Thematic approaches in Euro design

It seems a very basic thing to understand, the development of theme in a game as it correlates to real life (simulates real life) is most often, if not nearly always contradictory to the Euro philosophy. Real life is messy with lots of rough contours. To adequately describe real life events in a rich way, rules need to twist this way and that to follow those contours. It's the chrome, the exceptions to rules and breaking of rules that allow for this. Our Euro philosophy dictates that rules be crafted cleverly and simply. Indeed, like wine connoisseurs we sip up and break down the games sensing the delicate mingling of mechanics. It is the blending of mechanics and development of new mechanics that we celebrate. However, the rules we love are stretched so tight there is little capacity for conforming to the contours of life. The result are games that cannot resonate on a deeper emotional level that we have come to expect from our younger, American gaming years.

Spectrum of thematic detailing. American Style can run the spectrum but the tendency is stronger theme and simulations. Thematic detailing within the Euro Style can take a few forms. Theme really can't be felt in any real way, though within some of the spectrum theme can be understood as it relates to game play.

Another version of the chart. Note the pink bar which describes our emotive connection to the theme as we play a game. As the design approach favors mechanics, our emotional connection drops off. At the point it drops off, emotion is merely that of a good feeling that comes from looking at the art and feeling a general impresion of the era (pretty themes).This is where most Euros live. For many Euros, the theme can be justified on a rational level. But, again they lack the actual feel of the subject matter. Abstracts and AmeriGames can slip up or down the scale – note chess. I wouldn't call Chess a Euro, but there is thematic detailing in there that exceeds some Euros.

The development of theme within the Euro philosophy takes a number of forms. On one end we have an attempt to simulate real life, pairing down and smoothing out the rough contours until a Euro blend has been achieved. Martin Wallace's Tempus strikes me as such. Here, it is clear that there was a strong desire to create an epic story of mankind's progress as civilizations vie for resources and work toward technological advances. The end result of the game does address all the main points of growing a civilization, but its relation to how things operate in real life seems far from satisfying. Technological advances are reduced down to a number tweak here and there. Colonists, soldiers and all people are amalgamated as identical little pucks. It's a fun game with clever mechanics, but after playing, I only get a vague sense that an epic event has occurred. Sure, my mind knows that all the major points have been covered, but my heart leaves me wanting for more of something. This is the sacrifice that is made to deliver a Euro product. Knizia's E&T is the same story. It's a very logical representation of epic struggles within cultural groups. I can certainly see how there was a strong desire to create this theme and following it through to the final version. My mind can believe most everything Reiner has presented here. On the other hand, plopping down a leader here or a farming cluster there strikes me as more mechanical and tactical rather than living the event. I certainly can feel the flow and fluidity of the rise and fall of nations but that's all I feel.

We move along the Euro themed spectrum to an area I call collaged. Here, there may or may not be a theme in mind when development starts – or perhaps the theme is completely scrapped for another midway in the design process. Real life variables get assigned to actions and perhaps actions are created to replicate real life. Nonetheless, pieces that could be anything are assigned thematic names as theme is collaged into the fabric of the game to form an overall tapestry of some event. Knizia's Royal Turf works this way for me. Here, we do have a race track and horses go around on it and people bet on the horses. But player's roles are mixed up as they both bet on horses and then control any number of horses they please within the bounds of rules. More flavor has been added to the dice with thematic embellishments like a hat and saddle, etc. The game doesn't really make much sense when one thinks about it, but there is plenty of atmosphere to give an overall feel or taste of the theme and certainly some actions feel like a the real thing. Horses do go around the race track and we do bet on them for example. Most important here to the collaged theme is that it is sprinkled throughout on this piece or that action with an occasional action to tie to the real thing.

On the far end of this spectrum we have a themed appliqué. This is a game pretty much fully cooked waiting for a lovely skin. Flowerpower, China and even El Grande work this way. Without the appliqué, it would be an abstract. With a theme brushed on we get a Euro. Nothing in the play of China resembles much of anything – it's certainly fun to play, but I don't get the feeling I've done anything in the end but manipulated rule sets better than the other guy. In El Grande, we have cards that give a little spice and flavor, but again anything could be written in to describe the actions – in this case it refers to the Spanish theme. All the actions in this category are what they are – independent of any real life counterpart.

There seems to be much talk of themes, but I think this must be due to false expectations. Euros provide theme as color, mood, flavor…as ambiance and nothing more. On the end closest to American style, a theme might begin to offer the feeling that we have participated in a simulated event. Though such is a very rare thing. Is it any wonder we get the Medieval/Renaissance/castle building-this-and-that game over and over? Not at all, as it paints a pretty picture for us that we all can relate to. It smells nice like walking into a house with cookies in the oven. While the fast food franchise business might make an interesting model or simulation, it ain't pretty. And in the end, that is what matters for Euros – the lovely ambiance. This ambiance has romance and imagination. While we can't feel the theme during play, the theme makes us feel good.

As a visual designer, it is helpful to understand the limitations that Euros offer us thematically. Knowing that – in the end – theme is really there as color, does give license for how to visually interprit the theme. Literal portrayals or reinactments of what a theme is supposed to be is a fallacy as it will never fill the emotional connection lacking in the game. It is so often the case that box covers paint pictures that try to hammer in a theme by portraying an event. As if by showing it, I'll be one step closer to feeling it in the game. Days of Wonder games take this approach and as a consequence the covers seem stiff and stale. Euro designers abstract reality; they don't seek to portray it. If they do try, the portrayal will fall short of its original thematic intentions. It follows that the visual application of theme can be abstracted. Allowing the visuals the freedom to follow the theme not literally but figuratively helps to manage expectations as to what theme has to offer us. It is there for texture not representation. It is there to make us feel good, not feel the experience that the theme represents.

– Mike