Last week I vented a bit about five themes I think are lazy go-to’s in today’s Tabletop world. In the spirit of not being such a whiny anorak, this week I am going to do counteract this by spotlighting five themes which still have huge veins available to be mined. I do this because I believe that if our hobby (and the Tabletop artform) is going to continue to grow, designers and publishers will need to be more intentional and mindful about choosing themes–specifically, more emotionally resonant ones which mesh more organically with a game’s mechanics.
If the success of games like Fog of Love and Wingspan has taught us anything, it’s that there is a hunger (and a market) for games which reach beyond the usual tropes—and bring new people into the hobby. Of course there will always be a need for light-hearted games with no particular theme or message other than “have fun”. Not every game has to mean something–just like not every song or movie has to mean something. One of my favorite songs of all time is the full version of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” and let me tell you, it is about as close to semantically null as a song can get. But the groove, the tightness of the band, and the power of JB’s voice have a visceral effect which literally made me cry the first time I heard it.
Where was I? Right, underused themes:
So, yes, Fog of Love rather than Love Letter or Relationship Tightrope. Not that those two latter are bad games–but as the many Love Letter spinoffs show, the game can be equally enjoyable if you’re trying to get a letter to Santa or fighting Cthul’hu. Star Crossed is a one-off RPG that uses the Jenga-like mechanics of Dread. Tricky two-player co-ops like …and then we held hands or The Ravens of Thri Sahashri model interpersonal relationships in challenging and thematic ways. But there is so much territory yet to be explored here using mechanics no one has even thought of yet.
The Environment, Nature, and Science
Who knew so many birders out there were looking for a tabletop game that spoke to their passion? Even a game like Viral, cartoony as it is, makes its mechanics suit the theme. And of course the popularity of games like Terraforming Mars or SpaceCorp show that games with hard science can still be accessible to a broader audience (I’m looking at you, High Frontier). CO2 can’t be the only good game out there about fighting climate crisis.
Other Voices, Other Stories
Enough games about colonizing and settling already! Look at what Spirit Island has done in terms of turning that trope on its head. Or This War of Mine: The Board Game’s exploration of the collateral damage of modern warfare? Admittedly, it’s a tricky business designing a game that tells a story about a group you may feel passionately about but to which you don’t necessarily belong. But it can be done with the right consultation and diligent research (Comancheria, Mound Builders). And of course there are plenty of other “other stories” to be told. What about LGBTQ+ or differently-abled themes? Some gamers will be uncomfortable with these themes–but others will celebrate the opportunity to play games in which they see themselves reflected.
There are surprisingly few notable games (from a design standpoint) about music or musicians. You’ve got Opera, but much as I like the game’s bidding and stock exchange mechanics, the theme is pasted on and in some ways gets in the way. Most of the others are either party/trivia(l) games or, like Opera, use the theme as a veneer for an economic sim (Symphony No. 9). The best of the lot is Rockband Manager and it’s okay. There are more decent art-themed games, though. Why is that?
By which I mean books, movies, and plays outside regular geek culture. Look at the recent series of Princess Bride games by Game Salute. They hired real designers and made some good little games. (Storming the Castle though…ugh.) What about a Catcher in the Rye game? Say Yes To The Dress? Casablanca? Ooooh, Gross Pointe Blank!
What I’m hoping is that one of you out there (out of the seventeen people who read this) will get sparked by one of my suggestions and create an awesome game with a unique and totally awesome theme. You don’t have to pay me anything; a simple fawning acknowledgement in the rules will do.