How so-called “lazy themes” actually help some games

by Gil Hova

(Note: This post is adapted from a comment I made on Oakleaf Games‘ fine blog. Go follow it, then come back. I’ll wait!)

I’ve seen a few references to “lazy theming” in board games lately. Anyone familiar with board games knows what this usually means: trading in the Mediterranean, bloodless colonization, building a city/church/castle to curry favor with royalty, and so on.

There seems to be a view that these common Euro themes are just an example of a designer and a publisher not applying themselves to think of a really cool theme for their game. If only they spent some time thinking about a really interesting theme, maybe they could have come up with something really different!

I agree that these themes are tired and cliché, and I’ve already decided that I’ll never design a game using them. But those well-worn themes have a purpose: they inform players that the focus on the game is not its theme, or its theme-mechanism integration, but some new and interesting mechanism.

Dominion is a perfect example. When it came out in 2008, there was nothing like it, other than CCG deckbuilding, which is technically “outside” the CCG. Dominion’s almost-absent theme of medieval territory-building informed players that its theme wasn’t important, and encouraged them to focus on its mechanism, which was unique at the time.

Stefan Feld’s games are also excellent examples. They’re pretty polarizing for a few reasons, but most of his games have the lightest of themes. This seems very deliberate to me. Trajan is not about Roman politics, it’s about managing your mancala-like board. Amerigo is not really about colonizing a new world, it’s about trying to best take advantage of cubes coming out of the tower. He has some games with slightly more applied themes, like Notre Dame or In the Year of the Dragon, but even in those, the emphasis is more on the mechanism than the setting. I completely understand disliking Feld games because of their lack of theme (or because there are so many ways to win them that it can feel arbitrary, but that’s another story), but as a philosophy teacher once told my class, “I’m not asking you to like it. I’m just asking you to understand it.”

I think if you have a mechanism-first game, and it’s not tied to any specific theme, it’s better to give it a light, familiar (albeit tired) theme than to try to force a gaudy theme onto it. Of course, it’s better to tie it to a specific theme, but that’s riskier than it might seem.

A great example of a mechanism-first game with a poor theme is the Reiner Knizia tile-collecting game Zombiegeddon, which is just Knizia’s tile-collecting game Jäger und Sammler with a zombie theme. It’s proof that you can’t just take a dry, mechanism-first Euro and just slap on an engaging American theme. JuG is about its mechanisms, not about its theme, so Zombiegeddon just never feels right. It just doesn’t feel like a zombie game. It’s about moving pieces, not about survival.

A personal favorite example is Monkeys on the Moon, a wonderful bidding game that new players tend to struggle with because its cool, unique auction clashes with its gaudy theme of civilizing lunar monkeys and shooting the most cultured ones back to Earth(!). I really like the game, but it’s a tough sell to new players because the theme and the mechanism just don’t work together. If its theme was about, yes, trading in the Mediterranean, it would go down much easier.

I wrote about this a few years ago, and my feelings haven’t changed since then. Of course, a few years after I wrote that post, I ran into a theme/mechanism issue with the game that eventually became Battle Merchants. It’s why I’m sensitive to the notion that simply slapping a more “interesting” theme onto a game will improve it. Theme/mechanism integration is hard, and if the point of your game is its mechanism, I don’t believe there’s any shame in using your theme as a frame instead of as a core element.

So those boring Euro themes serve a purpose. It’s completely understandable to not like them, and seek out games with a stronger theme-mechanism integration. As a designer, I try to avoid using them in my own games. But they’re not “lazy” themes; their use is quite deliberate.