When reading reviews I often run into the claim that with some games (usually those that are derisively called „eurogames“) you could easily swap out their theme without it making a difference. An assertion that tends to base its validity on the confident way it’s made, and the fact that most people no longer bother to challenge it.
This belief persists for a number of reasons. Some players tend to reduce a game to rules and scoring mechanisms when they play. So much so, they feel like Neo seeing the code of the Matrix, when they are, in fact, just Kenneth from Dartmouth, who loves LARPing as an accountant using colored cubes. Or maybe people simply believe that imagining a different theme is the same as it being interchangeable.
A game’s theme generally refers to the visual and occasionally tactile presentation of the game. Gamers like to point out that rules and mechanisms can also transport a theme and create an immersive experience. This is technically wrong, although it puts it backwards. A game’s presentation – often undersold as mere product design – establishes the conceptual and connotative framing of play. While this may sound a little abstract, it simply means that graphics and components give us the vocabulary and mental images with which we can (and sometimes are supposed to) engage with the game.
A particularly immersive and thematic mechanism only feels this way, because the ideas and concepts that visuals and components provide us with, are easily combined with them. That is why a game’s presentation isn’t just nice to look at or a visible sign of how much money we’ve spent. It is also a selected vocabulary and mental imagery we can use to illustrate our interaction. A theme doesn’t elevate a game, but actually turns a mental exercjse into a playable experience.
Naturally this connection between rules and theme is more or less arbitrary. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you are familiar with linguistics, you might know that the signifier (i.e. the word) and the signified (i.e. what that word means) are similarly arbitrary. A rose could just as well be called a “ryha”, “soona” or even “Brindlesqueek”. If that last one made you smirk, it might be because the signifier also follows certain aesthetic considerations. We have certain linguistic beliefs that some words match the things they describe, while others don’t. You may want to think about the people you know, who look exactly like their first name and those who don’t.
Regardless of how we justify (or disprove) those beliefs, we can at the very least acknowledge that they exist. Sounds, including spoken ones, invoke associations. Most English speakers will not think of a pretty flower or a symbol for love or affection, when hearing the word “Brindlesqueek”. It might be some Victorian mechanical contraption, or maybe an obscure rural delicacy.
A game’s theme has a similar function. It invokes certain associations which we, as compulsively sense-making beings, try to merge with the rules before us. We are accustomed to making use of the game’s thematic fragments to make the rules more tangible. The easier this is to do, the more thematic a game will feel.
It’s these associations that give play a certain ambiance. If these associations and ambiance make us uncomfortable, play will feel similarly awkward. The so-called “difficult topics” in board games, have – at least in part – that reputation, because their ambiance makes us uncomfortable.
By contrast, a theme’s ambiance can also bee too vague or simply unfamiliar to players. The associations that are supposed be emerge, fail to do so. You end up staring at illustrations that mean nothing to you and use terms and descriptions that create no mental images of note. Such a group will barely notice a theme in the game.
Which is why the argument that some games have interchangeable themes is too short-sighted. A new theme will invariably frame the game differently and allow for a difference ambiance. If the group is more familiar with it, the game will feel more thematic. If the theme is foreign to them or otherwise inaccessible, play will remain mechanical and abstract.
It’s not the supposedly sterile rules that are incompatible with a thematic experience. It is themes, that fail to make use of the players’ imaginations or those that create an ambience players can’t or don’t want to find themselves in. A good theme is one that taps into players’ minds, not one that glues itself to the mechanisms.