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How much does a theme affect your opinion of a game?


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I've been thinking about this over the last few days and I'm still not sure where I stand on themes. 

 

I love, love euro games, and it's a fairly worn out trope that they have some incredibly boring themes. Spending a few hours with a cardboard farming simulator doesn't sound that exciting! 

 

The last three games I've played have all been criticised because of the theme. Labyrinth war on terror because one player is a Muslim extremist trying to smuggle WMDs around the board and performing Jihad operations. Mombasa, because of the colonial theme and La Granja, because it's a boring farming theme. 

 

I watched shut up and sit downs latest video review which was of Istanbul and they spoke to a chap about 'orientalism' which is viewing that region of the world through a westernised lens. The area is mystical, magic, everyone owns an elephant (I may be off in my interpretation of orientalism, but that's what I took from it).

 

Not surprisingly, the comments on the video were full of people accusing them of being 'sjw cucks' (whatever that means!). They did also point out that their isn't one image of a woman in all the artwork of Istanbul. 

 

The only theme/thing which puts me off a game is when the artwork is overtly sexualised. Kingdom Death looks great, there's no way I want to play it with those figures though. I'll play games with iffy themes if the content is done tastefully. With Mombasa it doesn't seem to make light of it, it's done purely as a setting, and to be honest, it could be a space game with stocks in random companies. 

 

Are there any themes which put you off, or stop you from even trying a game. Conversely, are there themes which make you think better of a game because of the theme? 

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I see orientalism as more of a form of racist propaganda that's been used to justify barbaric acts of violence by white Christian nations against the people of the Middle East since the time of Napoleon. Living in the US I see it a lot, unsurprisingly since it's an acceptable form of racism that is rarely challenged, and it's common across the cultural/political spectrum. Edward Said is the guy who wrote the book on the subject and there are a lot of documentaries and interviews of youtube if you'd like to learn more about the subject.

 

To answer your question, yes, the theme of a game or any form of entertainment can put me off. Violence and more specifically, the idea of violence as a solution is something I find increasingly off-putting. This means there are an awful lot of films, tv shows and games that I avoid. Occasionally, I'll accept that it's just a stupid film or whatever because the selection on netflix isn't that great and I can't be bothered spending an hour of my evening searching for anything less offensive. And of course I paint toy soldiers for a living. But there are of alternatives out there, even stuff like 40k which is so ludicrous and detached from the real world, that for the most part I can happily avoid the worst forms of racist, sexist, right-wing imperialist nonsense out there without any sense of loss.

 

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Theme is incredibly important to me, not just in terms of the box and card art, but in how it actually affects how I visualise the moving parts of the game. I often struggle with rules and ways of playing because they're directly at odds with the game. The Pathfinder ACG is a prime example - I had a character on an entirely different island who had an ability to distract an opponent who was attacking a party member somewhere else. It made no sense. Equally, the fact characters couldn't combine their attacks despite being at a single location confused the hell out of me as well.

 

I struggle with some of SUSD's criticism, however, when they're addressing gender and race issues in boardgames. Should we criticise the frankly wonderful Tales Of Arabian Nights, either for presenting a culture through a westernised lens or for cultural appropriation, or praise it because it's mechanically and thematically wonderful and inoffensive?

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I think it's possible to praise the quality of a game but also criticise the theme. Whatever the vile origins of orientalism, it persists because the ideas have become so pervasive within Western culture that a degree of critical thinking is required to identify why it's problematic. I doubt the makers of Tales of Arabian Nights are malicious in their intent, but are probably ignorant and it's only by raising the issue and seeking to educate that we can hope to change things for the better.

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I prefer games to have a decent theme, and I expect the mechanisms in the game to make sense, thematically. I don't like purely abstract games, and I'm really not keen on ones where the theme is pasted on and wafer thin (yes I'm looking at you, Dr. Knizia). The best euro games are the ones where you get a sense that you're actually doing the thing the game is simulating, like building a farm in Agricola, buying commodities and expanding your network in Power Grid, building a production line to ship goods in Puerto Rico and so on. I know these are just a bunch of mechanisms, but they mesh together in ways that make sense thematically, giving you a feeling of satisfaction and achievement.

 

With regard to Istanbul, I'm ashamed to admit it literally hadn't occurred to me that there are no women portrayed in the game, and that this reflects a stereotypical Western portrayal of somewhere vaguely Middle-Eastern.

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The creators of Tales... write about the difficulties in adapting the stories natural middle easterness for a western audience when making the game, they've thought a lot about it.

 

Theme is important for a few reasons to me- drawing new players in to learn the game, making it look nice, and helping learn the mechanics- Agricola may have a dull theme, but it makes sense and looks great.

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  • 9 months later...
On 10/20/2016 at 01:28, LaParka said:

I've been thinking about this over the last few days and I'm still not sure where I stand on themes. 

 

I love, love euro games, and it's a fairly worn out trope that they have some incredibly boring themes. Spending a few hours with a cardboard farming simulator doesn't sound that exciting! 

 

Cardboard doesn't grow on trees you know ^_^

 

Seriously, an interesting topic.  It's something I consider when looking for new games for sure - for example Power Grid is extremely highly rated but just doesn't appeal at all.  Similarly, I've looked at Mombassa and rejected it as a combination of too dry and (possibly) colonialist / racist.

 

A couple of games I think are worthy of particular mention here are Scythe and Brass.  The former has a real alt-history feel to it as if these events are taking place in a post WW1 Europe which is only slightly different from the world we know.  The latter is a lovely ode to the spread of Victorian development in Lancashire and the North West, taking in firstly canals and then railways (capitalist Tory scum!).  

 

A shout out to Fields of Arle too for recreating the sense of having to push back the floodwater, drain the peat bogs and take all your raw materials off to market to sell or improve them.

 

I also like Dominant Species where some of the species specific boons seem very apt e.g arachnids pouncing on lone members of other species.

 

So definitely theme is important where it isn't an outright fantasy or abstract setting, as is (increasingly) quality of components.  

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On 20/10/2016 at 18:35, therearerules said:

The creators of Tales... write about the difficulties in adapting the stories natural middle easterness for a western audience when making the game, they've thought a lot about it.

 

Theme is important for a few reasons to me- drawing new players in to learn the game, making it look nice, and helping learn the mechanics- Agricola may have a dull theme, but it makes sense and looks great.

We bought Agricola purely because my girlfriend liked the bucolic theme

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I'm kind of new to this but I like a game with a theme that gives me an idea how to play the game and isn't completely obvious. One Deck Dungeon is meant to be a roguelike, so I play it conservatively. Arkham Horror, I'm going to get stomped on by forces beyond my ken. Jaipur, I'm going to be making some shrewd moves.

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