Simple questions are funny in that sometimes their answers can be very surprising. At least if you don’t settle on the very first idea that comes to mind. Let’s take a simple question like: what is a game about? Your first thought might be: fun, being social or competition. For several yeras now, another idea has started creeping into this list: theme. A game is about what you see. More than that even, it’s about the setting and connections that are implied by the things shown to you. It is about the things that the game alludes to via its terminology, rules mechanisms and illustrations. A game, if sufficiently researched and ambitious, is about topic it presents us with. In other words a sophisticated modern game delves into its topic.
Approaching a game this way is very appealing because, among other things, it lets you leave behind the banal act of playing the game and invites you to wax philosophically about a number of related things. Be it historical backgrounds, qustions of representation or even statements the author makes through their work. To be clear, all those questions are legitimate and worth talking about, if you want to use a game as a jumping off point for them. But they only have a superficial relation to what the game is about. You choose to focus on those topics, when you don’t want to write about games but the things they remind you of.
Writing about the game’s theme doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t want to write about the game. But you have to be clear about how themes function at the table. Because it’s especially the games that have benefited from thorough research and conscientious consultation that have a lot to offer here.
It all begins with a somewhat radical thesis: what a game is about is determined at the moment the game is played.
It’s only when we start to play, that we draw connections betwen mechanisms and theme. Cardboard markers become money, gold or florin. Wooden markers become workers, heroes or colonial powers. In some cases, we additionally choose other terms to name our interaction. “To borrow” can become “to steal.” To “remove a token” can become “kill.” We instinctively rewrite the basic building blocks of the theme, when the terms the game offers us don’t make sense to us. Or even just when they strike us as too clunky.
A game’s theme is not fixed. It is merely an offer that we can use, change, and in some extreme cases throw out completely. How often have we called a game’s theme “slapped on” because we, as players, have decided that we don’t like how it is offered to us? How often was it not worth the mental effort to draw connections between rules and theme, so we just limited ourselves to the game’s rules?
It is up to us to choose whether the game has the theme offered or prepared for us. Similarly, it is up to us whether the game’s victory condition is relevant to us or not. Again, this is not dictated to us by the game. This dynamic is most evident in games that allow for only one winner, and when players, over the course of the game, feel that they no longer have a shot at winning the game. In these moments they have to readjust themselves towards a new goal. Maybe they aim for the best possible ranking still open to them. Maybe they play to end ahead of someone else at the table. (New Angeles turned this reflex into its primary win condition.) Perhaps they set their sights on hindering the person they blame for their no-win situation. In most cases, there are no rules to answer this question, neither in the game nor in some unspoken sense in the group. A game is not a piece of software that is executed by players. It is an offer of guidelines paired with the promise that the resulting experience will be positive.
We decide, as a group, that a game’s victory condition is valuable enough for us to engage with the game mentally, socially, and also emotionally. This shared decision provides the foundation for play and creates the magic circle: we treat the game’s made-up victory condition as if it had relevance to our real-life interaction. Those somewhat familiar with modern wrestling will know this practice by another name: kayfabe. Perhaps this term should be adopted into board game parlance as well, as it sounds considerably less cerebral than “magic circle.”
Is it a game of civilization, history or just collecting victory points?
In wrestling, the use of kayfabe heightens the audience’s entertainment. Now we can enjoy overdramatized and highly theatrical characters and storylines instead of “just” watching multiple athletes wrestle.
At the gaming table, kayfabe allows us to enjoy more than the mechanisms themselves. We can enrich them with thematic references to open up a more enjoyable gameplay experience. (As an aside, we should take the separation of mechanisms and themes with a grain of salt anyway. As players, we can choose to handle it this way. While we might deprive ourselves a little of a fuller experience, this reduction to only the mechanisms is a reliable way to optimize our tactics and play more efficiently. If we focus on what an action does, and not what it represents, it becomes much easier for example to buy the “slavery card” to generate revenue or to sacrifice workers to advance on a scoring track.)
However, the kayfabe concept is also illuminating when we return to the question of what a game is about. For kayfabe is – as mentioned – an elevation of the fictional into relevance to real life. A game’s theme enriches our experience. It offers us a way to delight in more than the struggle to win and the sports-like competition to be the best. The theme of a game allows us to play with fiction, in order to entertain each other or ourselves.
Play is about an experience that can elicit emotions from us in a variety of ways. With the help of a theme, especially a well-prepared one, we can magnify this experience. Theme is a powerful tool to engage and excite us beyond ambition, competitiveness and sociability.
It is a tool we players use to determine what the game we are playing is about. It is in our hands to turn the game’s thematic offer into practice. But regardless how we choose to incorporate the theme into our play, the result is kayfabe. That is why posing the question what a game (or author) says about its subject is too short-sighted. It only examines the results of our own imagination.
I think it is far more interesting and revealing to ask why our imagination creates the ideas, images and even statements it does from the elements the game offers. It’s more interesting to ask how games make us think certain things.