Abstract & Thematic Games

Oh hey, a blog post! I felt like writing so I did.

Aside from the oddball article and opinion, like this, table top gaming is seemingly thriving. Risk is boring, Monopoly is pretty much bad, and Chess is… well chess is just ancient. Yet I have a huge tabletop collection because most board games are far from bad. When it comes to pure, abstract, design I actually find that there is a large gap between board and video games.

My Board Game Collection

Last night I was playing Roll for the GalaxyIt’s one of the board game darlings of 2014/2015.

Inside the box of Roll players find 100+ dice, a healthy stack of cardboard tiles, player markers, sheets, rules summaries, it’s a smorgasbord of components. This is one of the obvious areas where board games differ from a video game–that tactile feeling of touching the game. But Roll really kind of goes overboard…

Holy Dice Batman!

Roll is a pretty interesting game conceptually. Players roll dice, the results of the roll get assigned to phases. Players pick a phase and each die matching the phase symbol becomes a resource in that phase.

… Apparently it’s also a game about building a space empire. I was too busy rollin’ bones to care. And this is something that I find is ok to table top gamers, but decidedly less so to video gamers. There is a gap between the abstract mechanics of the game and thematic elements.

I’m about to use the word abstract a lot, so buckle in. All games should use this concept, but it’s most prevalent in board gaming. An abstract game is a game in which luck has minimum to zero impact and theme is virtually not present. Checkers is an abstract game. It focuses solely on the strategy and the pieces involved. Monopoly is not an abstract game. High variance, high reliance on theme, etc.

I mentioned Roll for the Galaxy as it isn’t exactly what I’d call a thematic game and isn’t exactly what I’d label as abstract either. It has theme, and it’s important, but the game is certainly more about the puzzle and strategy. In a lot of games, when you take the theme away, you’re still left with a solid and enjoyable game. In this vein, every game is abstract yet not every game is thematic.

Early video games were more likely to be abstract than games today. I don’t really have evidence to back this up, but games like Tetris seem an oddity these days. Some might try to justify Tetris as having a theme but, let’s be honest, the theme isn’t part of the game. It doesn’t impact gameplay in a meaningful way. Pacman and Space Invaders both also have very little, mechanically, to do with their theme. Why is Pacman eating fruit? Is it alive? Why would it be scared of ghosts… those are all just gameplay constructs.

We could say Chess has a medieval theme. King, queen, knight, etc. But, really, chess is completely abstract. Unless of course you dive into it deeper…

For real though, why does the Knight move in the way he does? What does a medieval court have to do with a perfectly square board. What correlation does the strategy of the game have to do with the theme? Not very much.

This is an interesting discussion in board gaming and my curiosity is why isn’t it a bigger discussion in video games?

There is a multitude of reasons I suspect. For example, technology is a much higher barrier to game design in video games. Tools are maturing and eliminating this barrier, but with tech being so important in game development abstract design is less frequent. If you’re going to make a huge, robust game you would make a theme, right? Easier to sell and recoup some of that cost and investment.

Video games are often designed out from the theme. Some license or IP could inform the development and design of a game. In board game land a designer will often show off his design which is just an abstract collection of mechanics. A publisher might then say, update it to use this theme.

I think it’s really interesting that board game designers are quite often concerned with abstract design. What is the game, that is–what are the players actually playing! As a collection of systems and mechanics board games are really exciting. What’s lovely is that both board and video games have a wide assortment of experiences ranging from really abstract to really thematic.