Elaborate & Beautiful Themes for Tabletop Play
By Stephen Harkleroad
Would you like to lead your nation to victory? Or maybe curate a forest? How about ushering in the age of industrialization? Perhaps running a craft brewery is more your style, or managing an art show. In any case, there’s probably a board game out there for you that matches your needs.
Theme can be a very important tool for board games—it not only makes a game fun, pretty, and relatable, but it vastly improves its marketing effectiveness.
Not all games need a theme—the most popular board game in the world, Chess, doesn’t (aside from some vague sense of medieval warfare that literally no one is convinced by), and checkers, tic-tac-toe, and mancala are all very popular despite having no relation to the real world. Abstract games like these rely on simple rules, artfully crafted pieces, and language-independence to sell, and many do it well.
Still, the vast majority of games have some sort of theme, and there’s a niche out there for nearly everyone. The examples listed in the opening above are all pulled from real-life published games. (Through the Ages, Photosynthesis, Brass: Lancashire, Brew Crafters, and The Gallerist, respectively.)
Theme, believe it or not, was one of the rifts in the modern board game hobby. Early Eurogames had what would be called “pasted-on” themes, where the rules and the theme were independent of one another. Sure, the game may be about Ancient Egypt, but it could just as easily been about the Vikings or the automobile industry if you changed the shape of the pieces and renamed the cards.
This was in contrast to thematic games, where a game about, say, World War II couldn’t be about anything else except World War II. Eventually, the two sides melded together, and today it’s hard to find many games where theme doesn’t at least play a part, while still adopting many of the mechanisms that made the Eurogames popular.
Some themes are universal. War and trade are wildly popular—not only are they themes that people are generally familiar with, there are concrete ways to determine winners and losers. More territory and more money is always better, right?
Genres are also important. Space operas, westerns, zombies, organized crime, pirates, high fantasy—these all lend themselves fairly well to board games, especially since they have popular tropes that game designers can play with and players can easily identify.
History is also very popular, even with games that aren’t about war. While there can be issues with how history is portrayed in a game, by and large most games aim for abstractions and use historical events more as a stepping stone to something more interesting.
The Mediterranean in antiquity is always popular, especially when dealing with trade and the wonders of the world, but economic development, exploration, and social movements are also popular themes. Near-future scenarios, such as terraforming Mars or the space race, have recently become prevalent.
Mundane tasks are often translated into games that end up being unexpectedly fun. You think city planning is boring? Welcome To… tells a different story. Managing an electric utility company? Power Grid lets you do just that.
Even abstract games are getting less abstract. Newer releases such as Santorini (where players play as Greek gods) were previously released as abstract games with a theme re-implements on it. Azul is little more than a clever tile-laying game, but ties it to the aesthetic of the Alhambra Palace. Splendor, assisted by high production values, is little more than a ladder-building game that could roughly be played with a deck of cards, but instead crafts it as a gem dealer looking to amass a fortune.
Re-implementing popular cultural touchpoints is also a great source of theme. Dinosaur Island is 100% absolutely not Jurassic Park: The Board Game, despite what literally everyone says. Dead of Winter has nothing to do with the walking or the dead.
If you are the sort of person who continually wants to be on the recent trends in board gaming, it’s easy to see crests and falls of various themes. For a while, it seemed like every other game out there was based off of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos—it helped that Cthulhu is public domain. Before that, zombies were a wildly popular choice. Currently, there’s a lot of games about Vikings and Norse mythology, with the possibility of pirates elbowing them out of the shelf space fairly soon.
Not every theme is for everyone. Some people don’t seem to mind—they play for the rules. Other people don’t want to be bored silly over beekeeping or medieval Scottish economic expansion. But the hobby is large enough that if you’re interested in something, there’s a theme out there for you.
Stephen Harkleroad has been playing board games since before you were born, statistically speaking. He wrangles spreadsheets for a living. His favorite board game is Dune, and he has most recently spent time as a Human Cleric (Life Domain).