Why do you keep saying "theme?" I do not think it means what you think it means.
Very often, the debate on what makes a good game boils down to two sides: theme vs. mechanisms. Is it more important that the sense of character and narrative be very strong? Or is it more important that a game make use of interesting rule interactions? Although the answer somehow falls in between, almost everyone I know would pick one over the other if they were forced. In fact, we often make these declarations even when someone isn't forcing us. Obviously it's a difficult choice, especially since most people don't know what they mean by theme.
Think about it. When you refer to the theme of a game, what do you talk about? Almost always, someone will refer to the world of the game. Games like Runebound and Descent take place in the world of Terrinoth. Arkham Horror exists within the works of H.P. Lovecraft. And we very often think of licenses. My personal favorite "thematic game" is Battlestar Galactica, which is of course based on the popular SyFy TV show. To most gamers, theme is created by a combination of artwork, flavor text, and mechanical flair. The whole point is to make you feel like you are "in the world" of the game.
Furthermore, when a game doesn't go to great lengths to tie things together, they will criticize the whole thing as having a disconnect. One game that comes to mind is the classic Eurogame, Ra. Ra takes place in ancient Egypt, but if you look at the rules of the game, they have little to do with anything. It's just an auction game with some nice graphics. Nothing about the game really "feels" like Egypt. It's an excellent game, but it's not what most people would call "thematic."
The only problem is, that isn't theme. When we're talking about the world of a game, and how well the mechanics reflect that world, we are simply talking about the "setting" of the game. It's where the game takes place. The characters, flavor text, and graphics all reflect a specific location or time. Obviously, the only games that DON'T have a setting are pure abstracts. Not every game ties into it's setting mechanically, but they usually at least have a setting.
I imagine that a lot of people will note that this is merely replacing one term with another, and that's not completely false. But I do it because I think that games can still be thematic. "Theme" means something very specific, and we need to divorce it from its common usage to really elevate the way we talk about board games.
When we use "theme" in art, we do not refer to the setting. Instead, "theme" refers to a specific idea that is being communicated by the work. When you are in a literature class, you will often be told to talk about the theme of a novel. For example, the theme of The Lord of the Rings is not Middle-earth. That's just the setting. The themes are those of friendship, sacrifice, hope in the face of despair, and the upheaval that comes with change. Theme is not something that is necessarily tangible. It's an attempt to move beyond the world we see to make a broader statement about our lives. Obviously, that is a much loftier goal. Most games don't even begin to deal with that. They evoke a setting, and then they are content to leave it right there. But there actually are some games that have made this leap.
An excellent example is Imperial. The setting of Imperial is Europe in the early 20th Century. The players play different investors who purchase stock in nations, and then clash them against each other. By waging war effectively, the players drive up the stock of the countries in which they purchased shares. What themes are at work here? There's the idea that the wealthy, not the government, controls a nation. There's the idea that a nation will sacrifice the lives of its citizens to eke out a minor economic edge. And there's the cynical concept that the lives of people and nations are merely a means to line the pockets of the wealthy. Imperial is not just a great game, it's one that seems to have a very specific message to share.
Another fascinating example is that of my personal favorite, Cosmic Encounter. The setting of Cosmic Encounter is fun, if unremarkable. Essentially, the players all represent different alien races, who build alliances of convenience to take over the cosmos. It's a highly volatile game with a lot of different variables. Because of that, it can often be wildly unpredictable. There's an interesting theme at work here: the universe is not a safe place. You can never be sure how one small action will impact everyone else. And there are numerous unexpected phenomena that will throw your best-laid plans into ruin. It can't be tamed, because it's bigger than any one player. Not only that, but there are shattering effects when different cultures collide with each other. How will the actions of one race affect the others? And if you think I'm just grasping at straws here to make my point, read what co-designer Peter Olotka wrote here. This was one of the stated intents of the design.
But why does this even matter? Aren't games all about having fun? Well, that's partially true. They were originally intended as an escape. But our other escapes elevate beyond "fun." Where would film-making be if every director merely tried to make something fun, and never made anything that challenged our minds and beliefs? Games are capable of much more than mere entertainment. They can make us think about our dogmas and ideas. They can swing for the fence, though they rarely do.
Does a game need to have a strong thematic core to be great? I don't think so. I would say that a lot of traditional "thematic" games like Fury of Dracula are more triumphs of setting, and that's fine. Then again, maybe I'm underselling the importance of theme in game design. This is still an idea that I'm coming to grips with, and I bet would could identify the themes present in just about every game we play. It's true that a lot of games bury their theme under layers of mechanics or flavor text, and that might be the sign of a design that is content to merely be "clever" or "cool." At any rate, board game criticism can cover a lot more than how fun or how intelligent a game is. It can talk about what our games are saying to us, and what they say about us as humans.
There was a lot of amazing discussion here at F:AT that directly informed a lot of what was written here. Thanks to all of those who contributed, and I'm sorry if I stole your words without meaning to.
This was also posted to my blog, The Rumpus Room. Check it out and leave some comments.