When I started gaming (with my nappy pulled high and my poker cap drawn low) I used to genuinely believe “if I’m not killing shit, it’s boring”. Give me a dragon, laser rifle, and a swarm of undead anyday over buying and selling stock or building a railway line.
As I’ve gotten older, I find my tastes aren’t quite so specific. After a long day at work if I feel like sitting back and slaughtering my enemies, I can. If I wanna test my mettle against my friends, I can.
If I want to pretend I’m a cattle rancher or running a theme park for dinosaurs, I can do that too.
Part of this is also down to the fact I kinda already have the games I like with various themes. If I want to play a zombie game of survival with treachery and betrayal themes you can’t really beat Dead of Winter. So a great game like Last Night on Earth sits on the shelf because it’s been out-themed.
Got a Star Wars itch? – Rebellion.
Wizards duking it out? – Mage Wars.
Party game filled with inappropriateness? – Cards Against Humanity.
The issues new games face when they use the same or similar themes is the inevitable comparison. “Does this game make me feel more like a Superhero than this this other game?”. “How interesting is this to play over the other?”. “Which game is shorter? Cheaper? Has better artwork?”
Now I’m not saying a bad game with a unique theme is worth playing – Gingerdead House was a pretty damn unique theme but was poorly executed. However, no matter how good two different vast empires sprawling games are, you’re gonna have a favourite between Conquest of Nerath and Twilight Imperium. And you’re going to dedicate your time to that one.
At this point I should probably clarify what I mean by “unique theme” (halfway through the article feels like an appropriate time). The ones which immediately jump out in my mind are games like Gloomhaven, Millennium Blades, and Ghost Stories. But they don’t have to be as out there as these. Something which takes a genre and comes at it from a different angle works too. There are tons of games out there about crime and bank robberies, but Burgle Bros took it in an almost 90s Cartoon direction and made it cooperative. It stood out for me.
I actually have an interest in Prêt-à-Porter despite having no interest whatsoever in the fashion industry (unless Geek Shirts count). It’s a unique theme which I would have dismissed even when I first started TGR. But nowadays the fact I don’t have a game about running a clothing company instantly puts it on my radar. When I see people posting about the latest “cool guy in fantasy armour kills bad dudes” it only gets a passing glance unless they can manage to quickly show me something other games aren’t doing.
I have to credit Gloomhaven for introducing me to the world of non-generic fantasy. I was always a D&D, LotR kind of guy. If you have Elves who weren’t elegant, swift, and good with a bow I felt there was something wrong. I’d go as far as Sci-Fi/Fantasy but I was happy in my little bubble. Again it came back to “I have my fantasy games.” Now I crave the difference. We’re not far in, but the Vermlings and Craghearts background stories are fascinating! I want to learn more about this world, and as I’m gaming, I want to be part of it. As a side note here I’m checking the Level99 Games page for Seventh Cross on an almost daily basis at this point.
I think different themes let us approach things from a different angle. Let us try new mechanics. Millennium Blades’ unique combination of set collection, tableau building, and market manipulation honestly wouldn’t work as well with any other theme. So we got to see these mechanics interact in interesting ways.
I wrote a little while ago when Boarding School was in its infancy about Playing to Learn. I want to expand on this by saying – when you have an interesting theme, something the designers have put thought and care and enjoyment into, it makes you more interested in the topic in real life. I’m not saying games need to be historically or scientifically accurate (Monopoly is actually a pretty accurate representation of economics, still a horrid boredom simulator), but interesting.
I was talking to Lachlan from The Xewen about this a couple of days ago. We were talking about Age of Empires 2 and how it was fun, and when we’d finished playing when we were younger we’d be interested to find out what certain medieval weapons were like in real life. After playing Robinson Crusoe I became interested in survival training and stories of shipwreck. Yggdrasil had me checking out the myths around the Norse Gods a few years back. Ghost Stories had me looking up the various ghost… stories… which influenced the design of enemies. And when I was first getting into Pandemic I learnt a lot about the Center for Disease Control.
With Goof’s Guide’s articles I’m normally trying to share a viewpoint or advocate for a certain argument. I guess today I really just want to encourage the following – if you see a game with a unique theme, give it a second look. Lets encourage this.
Lets have games about the fashion industry, games about cooking, games about having a consensual sexual encounter with an alien species (I didn’t make this up. Click the link if you don’t believe me).
And if you find a good game with a unique theme, support it. Doesn’t mean you need to necessarily buy everything they release, but spread the word. Share it on TGR’s social media if you want. Bring my attention to it.
I hope tabletop gaming continues to grow and be a unique experience.
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Please comment, lets get the conversations flowing!