Thematic Detailing in a Mechanical World

I begin with my conclusion: that Eurogames with their purity of play and focus on mechanical development use theme differently than other forms of entertainment and even other types of games. For books, movies, video games, war games and old style strategy games (American games, like Avalon Hill), theme development is important for one on an immersive level. For Euros, theme is more about flavor and decoration. As such, visual representation of theme – whether on the board or cover – is more than anything – a matter of aesthetics than storytelling. From this, comes the conclusion that the visual depiction of theme need not be a literal interpretation of events or a story but rather more expressive and freely formed. This applies to the presentation of a story on the cover, to the portrayal of the layout and design of the board to the supplemental information that can go in the rules. Understanding this can give rise to more interesting and emotive visual solutions which can enhance theme on a different level – that of aesthetics and appeal as determining critieria rather than adherence to a storytelling end. It is an emotive solution that can provide power to Euros, not a solution which is tied to a storyline script.

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Much has been said of theme in Eurogames. What I find most interesting is the theme's practical application to me as gamer. Understanding the extent of the theme's general effect can help me, as a visual designer of games, properly exploit details for best impact. The question arises, "What is a particular theme and the accompanying thematic details offering me during play?" Clearly on some level it has impact, but to what extent? It certainly does not have the power to move me or absorb me into it like a book, movie or even video game would; it is not nearly so immersive. It does not even grab me to the extent that a war game does or an old style strategy game (American game) like Avalon Hill's older productions. For it is the "chrome" – or added thematic rules – in these games’ formats that enhance the feeling of events being simulated. Such chrome or added features contradict the strict structural reductiveness of Euros.

As I play a Euro, I am conscience that my mind does not go to a busy harbor, bustling with activity or amidst a legion of warriors or commanders charging over the hills into battle. I do not think of workers moving about a city looking for goods to build a castle. I do not envision multitudes of slaves driven to construct the next great cluster of pyramids. Theme does not impact me on a vivid level. Such romantic notions of theme and its power are not evident. What I do think while playing is, “This huge army is going to smack Tim's behind off the map” or “How do I stop Bryan from getting any more pink cubes” or “I’ve got to win the bid to prevent Gil from getting greatest majority in western Europe.” It feels to me as I play that the theme relates more to aesthetics than game play. It relates more as a way to describe bits, board areas and actions than to provide any more deeper connection or a sense of real history.

A few Euros whose themes have nothing to do with actual game play. The theme is merely decoration and flavor for what might have been a very dry production. In this way, thematic appeal has been built into the product more from a visual design standpoint than actual game development one.

It is very difficult to relate to a typical Eurogame's theme beyond the surface. More than anything, I have found themes to be purely a matter of emotive power within the context of a cerebral setting. The theme element in Euros generally is little more than flavor, atmosphere or decoration. In games like China, Tower of Babel, El Grande, Hansa, Kreta and Yspahan, I find theme to be more eye candy than an intellectual or story based meal. It is not really so much storytelling going on here but that of applying some human quality or experience to the program to soften the harshness of patterns, logic and math. And that is no small thing. Indeed, it is a huge matter to draw us into play and refresh the mind during play.

Here are a few games whose game play has a stronger connection to theme then those previously hightlighted. The games here are certainly a product of the themes which they are built on. Nonetheless, actual actions don't generally feel like their real life counterparts – if such exist.

Now certainly some themes are so nicely intertwined with game play that one can imagine some aspect of events taking place. In Tigres and Euphrates, I do feel the ebb and flow of civilizations through time. And I can here understand the logic of its game play as it relates to theme. However, I do not feel the details of game play as particularly thematic. That is to say, when I make a move, it doesn’t feel like any event or story that I can picture. Moves make sense on an intellectual level rather than an emotive one. Like with E&T, I do feel theme as the reefs are morphing and moving in Reef Encounter. In Shadows over Camelot, I do feel the reach of a traitor in some Camelot like setting and the forces of evil working against me. In Die Macher, I feel a process of elections and public issues taking shape. However, even in these stronger themed examples, I don’t feel like my individual game play actions are primarily about the story being told. Rather, what I tend to feel is the process and tension of game play and interaction through these actions or mechanics. In Princes of Florence, do I actually feel that my land has been more appealing to particular artisans than others as I win? Not at all. I simply feel that I have manipulated events better than others. These games are far from simulating events or stories at hand. Indeed, this is part of the appeal of war games, older style American games and of RPGs.


Here, the titles capitalize on properties that have been fully fleshed out. Details that the games capture are more vividly experienced as a result.

Other Euros go even further to infusing theme into the game. Dune and Lord of the Rings share many qualities with their heritage, offering a deeper sensation of theme and story. But here, unlike most Euros, the world has already been created and richly carved out through literature. The games that follow, then, have a meta level driven not by their individual productions but by the accumulation of prior assets like books and movies. Fans have already experienced Dune and are given freedom to play out little moments of the worldscape through the game. The game's theme does not create a story, but attempts to mimic a small aspect of an existing vivid one. Nonetheless, they are well executed and refined.

Occasionally, a few games can rise above with respect to thematic relevance. When playing Puerto Rico, I do feel a connection to the roles and actions to the story of building an economy, harvesting, producing and shipping goods. Perhaps this contributes to its success as there is a beautiful marriage between mechanics and thematic detailing created in a typically restrained – Euro – way. The actions both make logical sense to the theme and feel like I am participating in it. Even with this tight coupling of mechanics and theme, I do not picture myself at the ground level taking part in the actions. The game is too abstract for this. This goes to the heart of the matter, as the Euros that we celebrate for purity and simplicity arrive there through reduction and cleverly crafted game play at the expense of any real substantive history.

The medieval reruns. Nonetheless, I enjoy them all and don't mind that the publishers keep them coming. Indeed, the common thematic language gets comfortable. Like a TV series I should have stopped watching years ago, I continue to play because it is easy to get into and does not demand so much of me.

So it is that the power of Euro themes are weak in terms of telling emotional stories. Perhaps this can explain why the same theme can appear again and again and again without problem. In the end, it does not much matter as the productions have not shared any compelling stories with us – we have not lived them. And, as a result, I don’t mind the medieval "this or that." The medieval game is rather nice as there is such a rich visual vocabulary to draw on in western medieval lore. It also helps that this is common to many cultures and has distance enough from our time to provide romance and charm. A tweak here and we’ve got Medieval Mediterranean shipping. A tweak there and it’s Medieval European trading or Renaissance European trading. Nonetheless, no specific imagery floods the mind when playing these Euros beyond a general sense of the romance of a castle being built or the epic spans of time or such, ... And that is enough. For what I am experiencing in play is logic, is deduction, is strategy, is tactics, is ... wholly cerebral with a dash or two of thematic flavor to help it all go down.

Indeed, feeling the story is not necessarily the point of Eurogames. The point has to do with tickling the mind in interesting ways that creates tension and interaction through game play. The point of thematic detailing is to feel a little something beyond the excitement of game play. It is there to satisfy the downtimes with something aesthetic and pleasing to look at. It is the allure and appeal to draw one into the game and then into the game play. In general, the theme is not here to tell a story and the game is not here to serve as a medium of a story’s expression. The rare exceptions here come in times when designers have been able to maintain a tight connection between the game actions and real life actions. For Euros, at best this appears as an ancient coin whose features have been worn down through time. Some connections to the past remain, but for the most part we have the smooth flow of finely crafted game play.

The attention that designers give to reduction of rules and elegant design comes at the cost of thematic detail. Like a coin worn over time, very little evidence of the actual artifact remains.

This does not mean I do not seek out a castle building game or a pirate themed game or a train game or some such. I do look forward to and seek out the thematic expression. I also hope that somehow I can relive some aspect of that theme. Unfortunately, I am always let down at that level. On another level, I do get the satisfaction of being part of a richly presented texture of theme. It makes me feel good.

The artist and publisher could have chosen to highlight the beautiful forms of the pieces in any number of interesting ways. The design approach here, however, was to introduce a sense of drama through landscapes – completely unrelated to the game. In a way, each game has been themed on the brand level.

On the other end, a game without thematic presentation is simply an abstract. It is curious how the Gipf series box graphics uses highly evocative landscapes to bring some natural element into the presentation of an otherwise themeless game. Flowerpower is really just a simple abstract. Thematic detailing here makes introduction to the game a little easier to swallow and prettier to look at. It is purely for appeal as is Gipf’s landscapes.

Here, thematic detailing glosses over the fact that the game is purely an abstract one. It doesn't matter though as the images are entertaining in themselves and soften the harshness of math and logic that the game really is.

So, where does all this get me? Of particular interest are the emotive characteristics that can I bring to a production to enhance the playing experience. By understanding limitations that games – most particularly Euros – have in bringing one into a theme, I am freed from the restrictions that direct interpretations of a storyline might bring. It is not necessarily to elaborate on or fixate on literal details of a story or theme that ultimately cannot adequately deliver.

Unfortunately, such literal interpretations are the hallmark of most productions today. With respect to covers I have written a bit on this previously. This also is very applicable to game board designs. Game boards tend to be quite literal. If one is playing in a jungle, then we see the jungle terrain as if traversing through it. If one is placing pieces on Japan then we see a map of Japan with some geographical features. What is forgotten or dismissed is that this is a game, in particular a Eurogame. This is not a simulation or reenactment of particular events to tell a story but a collection of rules meant to create tension and a fun experience using a theme as its basis for flavor. So then, I believe an artist can exploit features of a theme and put elements together in a fun, gamey way rather than recreating a literal interpretation of events. Either way, the expected storyline is less important than the impact the graphics have to offer.


In San Marco, the artist Alessandra Cimatoribus chose to create a map of Venice in an unusual way. Rather than portraying some sort of period map, each area of the map was filled with colorful illustrations of patterns and motifs. The effect is inviting, unique (iconic for the brand) and fun to look at.

Above is an alternate reinvisioning of the board and bits for T&E. Here, the map and story have been abstracted using period materials. Such abstractions can offer a less obvious and thus more memorable solution. By reassembling elements from the period, the board allows for a more emotive expression of the theme. Below are two published version adapting literal maps to support the theme.

Here is an another example. When I created an alternate board for T&E, I had some choices. The first choice was to take a literal route: to recreate a map of this ancient area with the two rivers. In this way, players will feel like they are building long ago in this area on this terrain, right? It will help to drive the theme, right? I do not believe this is at all the case. T&E is, after all, a very, very abstract game based on a civilization building theme. As mentioned earlier, the game play actions all are logical on a thematic level but are so abstracted that my actions do not have the feel of the story as I play them. A new map won’t help gloss over the abstraction any more then H&G or Mayfair’s did. In this wonderful game, what I do feel, however, is the ebb and flow of masses of cultures rather than anything specifically of this particular region. While this region is the cradle of civilization, this game could be of any ancient culture on any map. In terms of the emotive experience of playing the game, E&T is all about this beautiful ebb, flow, breakup and rejoining of cultures. This ebb and flow is the iconic visual takeaway from the game and what makes it so unusual.

Another choice I had for the board was to abandon a literal interpretation of a map for a more emotive and iconic production. By turning the board into a mosaic of blue tiles and inset gold, something much different is happening here. Given that it retains the rivers, the “map idea” is easily explained and understood as this is the only terrain that matters. Now we have a board made up of tiles that are indicative of period motifs. The very rich blue playing surface with inset gold is pleasing to look at – much more than the drab brown map is. The question was asked by a few as to why the board then couldn’t be made of of brown tiles with the blue for water as this would be more like a map. I would say that if one is to abandon a literal representation of the area, why would the color need to stay fixed? Indeed, all that matters is form – that of two winding rivers which is clear enough to understand. One must remember that breaking away from the literal is not a huge stretch. Subway maps have employed this technique for over a half a century as a more efficient way to dissimilate information. People have grown quite accustom to maps taking different forms. The benefit is that the abstraction here on the alternate T&E board offers a rich, luxurious presence. It also feels ancient and has an attitude beyond the literal. Indeed, it almost feels as if this was a game that was played during that ancient period of time. This is what I mean by treating the gameboard in a gamey way. It feels more like a game than a generic map. For me, that has great appeal.

When playing Thurn and Taxis, do I really feel as if I am calling upon these characters for help? Not at all. But this does not matter as they mostly add warmth and visual appeal to the design.

Above is a detail from Thurn and Taxis' board done by my favorite game artist, Michael Menzel. I really like the look of this board. Note the literal representation of roles here as portraits of characters. While I have no problem with this and think it adds to the aesthetic appeal, I have to wonder whether the publishers or artist had intended these portraits would “get me into the story” of these characters and roles that are available to help me. If so, in this regard this has failed. While lovely to look at, I do not imagine this mechanic to be a person who is helping me out here. In our group, we just call the actions "get 2 cards", "play 2 cards", "swipe board" and the "cartwright." All but the cartwright have been reduced in our minds back to the intended action rather than the characters here to help us. (The cartwright term remains for us just because it is easier to say, I think.) This is an important distinction as the portraits do not get me any closer to the story when playing the game. They certainly look great, suggest a time period, make the board richer and more interesting to look at and draw attention to the four available actions underneath them but they don’t draw me into the story.

In addition to supplementing thematic detailing through visual means, some publications begin rules with “the storyline.” As if this will get me into the theme while playing. I generally just skip over such nonsense to get into the game rules. Better for me would be a little history surrounding some facet of the game. The game does not have to relate much to the history, but it would be interesting to learn something. It would also elevate the game to something with more substance. I know, for instance, that I feel nothing of Crete when playing Kreta. Still, it would be nice to read a couple of history snippits about it during this period of time. Or perhaps that the inspiration for Kreta came from a particular social phenomena in Crete. Yes, the game play would still feel the same – that far removed from anything real, but I would have some insight into the designer’s thought process which would be wonderful.

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There are certainly many ways to design a game. One can begin with a bit of history or some story idea and create a game to fit tightly around that concept and complex historical contour. As discussed, such is often the world of wargames and old style strategy games. More than likely though, I believe Euro designers tend to assemble and collage together bits of historical or thematic details to fit within the constraints of rule sets created. All this is generally based around a core thematic idea (for instance, building a Castle in medieval France). What we get as a final product generally lacks fidelity to any strong themed story but instead has a familiar vocabulary. And so it is that those who expect to dive into a subject will often find Euros lacking. Visual reinforcement of a theme cannot patch the thematic holes left by such designs – nor should it. Instead, just as the designer has stepped away from a subject and pieced together a new language based on a theme, so too should the visual representation of games have license to depart from stereotypical depictions and venture into the unexpected and delightful. In the end, the visual interpretations for the game should seek to appeal to and make an emotive connection to the gamers as the highest order. In so doing, visual designs will remain fresh, fun and celebrate the patchwork of thematic detailing brought to life by designers.

– Mike