Mark Johnson's occasional & opinionated podcast about family strategy boardgames

Saturday, May 08, 2010

BGTG 104 - Boardgame Themes (with Greg Pettit)

Themes in boardgames are a favorite subject of mine. I'm sure I've said before how interested I am in the themes these games of ours have. Some themes instantly attract me to a game, while others are an immediate turn-off. When I'm playing a game, I particularly enjoy historic theming on the cards, or historic notes within the rulebook. You'd think that makes me a theme-gamer. I certainly thought so. But then I thought about the games that were my favorites, and in many cases they are those elegant German-style games that are pretty spartan when it comes to theme compared to recent titles from Fantasy Flight or Days of Wonder. In fact, I don't care for the those other games. In some cases it was because I didn't care for the theme itself (e.g. fantasy battles or dungeon crawl), but in other cases I didn't like how the themes I do like (e.g. gaslight London) overwhelm the game mechanics, taking aware from their elegance.

Enter Greg Pettit, who suggested that there are two distinct types of themes in games. Some provide the evocative experience with art, special rules, a story arc, character roles, and so on. That's what Greg calls "theme as narrative." The other type Greg calls "theme as metaphor," and it usually relates the subject of the game into its mechanics. Some games exhibit both types, others skew strongly toward just one type. I imagine everyone can appreciate those few games that manage to succeed with both of these thematic types, but when it's one more than the other you'll find your gamer preferences shining through. In my case, it's for theme as metaphor, which is why I prefer Vinci to Small World, or Entdecker to Blackbeard.

In this podcast Greg & I talk all about this topic, consider several games under his descriptions of theme, bring in the topic of simulation in wargames (a little), and think about why we prefer certain games and not others based on the way they implement their themes. Over on BGG I'm also posting a poll where listeners can rate a bunch of popular games low/medium/high in theme as metaphor, and theme as narrative.



Blogger m.stachiw said...

Great episode. The theme discussion really hit it home for me! I love narrative theme to the point when introducing new games I theme the game nights through bg music, food and film. (e.g. had a Titanic themed night where we synced Rifftrax with the Movie, played Lifeboats, had ocean ambient sounds during play, and served multiple flavors of Goldfish crackers.) Love to hear more on this in future episodes.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I like this theme discussion a lot too. I felt there were some things that missed the mark a little for me.

The idea was discussed of games with strong narrative theme but weak metaphorical theme. I think that is much less likely than implied. Going with the example mentioned of Arkham Horror, I don't think the rules are weak metaphorically. Rather, I think narrative theme has been made so principal in the game design, that ease of play is not a priority of the rules. But this does not make them metaphorically weak.

Unless the idea is that something cannot be metaphorically thematic beyond a certain complexity level because metaphorical theme is entirely about ease of play. This seems unsatisfying as an answer to me.

Also, the Ra example was interesting to me, because it was the first game I thought of before it was even raised. While it is not strongly enough thematic to make it intuitive to learn, I feel you can see a definite thematic link that probably inspired Knizia. Monuments last through the epochs and only count at the end; Civilization fades between epochs; Pharoahs represent dynasties - the longest dynasty is the best; Floods and Niles are probably the most obvious.

If I had to guess, I would speculate that Knizia came up with the structure of the game and populated it with Egyptian iconography. Then the iconography became the basis for the scoring system. The metaphorical theme of the imagery seems to have informed the specifics. That's how it feels to me anyway.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Gregarius said...

Hey, Mark. I just finished listening to the podcast, and one huge oversight occurred to me, which I have no idea why I didn't say during the show.

Instead of saying "versus" when talking about Narrative & Metaphor, think of them on an X and Y axis. This divides games up into four quadrants, with the upper right being strong in both, and the lower left weak in both. Maybe this will help you visualize my perspective a little better.

Anyway, it was fun revisiting what was already a fun conversation. Keep up the great work!

12:11 PM  
Blogger Mark Johnson said...

Yeah, I began to think of these as two independent variables (to talk like an engineer). The poll on BGG produces data that will allow me to literally show that on an x-y graph. You'll see the games that are high or low in one or both categories.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wow, I guess I'm first dissenter! I'm not finished with the show yet, so maybe things will change. Where I am now, though, I just don't get it.
- Defining theme as simply something that makes it easier or more fun to play the game seems wholly inadequate to me. What is the theme of a game? It is the story or idea that the game is telling, regardless of whether or not that makes it easier to play. For example, a game about the business world, using business terms and settings, would probably be easier for a business person to learn. I would still call it themed, but it would in no way make the game easier for me.
- I don't really get the theme-as-narrative vs. theme-as-metaphor distinction. Or maybe it's just that I don't understand what the latter actually means?
- Ra is deeply themed: think of each player as the family ancestors, or perhaps household gods. In the game, each player is interceding with Ra on behalf of their family. Ra, head-honcho god, determines what is going to happen in the world -- pharaohships, civilizations, floods, etc. Auction chips represent favors from Ra that you've previously collected (presumably doing other minion-god-like stuff?). Ra doles out the events that are fated to happen; you use those chips to direct them to your family. Lowly gods that you are, you don't really understand what Ra is thinking; Ra tiles represent when, based on whatever seemingly-random criteria he uses, Ra decides to test the families to see if some fates are allocated.

So is that metaphor or narrative?

4:39 PM  
Blogger Charley Eastman said...

This is the kind of episode where you SHINE, Mark, and Greg is a great foil for you (in a discussion point sort of way). I think snoozefest (with all due respect) should listen to your definitions again for metaphor and narrative. I appreciate the conceptual framework for a discussion about a topic that I've lacked vocabulary on for a while.
I predict that this 'cast will spawn a lot of discussion on other shows just based on seed topics that come up around gaming trends. I think though, that using this particular set of descriptors, the games I like best tend to be rich in both, and I resonate with the ideas that the GREATS, the games with the most re-playability, tend to excel in both (Catan for me, or Wallenstein/Shogun).

The Ra conundrum is just that Ra is a bloody fun game! snoozefest proves another point: you can finesse any sort of metaphor theme onto a game that makes it helpful for you to justify the goofiness of the actual in-game actions. It is also a distinctly personal exercise. I do the same thing when I play Arkham Horror.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Interesting as the show was, I'm not going to listen to it again! However, from further discussion ( it's clear to me that my confusion was due to different use of terms. To me, the entirety of a non-abstract game IS metaphor -- representing the subject of the game in a portable, paper/wood/plastic format -- so it didn't make sense making such a big distinction between the story/narrative and the metaphor. But I'm now replacing "metaphor" with "mechanism" and things make more sense to me -- he was making a distinction between how well the game mechanisms relate to real-life (assuming the game is about some real-life event or story) mechanism, versus how well the game events/timeline relate to the real-life counterparts (i.e., how well playing the game tells the story that the game is about). There is a distinction there, but I don't think they're totally independent; the mechanisms ("metaphor") also contribute to the story ("narrative").

8:42 AM  
Anonymous Jeff Myers said...

This is certainly one of my favorite episodes ever. This type of thoughtful discussion is exactly why BTG is such an excellent podcast. Lots of food for thought.

I just recently finished my little filler game I designed, and the narrative was a huge part of the overall design and the metaphor was important in the structure of play.

Great episode!

9:20 AM  
Blogger Mark Johnson said...

That's ok, snooze, listening to the show once is all I ask. :-) I think your last comment came very close to my own opinion. The more I think about it, I'm sure there's some sort of distinction going on between the mechanics type of theming, versus the story type of theming. But they aren't completely independent--that's why we keep getting tripped up with definitions and some examples that are tricky to handle.

11:09 AM  
Anonymous Chris Norwood said...

Great show! This is the kind of discussion that consistently makes Boardgames to Go stand way out from the crowd of other boardgame podcasts.

I actually did listen to the podcast twice, and have a few comments.

1) Especially in the discussion early on about wargames and playability, you were confusing the issue. The conflict isn't about theme as narrative vs. theme as metaphor, it's a theme vs. abstraction issue. So while narrative and metaphor aren't mutually exclusive, "realistic" theme and high abstraction (being "more playable") usually are.

2) The other thing that you didn't explicitly say (that I can remember anyway) is that high theme in either one or both of these variable still doesn't necessarily mean that a game is good or fun. Just because Ra is virtually themeless (sorry snoozefest, but it is) doesn't mean that it isn't good or fun or anything like that. 'Cause, you know, it freaking is!

I actually had even more to say about this all, so I wrote a blog post about it, if anyone's interested...

8:37 AM  
Blogger collywobbles said...

I agree with Chris regarding this type of chat making BGTG stand out. Really thought provoking episode, I'd never considered the definitions of theme that you discussed before.

BUT, at the end of the day, it doesn't necessarily get you anywhere further as you came up with good example of low-low, low-hi, hi-low and hi-hi games that you liked/disliked with no obvious pattern.

It will be interesting to see the results of the poll. Very good discussion though. Thank you.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Mark Johnson said...

(This is posted on BGG at

With just over 20 responses to the poll above, let's see how it's shaking out. Now I wish I went with my original gut and just gave low, medium, and high voting choices without the intermediate options, but it's too late now.

Let me start with theme as narrative, since that was easier for everyone to understand what we were talking about.

Games with high thematic narrative:

Battlestar Galactica
Twilight Struggle
War of the Ring
(To a lesser degree, you could also include Agricola, Brass, Through the Ages, Pandemic, Small World, and Memoir '44)

Games with low thematic narrative:
(To a lesser degree, you could also include Acquire, Dominion, and Ra.)

Then on to theme as metaphor. There was more deviation in these votes, reflecting less understanding about the definitions. I admit to having trouble with it myself, which you heard in the podcast. Nonetheless, I think Greg is onto something about there being two different types of things people react to when it comes to boardgame themes, and we tried to call the other one metaphor.

Games with high thematic metaphor:

(To a lesser degree, you could include Acquire, Agricola, Brass, Twilight Struggle, Pandemic, and Small World)

Games with low thematic metaphor:
(To a lesser degree, you could include Carcassonne, Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, Ra, and Notre Dame.)

I also noticed how many games most frequent answer for narrative theme matched their same answer for metaphoric theme. It happened so often that it appears to me we aren't really talking about different qualities as we intended to. Or else these games have some sort of artistic balance in their design. But I chalk it up to confusion.

Since that vote-matching happened so much, it's more useful to point out the couple of titles for which there was a clear separation in the results. Those were

Acquire (low narrative, high metaphor)
Battlestar Galactica (high narrative, medium metaphor)

Whew! I think we've about reached the end of this topic, at least for a single podcast. In the end, I don't think we reached a destination, but we kicked off some useful discussion that can be taken up again later, by us or others. I doubt there's ever going to be clear consensus on what theme really is & does in boardgames, but our discussion highlighted that there are at least two distinct functions for theme. We'll see where the next conversation takes us.

8:07 AM  
Blogger said...

Hey guys. I thought this was a GREAT episode. Some really intriguing ideas. I was inspired to write about it in my own blog here:

The main point of my post was that I felt like there was one small thing missing from the idea of "Theme as Narrative". To me what's missing from the definition is that Narrative can really be judged by asking the players "what can you do in this game". Theme as narrative is really defined by the players possible actions.

I'd love to read your comments!


4:31 PM  
Anonymous John R. said...


First off great podcast. I really appreciate the insights and insane ramblings of people like me.

As for this most recent podcast on themes I was hoping from the beginning that somebody would mention Reef Encounter as I feel it is the best example of both axis of theme. When you did so I leapt from the couch in excitement, at which point my wife began to laugh at me.

I strongly believe that Reef Encounter is the best example of combining both themes into an exciting, deep, yet teachable game. I often find that when teaching the mechanics the metaphor theme makes sense. The selling of the game is based on the narrative theme which is just as rich, particularly given the prominence and popularity of BCC's nature documentaries.

My wife and gaming group talk about this dichotomy between mechanics and theme all the time and now I have NEW vocab for them.

Again great podcast. Can't wait for the next session.


6:06 PM  
Blogger Gregarius said...

Great comments! I've posted some more thoughts on my blog, if you're interested:

5:41 PM  
Blogger ekted said...

A+ on the metaphor vs narrative theme discussion. I am kicking myself that I haven't noticed this split before.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Dave Arnott said...

LOVE the idea of "theme" being able to be both Metaphor and Narrative.


Greg, I bow to you, and I hand over the Boardgames To Go Best Guest Idol.

And Mark, next time you have Greg as a guest, let him make his points before you sidetrack him :)

3:18 AM  
Anonymous Ryan Sturm said...

Wow. This episode was just awesome. I love the analysis of what makes Board Games work. Great theory Greg and a wonderful discussion. I referenced it on my last episode of How to Play, because I think all gamers interested in the topic should give this a listen. Whether you agree with Greg's theory or not it is fantastic food for thought. These are my favorite episodes Mark, keep up the great work. And thanks again for the shout out on your show for the How to Play Podcast, I had quite a few listeners find the show because of your endorsement.

6:36 AM  
Blogger knupug said...

Since I've only recently discovered BGTG, I'm just now listening to some of the older episodes. (I think I picked this one because of a reference on How To Play.)

The problem that people have with the Tigris & Euphrates narrative theme is that it's not the narrative that one might think, which gets in the way of teaching the game. (See the BGG thread ) Kingdoms are not "owned" by players. Each player is not creating their own kingdom, growing it, scoring points, etc. A single kingdom can, and should, have leaders from multiple players. So, it's hard for a new player to understand what kingdoms represent and how their leaders relate to those kingdoms. It becomes a barrier to teaching the game. However, once a player has learned the game, the narrative theme becomes less important. I'm sure that's why many feel that T&E has a weak narrative theme.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Teaching T&E w/ theme is easier if you approach it this way: the _game_ is about the start of civilization, with kingdoms growing, meeting, merging with or destroying other neighboring kingdoms. The _players_, however, are not any particular kingdom. They are the Illuminati of the age ... the start of 4 great secret societies: the Brotherhood of the Bull, The Urn Union, The Legion of the Lion, and the Association of Archers. Never heard of them before? Of course not, they're secret (but thanks to Reiner for outing them)! Each player/society tries to infiltrate kingdoms and earn influence, with the ultimate goal of becoming the most powerful Secret Society.

I can imagine a game with T&E like mechanisms, but with the above theme and with a more free-form board that shows interrelationships between different groups. Sort of like the Steve Jackson Illuminati idea, but with Knizia like game play. Wouldn't that be cool? Hmm maybe it's just me.

11:20 AM  
Blogger knupug said...

I agree that it's important to find a narrative/metaphorical theme that works when teaching T&E. The BGG thread I pointed to in my previous post has several good ones and I really like the theme suggested by Snooze Fest.

I guess my point is that any theme that one comes up with for T&E feels like something we, the players, have created in order to better teach the game. The game and its rulebook don't really provide an intuitive framework for understanding the game. The intuitive narrative is for each player to build and expand a kingdom in the ancient world, gaining VPs/cubes by developing the four different aspects of its civilization, and then confronting the possibility of war when those kingdoms collide. But, as Snooze Fest points out, that's not really the narrative of T&E. And, in fact, if you play it that way, you're going to lose. Instead, you have to internalize that your goal is for your leaders to gain influence in any kingdom where doing so gives you an advantage over the other players.

3:10 PM  

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