as nearly all stories have a plot and characters, so too should nearly all games be constructed from the building blocks we outline here. This means leaving a number of excellent concepts on the cutting room floor, perhaps to be employed elsewhere rather than acting as all-encompassing elements.
Let me give you an example of such a term: replayability. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, even in our hobby’s current climate where many collections vastly outweigh their owners’ playtime. Replayability often confers some notion of value, that you’ll be playing this game forever and ever, compulsively, until you attain an ecstatic state of play wherein you forget your mundane day-to-day obligations, like children and spouses and family pets.
But replayability isn’t actually very useful once we start speaking in absolutes. What about mystery games, which are only solvable once? Or escape rooms, which by their very nature are escaped? Or message games, which jolt their players with a singular moment of epiphany? Or even certain wargames, which present a limited engagement that isn’t meant to be played more than a handful of times? There are plenty of worthwhile games that are only playable a small handful of times. Sometimes even only once.
Universal, then. And easily parsed. Terms we can understand at a glance when talking about board games.
The first task is to divide theme with all the relish of pulling apart a sticky bun. Which as everybody knows, means you will now have two sticky buns. In this case, the result is dual terms: setting and theme. With the latter, we’re talking about a very different sort of theme than the one generally thrown about in our hobby. After all, you wouldn’t say the theme of Casablanca is “Morocco during World War II.” But when it comes to board games, that’s pretty much where we’re at.
So what’s the difference?
If you want to be all highfalutin’ about it, you can think of this divide by way of the extrinsic vs. intrinsic — that setting is usually extrinsic while themes are usually intrinsic. If you’re everybody else, a setting is what the game presents to the outside world: artwork, board layout, user interface, action verbiage, flavor text, rulebook fluff — the “story” of the game. You’re growing a farm, building a castle, waging endless war against your neighbors, or managing a geisha house. Again. For some reason.
Theme, meanwhile, is more internal and often more subtle. It’s what the game has you the player do, feel, or evoke. In other words, the game’s underlying reason, statement, or suggestion of its setting. Your farm is struggling because of a saturated marketplace. You’re building an ornate castle because Austria’s royalty prefers idolizing swans rather than feeding the peasantry. War is inevitable, or perhaps fallacious. Geishas make you feel tingly downstairs.
Whatever the reason, that divide is nearly always present, even when a game isn’t making an explicit statement. Setting is there to provide a context, while theme exists to make that context matter. When we say a game “lacks theme,” we might mean the game in question is missing either element: a setting, because the game doesn’t use much artwork or terminology to sell you on its context, or an actual theme, because it features a setting that feels disconnected from the actual process of play.
If you want to hear more, I recommend brushing up on Michael Barnes’ editorial on how Reiner Knizia is actually quite good at tinkering with theme, despite not really bothering much with setting. You can read it over here.
Meanwhile, let’s look at one of my favorite examples.
The setting of Homeland is plainly visible: you’re a CIA analyst trying to clear a bulletin board of threats to America. Onto these threats you deploy soldiers (little green army men!) and spies (patriotic blue dudes!) to isolate their intensity and difficulty, invest cards to defuse them, and ultimately reveal whether those threats were prevented or triggered. Oh, and somebody might be a terrorist working in your ranks. Social deduction! Spy stuff! Intrigue! Too bad the board is cluttered, your goals are unclear, and the entire design does little to communicate the immediacy and danger of your situation.
But when you peel back the layers a bit, Homeland is downright devious. Players adopt one of three possible identities: loyal agent, opportunist, or terrorist. In this case, both the loyal agent and opportunist want to save America, but both the opportunist and terrorist benefit from successful attacks — in the former case, because it enables them to expand their power and ambitions, and in the latter because they’re, um, terrorists. This subtle overlap is the domain of theme, generating a subtle but cogent point that exists underneath the game’s usual trappings.
Unsurprisingly, discussing Homeland via the usual definition of “theme” is fruitless, because we’re collapsing different things into a single term. Only when we divide them can we talk about the game’s relative strengths. There’s the setting, which is flimsy thanks to the game’s shoddy graphic design, unclear intent, and the incongruous presence of its little army dudes and spy guys. The theme, on the other hand, is handled masterfully, evoking an intelligence apparatus that’s only as strong as its weakest links, mired in petty bureaucracy and crass ambition, and tooled to reward the wrong behavior. That’s a timely message lurking beneath the surface of a discount bin setting. Incidentally, Homeland goes for $12 on Amazon, and maybe my review will tell you why that’s a great deal.
We can talk more about the divide between setting and theme later. For now, let’s round out our five terms. Next up are components and mechanics, both of which should be familiar.
Starting with the second term, mechanics are a game’s systems, the deck-building and set collection and point-to-point movement and whatever else it uses to transmit the player’s intent into being. Think of these as social guidelines: you want to move a box to the end of this maze, here are the levers and conveyor belts that do the moving. Crucially, mechanics do not “exist,” much the same way numbers do not “exist.” They’re an agreed-upon set of behaviors that, when leveraged against other behaviors, produce a state that can be manipulated. Or played, if that sounds nicer.
The objects manipulated by these behaviors are your components. When it comes to board games, these are every bit as valuable as the rules themselves — and if you don’t believe me, take a look at the numbers whenever a Kickstarter promises stretch goal miniatures. There’s joy in slamming a heavy piece onto the table, and not only because it gives the impression that you’re the big kid on the block. The way we move a game’s components can provide an additional thematic context. Do you conceal a piece from your fellow players? Clink it annoyingly? Slide it ominously across the board? Place it face-down to suggest an important secret?
Further, components and mechanics are connected the way setting and theme are connected. Just as setting and theme are the right and left hands of a board game’s narrative, so too are components and mechanics the ways in which a game becomes interactive. Mechanics let you think in a game’s language, while components let you write those thoughts into physical existence. Components without mechanics are contextless objects, while mechanics without components are unformed thoughts.
Much as with setting and theme, there’s infinitely more to be said here. We’ll undoubtedly continue to explore these concepts in future months. For now, though, we need to introduce the fifth element. No, not Mila Jovovich. Instead, I’m talking about the way these four elements interact.
In a nutshell, Feedback is the way a game’s setting, theme, mechanics, and components loop into one another, especially once we introduce the human element. Does the game in question feature actions that promote its thematic statements? Does the setting encourage particular behaviors with its components? Are those components appropriate, or over- or under-produced given the aims of the game? Perhaps most importantly, are players guided to behave in particular ways suitable to what the game hopes to evoke?
As a critic, there are a few useful ways to talk about this. My favorite term is elegance. Rather than stating that a game is simple, elegance communicates that a game’s elements flow into one another without snagging on corners or meandering through any one element. Even complicated games can be elegant if their actions make sense in evoking the game’s setting and themes. Simon Agner Holm has proposed coherence as another useful consideration for discussing this interconnectedness.
Regardless of the specific adjectives, it’s useful to evaluate a game not only on how well it evokes the first four elements, but also in how well it pulls off their intersection. Let’s look at one last example for today.
Sol: Last Days of a Star (review) is a masterclass in feedback. At its most basic, each player controls a mothership orbiting the sun. But this is no regular sun: it’s a dying star, and your actions directly contribute to it decay.
This is reflected in every aspect of Sol. Your actions (via both setting and mechanics) construct structures in and around the sun, but this hastens your movement through a deck of cards that both provides special actions and resources (because the sun is a source of energy and innovation) and acts as a game timer (because you’re destabilizing the sun by drawing out that energy). Your ultimate goal is to propel your mothership away from the impending supernova, a process accomplished either by hurling sacrificial ships into the sun’s core or running simulations from stations in orbit. In both cases, the very thing that ensures your survival also ensures the premature death of your home star.
When players are introduced into this unstable system, our four categories undergo feedback. As the sun’s demise is hastened, the game encourages its players to further destabilize their own chances of survival by taking broader risks and less-effective actions. The result is a sweeping commentary on both our civilization’s current energy predicament and the scientific realities of matter and energy more broadly. Sol is about the inevitability of entropy in two senses. First chemically, in that we as organisms and users of technology only exist because we take organized energy and disorganize it, propelling ourselves and our engines by the process of that disordering. Phosphorus becomes life, food becomes waste, fuel becomes ejecta. And second socially, in that humans are likely to default to self-interest over all alternatives. Even then, the solution to energy-based problems may demand a tremendous, and even risky, injection of energy. You can’t mitigate climate change without running the factories that produce the technologies that will mitigate climate change. And, Sol argues, our baser natures make it likely that only one mothership will break free of that hastened explosion.
Again, this isn’t a statement divorced from the game’s mechanics or components. The way pieces are added and sometimes removed visualizes the buildup of dangerous and entropy-causing entities. The slow revolution of your mothership around the sun both reflects the need to gain greater momentum and the constraints working against your attempted solutions. The gradual peeling away of the deck offers both opportunity and disaster.
That tension between producing something useful, even salvific, and dooming the entire human race to an early death is at the heart of Sol. It’s also a prime example of how carefully integrating a game’s disparate categories and weathering them on the rocks of human interaction can produce something worthy of evaluation. Sol rewards that manner of investigation, especially when we apply a robust critical vocabulary rather than reducing it to the inadequate binary of “theme” and “mechanics.”
That’s enough for now. Next time, we’ll talk about how these elements can be applied to both complex and simple games, sometimes in revelatory ways.
Part Three can be found on Patreon right now for supporters. Cheapskates will be able to find it here in a few weeks! EDIT: Part three is now on Space-Biff! You can find 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 July 8, 2019, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Talking About Games, What We Talk About When We Talk About Games. Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.
Thanks for still posting these for cheapskates! I’m currently between jobs and hope to become a backer once income is happening againv. Getting to see writing like this reinforces my plans.
I have a great affection for cheapskates! Otherwise I’d be self-loathing. And thanks for reading, whether you’re able to support my site or not. Everybody is welcome.
This should be required reading for all serious boardgame reviewers. Very interesting.
That’s kind of you to say! I’m mostly hopeful that we’ll end up seeing multiple models for evaluating games. That’s when a body of criticism starts to get really interesting.
I’m grateful for and thoroughly impressed by this post! This was a beautiful breakdown of the feel of a boardgame. I’d said for quite some time that I theme can make or break a game for me and it always had to do with whether or not the game is able to successfully convey that you are doing what the setting implies you are doing. Otherwise, it just feels tacked on and therein kind of cheap right? I’ve told people that I’d much rather a game just not have a theme or setting at all than one that’s just there for the art you know?
it’s an enlightening experience reading your work. I don’t always agree with your assessments of games but your thoughts on them always elucidate the core of this thing we do. (My dissent often breaks down to “Once playing them, I don’t think these elements really break the game,” I do mostly agree). What I’m trying to say is that it’s an honor to kind of peak behind the curtain and look at your thought process, I hope to learn a lot. Thanks for the good work.
Thanks for your generous words, Daniel. I’m always happy to talk shop, especially when we disagree about what makes a game work! Hopefully articles like this one will help somebody think about games — whether making them or evaluating them — through a new lens.
The intrinsic theme as you describe it seems to be an emergent property of the players actions + game system. I think maybe the players dont feel that as strongly as they do the actions themselves. You could imagine a game where the actions were dry and abstract, yet the interactions of the players combined to produce something high concept and cool as you have been discussing. Ive not played many riener K games, but maybe thats what that article is referring to. But I think that when people refer to games as being thematic, thats not necessarily what they mean. I think they feel the ‘Im doing things a spy would do’ quite strongly (or the absence of that feeling) more than they feel the presence or absence of this emergent theme. Yeah, I think from a literary POV, theme is the right word for it. But if people commonly refer to theme as something else, maybe you need to stick with that to avoid confusion, and come up with a different term for this higher concept? Dynamics? Interactions? not sure.
That’s a good point, Steve, and it’s something I’ve spent some time considering. It’s true that setting/theme as expressed by Barnes is a bit more to think about. I have two responses on that point:
(1) This is a model for game-makers and game-reviewers first and foremost. I’m not proposing that we force people to start using different terminology. If we employ the terms consistently, the culture will gradually follow.
(2) The reason I don’t want to settle on a different word is because this definition of “theme” is what it means in every other form of media. Theater, literature, film, dance, history, campfire horror stories, digital games — basically anything that tells a story, and more besides — they’re all described as having “themes,” and none of those themes are synonymous with setting. We’re not inventing a new term out of whole cloth. We’re insisting that the previous understanding of theme is more accurate and useful.
I’m all ears for a better term if one occurs. But I’m inclined to use the term that already has that exact intrinsic meaning, which people are stuck misusing. The more we use it appropriately, the more we dismantle our hobby’s silly mechanics vs. theme dichotomy.
However – ‘the feeling is real’. (IMO) So if you redefine theme as it is currently ‘misused’ in board games to be more in-line with other mediums, then what is the new way to say “this game feels thematic”? Ive played Tigris and Euphrates, for instance, and I dont find it ‘thematic’ , despite the fact that the emergent dynamics may be thematic in a literary sense. (I really cant remember). And possibly the reason I dont remember is that because people dont feel literary theme as strongly as they feel this..other thing Im talking about.
This is really just me theory mongering and arguing semantics I guess, because I agree with your underlying principles – they are interesting and important.
I used one definition for the word ‘premise’ before, as a way to describe how a game feels thematic or not. but its probably not helpful to introduce that term unless you are ‘taking back theme’ to its literary origins. i.e. setting -> premise -> theme
of if you stick to the current ‘misuse’: setting->theme->’narrative’ perhaps?
Maybe all Im saying is that there is something there sitting in the middle between setting and the emergent behaviour that is important and feelsy.
One of the problems with that phrase — “this is thematic!” — is that it doesn’t actually describe much, and it certainly isn’t applied consistently. Not that consistency is always the goal; again, I don’t much care to police the way regular people speak.
But there are lots of ways to speak about a game’s “thematic” side. If you say, “This game has great mechanics,” the next question is, “Like what?” The same can go for talking about setting/theme. What does the game do? What feelings does it evoke?
Phht! you know what? I dont think there even IS a universally accepted literary definition of premise or theme. Have you tried googling that shit? its all over the place!
That’s very true! Every term, category, and element will be the topic of scrutiny and debate. There is a general agreed-upon sense for it, though, and it’s largely discursive. Unless we’re arguing that the proper usage is the way “theme park” employs it. In which case, “theme” is absolutely the parallel of “setting.”
It’s tough. Literary theme, to me, is the message being conveyed, and that message is conveyed through multiple ways. In film and tv, theme is represented through the codes and conventions (through dialogue, acting, setting, symbols, camera angles and movement…). It’s also the hardest aspect to identify in a text. And a there can be multiple themes. Say for instance, the movie Edward Scissorhands has a theme of conformity. This is shown through costuming and hair and make-up (Edward looks different and has scissors for hands); Peg then makes Edward wear a cheap business shirt and pants; through dialogue (“I know a doctor who could help you”); these are just a few ways Tim Burton was representing the theme of conformity.
I wouldn’t say it’s as complex in board gaming, but theme is more than just the way a game looks, and it involves the aspects Space-Biff has written about.
Thank you for your words on theme. I actually find this one of the more annoying aspects of board gaming where people just call a skin a theme and say the game is really thematic. Example: Players will see a dragon illustration on a card and exclaim they like the fantasy theme. I see that more as a genre. And as you write, people are also confused between setting and theme.
I used to be concerned that the misuse of theme is entrenched in board gaming.
On a similar note, when I used to play a CCG, that subculture would refer to some decks as meme decks. I thought the meme deck was the one everyone was copying, just like memes spreading through culture, but I later discovered the CCG players use the term as a deck that is built just for laughs; one that is unique. It may be too late to change this usage as the term is entrenched and part of the language they are all using.
I think there is more hope for theme though as I am seeing more reviewers actually evaluate a game’s theme, instead of just its genre or setting or illustrations. So again, thanks for helping define and clarify theme.
I agree. I’d never really though about it before, how the word “theme,” when used in any other setting such as music, art, or literature, has an entirely different meaning than the one used in gaming. And that the (popular) definition of “theme” in gaming is very shallow.
If you want a new word for the concept that “theme” has been used for, how about “context”?
Possibly. My concern there is that “context” is largely what “setting” is for. It’s a coat of paint that contextualizes your actions. At times, theme can even work against its context.
Another awesome installment, Dan… I confess to very rarely delving too deeply into the ‘undercurrent message’ hidden inside many of the games I review, partly because I don’t expect too many gamers to be that bothered about it, but possibly because I don’t always see them myself (or I daresay am not that bothered about them)… Perhaps this indicates I remain an empty well of
Perhaps more to the point, maybe I am just an empty well of shallow feeling, pressing blindly through the thickets of gaming mechanic goodness in my quest for the ultimate analysis-paralysis high… Or should probably just try harder and stop enjoying playing games for the sake of hanging out with like-minded friends and gamers… Pffft! I am of course messing, but this series of articles has made me even more aware of my limitations as a critical writer… and I hate you for it! 💔😩😭 Fantastic series btw – keep up the excellent work!
Thank you for your kind words! Becoming a better critic is a process we’re all learning as we go, especially in a medium with a critical apparatus as young as this one — which is a huge irony, considering that film and television and even books are newer than board games. Oh well! It’s exciting to think that we could be the ones who help define the foundations of how to talk critically about board games.
Once again, a very interesting take on the aspects of a board game. I’ll have to let the actual terminology gestate within me for a while as I am used to viewing the overall game concept from a storytelling POV. Not just related to story-driven games, but any game in which a designer sets out to create a gameplay experience and players interact with it. In stories, I generally use a ‘Character-Location-Event’ trifecta where characters act upon their locations and other characters and receive reciprocated events and counteractions in return, causing conflict, tension, and resolution. But because games are multi-directional experiences in which we play an active role (as opposed to the linear, passive experiences stories offer) a more robust framework is needed. The only problem is because game theory is still growing everyone has different terms they use for similar elements.
Because there are two parties mainly interacting with a game and interaction IS the core action, I would split up games into two parts: an ‘In’ and an ‘Out’ experience. The ‘In’ part holds everything the designer needs towards giving form to their envisioned game experience (what you refer to as ‘narrative’) while ‘Out’ relates to the game experience players end up having. A designer gives form to her ‘In’-experience by crafting a Structure (your ‘components’ and ‘mechanics’, so both physical and non-physical elements), mixing it with Art (your ‘setting’ and here embodies narrative text, illustrations, graphic design, typography, etc.) and directing it towards Social (the Magic Circle boundaries like player count, gameplay type, age, social etiquette, etc.). See https://imgur.com/Nssb2HT
Players end up giving a game purpose and a renewed form by adding Strategy (your ‘feedback’ and includes loops of actions), Story (also your ‘feedback’ but in terms of a mental visualization and/or verbal expression of the story of a player’s avatar and his actions) and Community (the meta aspects of interacting with the Magic Circle, the game and its players). See https://imgur.com/IZuXCZ4
In the end, it doesn’t really matter as we’re all talking about the same thing, but it can lead to some preconceived notions when words like ‘narrative’, ‘theme’ and ‘story’ are used depending on where each party is coming from.
Geishas make you feel tingly downstairs🤣🤣. Words to live by. Great stuff sir.
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