Good themes can make games better.
Let’s see why, then ask what this means about us as humans.
Case Study: Golem Edition
Century: Golem Edition is basically the exact same game as Century: Spice Road. Some players like the theme of Spice Road because of the wooden bowls and/or the familiarity of the theme. I much prefer Golem Edition, however. The ‘story’ of Golem Edition - discovering crystals, trading them up for better crystals, crafting golems - feels way cooler than farming and trading wooden cubes (spices) for what Spice Road vaguely labels as “score cards” (pictures of cities).
First I’ll describe three good parts of Golem Edition’s theme. Then, we’ll talk about human experience!
1. The theme is unique and invokes wonder.
Exploring for crystals, trading them up with friendly folk, getting big golems that do stuff like build boats or play music: this is a unique theme, and an idyllic world.
To play this game is to be a part of this world. If nothing more than curiosity for what it feels like to DIY golems, this theme makes engagement with Golem Edition sound appealing even before knowing the rules.
2. The crystals feel cooler than wooden cubes.
Fun fact: these crystals are all the exact same cut. However, their design (weight distribution, balancing points, translucence) makes them look unique from one another. Nice!
Considering that players hold and move crystals dozens of times each game, the amount of quality that goes into those pieces is very important as it’s the primary point of contact. Luckily, they feel great, look great and even make cool colour palettes with each other.
The fact that these actually look like crystals is a victory over the abstract cubes that Spice Road uses. Players of Golem Edition engage with the theme (crystals) almost every turn, keeping them in the fantasy of the game.
3. The art is cute - each golem tells a story.
This is how I got my parents into Century. Each golem does something different! These giant powerful beings, acting as playgrounds and anchors and grape-stompers… it’s super endearing. The constituent crystals are even visible in the golems!
This art sets great tone and makes each golem feel desirable; e.g., instead of working towards “score cards” (as labeled in Spice Road) you work towards making giant rock friends. Yeah, they’re also only worth points. But on the other hand, you’ve just assembled a roaming desert house. Acquiring cards to your section of the table, in a direct physical way, lets you look closer at the art and appreciate what’s going on.
Playing any game multiple times wears away its theme, but giving you extra reasons to want these cards is a great way to get you into the game in the first place.
There’s plenty of games without themes. Many puzzle games like Tetris do just fine.
But when games do have themes, I believe they provide opportunities for us as humans to live multiple experiences: we simulate multiple lives through the lens of imagination and the robust ability for us to (amazingly!) draw experience and conclusions from the things we imagine.
It’s altogether not that different from practicing instruments or doing mock presentations, except with one additional layer of abstraction.
I posit that when we practice most things, it makes us better at the specific thing we’re practicing. But when we use imagination [whether in a book, movie, game, etc], in exchange for not developing one focused skill, we see a multiplicity of experiences that we can draw from.
For example, while one person’s experience playing Golem Edition may develop efficient planning ability, another person’s experience with Golem Edition may develop their ability to set goals and highlight what they need to get there. Still, others may get value and rejuvenation out of spending time in an idyllic setting with no visible human conflict.
A good theme makes games more interesting to play, yes. But more than that, a good theme makes it easier for players to extrapolate experience from whatever’s going on in a game. Themes helpfully demonstrate how mechanics relate to real-life problems like ‘thinking ahead’, ‘finding efficient opportunities’ or ‘setting goals and working towards them’.
Experience is difficult to qualify yet seems to be an integral focus of desire for many humans in their everyday lives. Seems good if a game can do that.