What do we need a theme in a game for? If it’s a Eurogame, we probably need it to help out in the learning process a little bit, and to not be in the way when the learning is over. And if the theme ever rears its ugly head too much, things may get suddenly worse.
Thematic Eurogames certainly exist. The problem here is that depending on who you ask, what is and is not thematic differs significantly. A game considered super-thematic by some, is dry and completely devoid of any theme to others. Just look at Lords of Waterdeep, that was both praised for a high level of immersion (for a Eurogame), and bashed for being a soulless cube pusher, thinly layered with a Dungeons & Dragons theme.
It’s obvious that to an extent it is what we like or dislike that makes us consider a game thematic or dry. Some specific elements work better to anchor us in what a game is supposed to depict. For example, I find Shipyard (a very abstract abstract Eurogame by Vladimir Suchý) thematic despite having to work with several different rondels as well as a pile of disassociated mechanisms working in the game, simply because the goal is to build ships – and build them on a board, using tiles that make the final outcome look like an actual ship.
However, sometimes one of the design goals for a game is to more accurately depict whatever the game is about. And this means introducing rules that would “simulate” some real-life phenomenon or mechanism, with a possible outcome of making a game that is more “realistic” – and often less of a solid game.
Among many games Martin Wallace has designed over the years, few have been bashed as much as Tinners’ Trail – a light Eurogame about mining and selling tin in 19th century Cornwall. Wallace (by his own admission) was aiming to create a game that could accurately show the volatility of the 19th century market, which is why he introduced a dice based mechanism that would change the price of tin from turn to turn – sometimes significantly. What he actually did is design a game that was quickly dismissed by many hardcore Eurogamers – or immediately house-ruled to make it more strategic – and probably less realistic.
The question of realism is one we actually tackle on a regular basis. Should a game be more balanced, more well-rounded, and less “realistic” to be considered better? Or should it be maybe a bit less of a solid game, but slightly more thematic? Until now we’ve been walking the “more solid” path, but we are very curious to know what you think.