I don’t particularly like math. If you do, fantastic. But I find even simple math to either be something I have to do as a part of my daily adult life, or it’s just boring. So why do I play games? Tabletop gaming inherently involves math.
I play games to feel something unique. I want to throw myself into the role of a badass space marine, a team of experts, burglars trying to pull off a heist, or even a warrior trying to hold enemy forces at bay. Math doesn’t make me feel those things, but what it can do is provide the framework on which to hang the theme.
The best games have a theme you can teach the mechanics through. “Your cards are your spells, and you are a wizard”, “When you use the sword you do more damage than the dagger”, “those cards are like the firewalls I have to hack through to get at your servers”. Those sorts of things.
Theme is where the flavour of a game comes through. Sure, the mechanics might be solid, just like a meal can be nutritious yet bland. Theme can be the spice in an epic struggle, or the calming taste of icecream in a relaxing game. I feel like I laboured the metaphor just enough.
There are good games out there with no theme, Cards Against Humanity and Dutch Blitz come to mind. But I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about these games outside of playing them. By contrast, I’ve spent hours upon hours thinking about Android: Netrunner and Magic: The Gathering.
Today I’ve decided to tell you about my top five games whose theme I absolutely adore (this list is a blend of subjective and objective. I shall call it Subobjective!).
Scraping in at fifth in this list is Arkham Horror. And I have to admit, it might be replaced with the Arkham Horror LCG once I’ve played more of it. But for now, Arkham Horror has a theme which I absolutely adore. The Cthulhu Mythos. The dark and twisted work of insanity and creatures from other dimensions and times. This game drips in theme. And when you add the expansions, including the relationship cards, the personal stories… you feel like you’re there. Interestingly despite there being so much of this game to think of and consider, the theme helps you keep a track of what’s going on. Unlike other games, we’ve rarely missed rules. Which speaks volumes about it.
I was having a chat with my friend Josh from Tabletop Wonderland about Sentinels recently. One of the elements he expressed was the fact some of the villains are so difficult, you have to take into consideration the various combinations when you develop a team in order to give yourself a fighting chance. Which brings to mind the various comic books which this game does an amazing job of making you feel a part of. Think about any superhero team, the Justice League, Avengers, Fantastic Four, Xmen.. they work so well together because there are combinations amongst the characters. They cover each other’s weaknesses. I have found the more I learn about Sentinels, the better I get at knowing the possible combinations and what cards to be digging for. Which you can draw as a clear parallel to the characters first being thrust together, stumbling over each other like the first few episodes of Young Justice. Eventually coming together to combo the hell out of the villain.
Each character feels so unique. And with the inclusion of Environment Cards, plus the Villains sometimes having unique win conditions, Sentinels is the Superhero smackdown game I always wanted.
One of the scariest bits in Zombie movies to me isn’t the hordes of Undead approaching (I did consider Zombicide Black Plague for the list), but rather the intense moral decisions and horrifying acts of betrayal committed by selfish or borderline insane people hidden in your group who could snap at any moment…
The top scene which comes to mind for me when I think of zombie movies is in 28 Days Later, when the group of survivors encounter soldiers who have a plan to rid the world of the zombies (I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it). The reason it has stuck with me fifteen years after the movie was released was because it was genuinely the scariest part of a zombie movie. Without gore, and without even the undead. But the horrible acts committed and planned by other human beings, which is where Dead of Winter fits in.
The Crossroads cards, the traitor mechanic. The fact people can die just by stepping outside. The tension and unease you feel as you second guess the actions of everyone around the table is tangible. And the stories which form are brutal and fascinating.
- Twilight Imperium (3rd Edition)
I haven’t reviewed Twilight Imperium yet, and at this stage I’m probably going to wait for the 4th edition to hit Australian shelves. But without crossing into Games at a Glance territory, TI3 is a hell of an immersive ride. It’s more than a simple game, it’s a space opera. You’re forging these epic tales of great galactic civilisations.
There’s a ton of lore in TI3. Each race’s motivations are clearly spelled out, each planet gives you something to care about. It’s a fantastic game of outplaying and outmanoeuvring your opponents. You have to play the political game, getting laws you need passed. You have to play the military defence game, protecting your important assets from your opponents’ fleets, you have to negotiate, trade, explore, research, and you may even conquer. TI3 makes you feel like you’re leading your people. It makes you feel like your people’s fate is your responsibility, and they live or die with your decisions.
No game comes close to the mantel of most thematic game held by Android: Netrunner. Everything in this game is thematic. Protecting your servers, hacking into Centrals, hardware, programs, assets… Android Netrunner captures the theme and feelings. As a runner you’re worried you’ll get tagged, and killed. As the Corp, you’re interested in protecting your investments. Each faction feels unique, each identity is fresh and exciting.
Netrunner is a complex beast. But the theme does help you to teach it. You can easily explain the programs, the hardware, the ice protecting servers. A few of the terms are a bit to wrap your head around, but just leave the diagram open from the rulebook.
Cyberpunk done well is my favorite thematic setting, for sure. And Netrunner does it justice. I’ve never felt more like a cool hacker than when I’m pulling off combinations in order to break into servers or expose flaws in the corporation’s defence. And I’ve never felt more sinister than playing as the corporation, leading the runner into lethal traps.
Theme is like the icing on the cake. The soy sauce on the sushi. The sweet and sour sauce on the chicken nuggets (my stomach just made growling noises). Without theme, games can still be good. But they don’t have the same pull, the same excitement, or the same tastiness.
This is why I account for theme in my reviews. It’s as essential as having quality components, or functioning mechanics. I can forgive a game with a bad mechanic if the theme works well, but top level mechanics with a boring or uninteresting theme will generally fall flat for me.
Carcassonne bores me to tears, and I couldn’t care less about farming games like Agricola. It’s why I’ve never reviewed them. Not because they’re bad games, but if I have to spend my time, effort, and money on something it’s going to be something I’m willing to pay those costs on.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I want to be a pirate for a little while. Time to convince Charli to play Rum and Bones.
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