A few months ago, I discussed theme as the secondary meaning of a game. A slightly different interpretation is the game as a medium for ideas, and the theme as the message being delivered. This relationship can be used to examine the theme, breaking the theme down into subject as a medium, and meaning as message. This relationship is another way of interpreting the amount of theme that a game has.
Using the concept of message and medium, there are three levels of understanding a game. The first level is playing the game itself, the mechanical level. The second level is understanding what the game represents, the metaphor level. The third level is what abstract concepts the game is trying to present, and is the deepest level of meaning.
Abstract games contain no metaphor level. The message in abstract games comes entirely from the mechanical aspect of playing the game. This includes the game mechanics, and how players interact with the game and each other. The message in this case is completely integrated with the medium. Most games in this category have no level of deeper meaning. Playing the game is the meaning of the game. Go is one of the rare games that can jump straight to deeper meaning from medium.
Some games use only the mechanical level and the metaphor level. The vast majority of games fall into this group. This can be the result of careful design choices to abstract away elements of theme to produce an elegant game, like Ticket to Ride. Unfortunately, it can also be the result of lazy theme selection.
Lazy theme selection can also be called “skinning”. For any mechanic, there are numerous theme options that will work. I already discussed the relationship between choosing the right theme for mechanics, and lazy theme is what happens when this is ignored completely. The end result is usually a game with no clear identity. Many of the games in the recent epidemic of zombie games have done this just to take advantage of a popular theme. HP Lovecraft and the Cthulu mythos is another perennial favorite.
I don’t want to discourage designers from choosing these themes (Martin Wallace’s A Study in Emerald is proof that it can still be done well, adding Sherlock Holmes too!) but it should be a deliberate choice of appropriate metaphor. In other words, designers should be honest (with players AND themselves) about why the theme was chosen.
Despite the number of farming and train themed games, most seem to avoid being accused of lazy theming, though maybe that is staying to shift. Perhaps the themes of growth, ongoing effort, and production have so many interesting interactions that they can be used for a wide array of games. This is also a bit of a downside, because it means that they are immediate and obvious choices for theme in a world full of ideas. And certainly, the Euro game standby of trading in the Mediterranean can be a lazy theme. And you can’t really criticize so many way games for using the same battles and settings, since they are based on fixed historical events.
A smaller number of games are able to include all three levels of meaning. I have played the Catan: Oil Springs Scenario, which definitely achieves this. Beyond the gameplay and theme of resource production, there is an explicit message of the importance of environmental stewardship. Moby Dick seems to be carrying the message of whaling as a harsh and unrelenting experience. Many games are less heavy handed with this approach. Agricola, for example, Could be seen as having an underlying message of balance, based on how scoring is arranged.
People also put meaning into things just by interacting with them. Our own opinions and prejudices naturally shape our experience with the game. The line between intended meaning and inferred meaning can often be blurred. This is one of the things a designer can take advantage of to make a game that resonates with players.
As a designer, consider what message players might be able to take from the game. This doesn’t mean you must make your game try to teach something, but instead let players decide what it is trying to say. This will give you insight into how players will play the game, and how they will enjoy it. As a player, think about what the designer was trying to tell you. This can give you insight on how to play the game, while making it a more effective and engrossing experience.
Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” to present the idea that the content of a message can only be understood in the context of how it is being said. This is a good description of what is occurring in abstract games. And certainly, any game has some component of meaning that is inseparable from the act of playing the game. Our goal as lovers of board games should be to extract the meaning from games. This can be as simple as “have fun”, or as deep as we want to make it.