Game Theory: Theme as a Model

In my previous discussion of theme and isomorphism, I glossed over theme a bit, so I wanted to go a little more in-depth in my descriptions of theme, how it relates to the game as a model, and ways the idea of a model can be used to design and play games.

An enormous number of games are classified as “thematic”, and even more games are considered to have “thematic elements”. Mechanics are considered thematic or unthematic. “Thematic Game” is sometimes considered the opposite of “Strategy Game” but surely there is strategy in a thematic game and there can be theme in a strategy game.

The theme is something separate from the components and rules and players. It is nothing that is actually there in front of you. Instead, theme is everything that is being represented, which makes theme the part of the game that is conceptual. In other words, the theme is the secondary meaning of the game–that is, not what the rules tell the player to do, but how they want the player to think about the game.

For the theme to impart the secondary meaning, it must describe what the player should be thinking about. The description includes not only the text provided to the player, but also the appearance of the game, including fonts, colors, artwork and pieces. The description can also include mechanical elements, like terrain bonuses or rules based on character traits that make the game a reflection of something besides the components and choices.

Games can have a lot of theme either by providing a large amount of these descriptive elements directly to the players through art and text, or by making every part of the game a descriptive element, incorporating meaning into the game actions. In the first case the designer must specifically include any behavior or concepts he or she wishes to present to the player. This can be a lot of work for a designer to enumerate the possibilities, but it also gives the designer complete control over the results of game events. A designer can focus on ways to use the mechanics to support the theme, without worrying about how the theme supports the mechanics

In the second case, the actions taken in the game provide the alternate meaning.This is the case I am more familiar with, and the case the remainder of the article focuses on. This case can be more difficult for a designer, who needs to make sure the mechanics work as part of the theme, but it can also make part of the job easier by making the game work as a model.

Using the model as a design tool has both pros and cons. One benefit is that the designer does not need to precisely define how all the mechanics interact. But this also means that the designer must be careful that the mechanics do not interact in a way that breaks the game.

Another benefit that I touched on briefly in my first game theory article is that a model can help a designer find additional mechanics or thematic elements. If a designer has a mechanic that fits well in the model, there is a good chance, (due to isomorphism with the represented concept) that the mechanic has an analogue in the modeled system. Similarly, a good thematic element can be added to the game by looking at how it affects the system, and introducing an equivalent effect in the mechanics.

This is one of the great strengths of choosing mechanics that are isomorphic to real world processes. If something works in real life, the more closely you model it, the more likely it is to work in the game. This is one aspect of “emergent gameplay” where the properties of the system as a whole are more complex than the properties of the parts, and slowly become apparent over time.

The main downside to using a model to find new themes and mechanics is that rules that are only added to make a mechanic work can be conspicuously unthematic.

When I started designing New Bedford, I had the specific intent to model the overfishing of whales and increased cost that accompanied it as time progressed. The initial rules that drove some of that were changed, but as other rules were changed to incorporate various other features, I observed an amazing thing happening. The original behavior had re-entered the game. I saw this as a sign that the level of isomorphism between the game mechanics and the real world had increased. By incorporating the theme into my game, it had added other features as a model.

Models are not perfect representations, however. A model that includes every possible effect to accurately reproduce a result is effectively identical to the real thing. (The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy makes light of the idea that the universe is really just a simulation of the universe that runs at exactly actual speed.) So models use idealizations to reduce the number of things that must be included.

Idealization in the model makes it easier for the game and the player to track information. Some games take pride in recreating real life by providing that level of detail with sheets of numbers, cubes, tracks, and dice. Other games take pride in capturing the same behavior by eliminating as much of this as possible.

This relationship between models and abstraction is an especially useful concept when considering expansions. A board game can idealize a lot of the details to make it more appealing to a wide audience, or more suitable to casual play. Expansions provide a way of reincorporating details of the model bit by bit so that players can choose the level of idealization, and the experience, they want. Settlers of Catan famously separated exploration and ships into the Seafarers expansion in order to keep the base game simple, and Klaus Teuber continues to develop new expansions that add elements of his original concept. Players can pick and choose which elements they want to incorporate.

As players, the concept of isomorphism allows us to discuss and understand games more effectively. As designers, understanding isomorphism helps us decide how theme will add meaning to the game. It can be used to directly craft a game’s meaning or govern the behavior of the game to create the meaning. If the theme is strongly tied into mechanics, isomorphism can be leveraged to make the game a model. This requires a different type of effort on the part of the designer, to choose the appropriate level of idealization, and has its own benefits and drawbacks. It is up to the designer what amount of theme and idealization are important to the game.


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  1. Cardboard Edison Weekly Roundup – Nov. 23-29, 2013 | BTG Co-Op
  2. Game Theory and Game Design | Vellum Information
  3. Game Theory: Levels of Meaning | Oakleaf Games
  4. Gaming Glossary: Euro Game and American Game | Oakleaf Games

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