Folks, I love games. Anyone who knows me knows I love’em, can’t get enough of them. Certain themes are like catnip to me; others I tend to avoid because they’re Not My Thing but I acknowledge their popularity and worth.
And again, people who know me know that I spend a fair bit of time moseying down the aisles of Toronto’s FLGS’s. I’ll let you in on a little something: recently, I’ve been finding the collective effect of walking past game after game AFTER GAME on the same handful of themes is getting pretty disheartening. I mean, each individual designer and publisher thinks they’re making a canny decision when they choose the theme for their game, but many are ignoring the fact that many many others are making the same decision.
From a marketing standpoint it ends up being counterproductive, because their game risks getting lost in a flood of others with the same theme. Not to mention the fact that most of the best or most obvious names for games in each of these genres have already been taken, so newcomers are forced to adopt more and more obscure and strangled variations. All in all, I think this going back to the same thematic well is bad for Tabletop because the market gets saturated and only the really big publishers and designers survive on the strength of their name recognition and returns to scale.
With this in mind I have written this cris de coeur list of five themes that I think game designers–especially self-published should avoid like the plague (see #5). Just to avoid being completely negative, I will also mention a game or two that gets it right–but only to highlight the gulf between games that transcend their thematic sameness and those that don’t.
• Generic historical: A couple of years ago I wrote a column answering the question: “Why are so many games set in Medieval Times?” So I’m not going to repeat myself and you can go read up about it there. But in general, many games that take place “in ancient Egypt” or “China in the Middle Ages” or “in the Wild West” could just as easily take place in any other place and time with only a change in graphic design. There is absolutely nothing in the mechanics of Great Western Trail, for instance, that would need to change in order to reskin the game to Marco Polo’s 13th-century travels, and vice versa for Voyages of Marco Polo to America in the 19th-century. I’m tired of lazily-researched mechanic-heavy games–just tired of them! I’m looking at you, Gugong, and Castles of Burgundy, and yes even you Imperial Settlers. You’re all great games, but your themes are pasted on and there’s no real attempt to educate your players about the eras their characters live in. Maybe it’s the old consim player in me, I don’t know. In contrast, the designers of Dual Powers make no bones that theirs is a game not a simulation, but its bold graphic design and supplementary background in the form of timeline and profile cards sprinkle enough history-dust to carry things off rather well.
• Generic S.F.: It is very hard to write compelling science fiction; if it were easy, then all recent Star Wars movies would have been better. How much harder, then, to craft a convincing and original backstory for a game set in the future? What we end up with, then, is game after game with generic s.f. tropes as an excuse for whatever mechanics the designer has knitted together. Exodus: Proxima Centauri, Hegemonic, Space Mission, Helios Expanse: we get it, it’s outer space. On the other hand, you have Anachrony, whose theme and mechanics are inseparable: you cannot win without sending resources to yourself backwards through time–but do it too often, or too clumsily, and you will irreperably damage the fabric of space-time.
• Delving: Srsly: how many changes are left to be rung on delving? How many games with “Dungeon” or “Dragon” can we possibly distinguish from one another? Dungeon Roll!, Vault of Dragons, Dungeon Alliance, Dragon Island…and let’s not forget the granddaddy of them all, Dungeon! Of course, there are a precious few games like Gloomhaven which take fantasy adventuring to new places–but even its meticulously-built world doesn’t really break new ground. In terms of originality and backstory, I’d recommend Legacy of Dragonholt or Stuffed Fables.
• Pirates: I guess this could fall into the “Generic Historical” category, but I’m splitting it off into its own category because, again, laziness. Yar, shiver me timbers, etc. etc. It’s become this cute and cuddly trope, fake-fierce and you can even give them monkeys and parrots for pets! Take for instance Tortuga 1667, Sea of Clouds, Bad Maps, and my personal “favorite”, Peppers of the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the recent Treasure Island gets it right with an original mixture of treasure hunting, deduction, and back-stabbing. Or, for something more resource-manage-y but with its fair share of bluffery you have Francis Drake.
• Post-Apocalypse: Oh no! Earth fall down go boom! Head to the vaults! Wait a few decades/centuries, and then return to the surface and ride around the wasteland dressed in leather, wheeeeee! Wasteland Express Delivery Service, Outlive, Raid & Trade, Armageddon all wear their theme like paper raincoats. Oh, but Earth Reborn…I have encountered few games that have such a comprehensive and well-written backstory of the ruin and–yes–rebirth of Earth. Plus the tactical gameplay is compelling and the programmed instruction scenario progression is exemplary.
I want to emphasize that I’m not saying these games are bad–in fact, many of them are games I like a fair bit. I just think that many of them would have been even better with a more original theme, or at least a design which meshed theme and mechanics more organically.
Looks like I’m a little more punchy and negative than usual this week; maybe I’m just a little overstuffed with Cult of the Newness. I’ll try to make up for it next week by listing five themes I think are sadly underused. Stay tuned, Tabletoppers.
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