Alright, I'm being intentionally inflammatory with the title of this article but it's all in a good cause (I hope). Namely, I intend to take an "advocatus diaboli" approach to the whole notion of themes in German games.
The point to be made is simple—the wholesale grafting of a theme onto a set of mechanics is dishonest if those mechanics have no real world connection to that theme. Can a game really be about exploring the Amazon if it can easily be re-themed to the terror of the French Revolution? Is it realistic to simply add floors to an existing skyscraper? Did ancient explorers really decide the orientation of the islands they discovered?
Obviously, games require some level of abstraction—even the most detailed wargame will use dice to resolve combat. The question is whether the particular abstraction utilized is fair. For example, not even the most accurate sharpshooter can hit a bull's-eye every time so using a die to simulate the vagaries of a shot can be "truthful" in some sense. In the same way that uncontrollable factors cause the arrow to travel slightly adrift, the die causes the simulated shot to miss as well. Where problems arise is when a mechanic is chosen that does not fairly abstract the real world occurrence. Imagine a game in which players bid to see who shoots closest to the bull's-eye; does such an abstraction feel right? Should the actions of other players really affect the accuracy of your shot? It's important to keep in mind that abstractions are not the issue here, it's whether such abstractions can be thematically justified.
With this in mind, consider the following examples.
Case 1: Tikal
Players move markers around the board, excavate pyramids and collect treasures. The scale is abstract and so it's difficult to tell exactly how things relate to the real world. How long is a turn supposed to be? Are the markers individual people or are they groups? What exactly do the victory points represent? These are all valid questions but I think they can all be answered satisfactorily. They may not be perfect simulations of real-life but, as with our sharpshooter example, we must accept a certain amount of abstraction. For example, if you spend all ten of your action points moving a single worker you can send him far across the board. However, if you instead want to send two workers, they could only move half as far. Obviously this is not very realistic at the level of an individual worker but I don't see this as a problem. Why? Well, the players are in the role of directing an entire expedition and, as in real life, they can't accomplish everything. The action point system nicely simulates limitations on the team's resources. If you need to travel a great distance then you need to travel light and other concerns must be subordinated. It's not a perfect explanation but it's good enough to justify the mechanic. Similar justifications can be made for most of the mechanics in Tikal but where the game commits "fraud" is in the placement of tiles.
On a turn a player will draw a tile, examine it and then place it on an empty space on the board. What exactly can this possibly represent in real life terms? Clearly our role as leaders of an expedition in no way grants us the power to place temples or volcanoes where they best suit our needs. We are not gods shaping the land but the mechanics would indicate otherwise. This isn't a case of a reasonable abstraction, it's a mechanic that is in direct conflict with the established theme.
Case 2: Union Pacific vs. Empire Builder
In Union Pacific, the board is the fraud. It has a map of the United States showing a number of cities with pre-printed tracks between them. As the various railways expand they will occupy these tracks, building their network and increasing their relative worth. The problem is that this track is never used for anything and, more importantly, it's almost meaningless how one builds. All companies with nine pieces of track are worth exactly the same no matter how those tracks are organized. There is no notion that certain cities are more valuable than others or that certain configurations are more efficient. The map suggests to us that there is a connection between the value of a company and the arrangement of its tracks when there really isn't any.
In contrast, Empire Builder presents a far easier to accept model. The map is also of the US and shows a number of cities as well as geographical features (primarily mountains and rivers). Here the track is not pre-printed but drawn by the players themselves as they build their own network. Just as in real life there are different costs to reach different cities. The big difference though is that the specific arrangement of tracks is critical in Empire Builder. It's not simply a case of having five or six cities connected, it's important how those cities are connected. The cheapest route might not be the most efficient and so there are many problems you'll be faced with when building track.
Now, before people jump all over me defending Union Pacific or explaining how unrealistic Empire Builder is, remember that I'm not concerned with how these function as games. (In fact, I'm very fond of both of these. I recognize that each has some very wonderful qualities as well as some serious shortcomings.) Rather, I'm interested in how realistic each theme is, how "attached" it is to the mechanics. The easiest way to test this is to consider how well the game would work with a different theme. In the case of Union Pacific there's already the precedent that it was not originally a rail game at all but rather about airlines! Instead of laying tracks between cities, players expanded their airlines by creating routes from one hub to the next. Such a switch would be nearly impossible in Empire Builder, people would immediately recognize that "it seems like it's about building railway lines".
I know what several people will be thinking at this moment—"Greg's totally missed the point of Union Pacific, it's not about building railways, it's about owning stock." Agreed, but I'm not concerned with the whole of Union Pacific here, just the board play. Obviously the trains are a simple mechanic to drive the value of the companies and this has been highly abstracted. Fair enough and this is a perfectly valid design choice. I do not have a problem with the principle of this just as I do not have a problem that each company in Empire Builder operates but a single train. Again, abstraction is necessary in a game. The problem is in the theming of this abstraction. In a more realistic Empire Builder each player would run dozens or hundreds of trains but abstracting this to a single train works just fine. Players can easily extrapolate the actions of their single train to what's "really" happening. In Union Pacific, the abstraction does not work nearly so well. There's a need for each company to increase in value over the course of play but the game accomplishes this by adding a route building subsystem that is not realistic and bears little resemblance to the real world. This is where the "fraud" is perpetrated. Some people have suggested that they prefer playing Union Pacific without a board at all. Simply keep a collection of trains in the middle of the table to indicate each companies worth. To my mind this is a more "honest" abstraction, there is no attempt made to indicate that the game is about route building.
Case 3: Duell vs. Ivanhoe
Again, these are both games that I enjoy so please recognize that I'm not simply championing a favourite. Both games are nominally about personal combat (fencing in Duell, jousting and whatnot in Ivanhoe) and, at first glance, quite abstract. In both, your turn consists mainly of playing numbered cards. However, Duell very nicely captures the feeling of its theme. There's a sense of rushing to meet your opponent and then a careful dance as you feint and parry, looking for an opening. This sense of momentum coupled with various tricks and maneuvers makes it seem as though you really are fencing even if what you're actually doing is playing cards numbered 1-5.
During a game of Duell, it's very easy to "see" what's being represented. The "story" of Duell is clear and described by the actions that actually occur in the game. You advance up the mat, and then lunge at your opponent. He parries the blow and then retreats. Again you advance only to feel your opponent's blade as he makes an attack you are unable to counter. Now this isn't just some fanciful narration I've added to an abstract playing of cards—each of the above actions directly corresponds to card play in the game.
The same cannot be said of Ivanhoe. The game consists of players adding cards until only one remains. If you want a "story" from all this, you need to manufacture one yourself. While you could try to fit a real world explanation onto each card play, it will be forced. Consider a "jousting tournament"—since every player is initially included, it cannot be simulating a single joust (which involves only two participants). Furthermore, a joust operates identically to a fight with swords. Are there really no differences between the two? Ivanhoe works fine as a game but it truly is abstract, the theme is merely painted on.
Still not convinced? Consider playing a version of either game that has had all thematic accoutrements removed. (i.e. No artwork or descriptive text on the cards, the pawns are generic and the board is plain.) There's nothing in the gameplay of Ivanhoe to suggest that it's concerned with battling knights, it has as much theme as Hearts or Bridge. Clearly you could fit a theme to the mechanics but they do not suggest one of their own accord. A "de-themed" Duell, on the other hand, would be instantly recognizable as a fencing match to anyone who plays a few hands. The mechanics not only suggest the theme, they practically demand it.
Okay, time to confess. Do I really think that grafted on themes are fraudulent? No, of course not, such games are still among my favourites. In fact, I feel that I've painted myself into a corner with this article. I prefer games with themes, even one that's pasted on. Ivanhoe could be about anything but the fact that it has been themed as a knightly tournament helps me enjoy it, it does not matter that this theme is arbitrary. However, I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far to one side? Have these German-style games taken "the easy way out" by regarding theme as a disposable entity?
Look back to the games that Avalon Hill produced in the 1970s and 1980s and you'll find that they're much more closely tied to their themes. Merchant of Venus may have some rather odd bits of thematic colour but there's no mistaking that you're a merchant trying to make a profit. In New World, you really do feel that you're exploiting the Americas. Most of the mechanics in Dune are quite abstract but it all adds up to a game that feels remarkably faithful to the book. These are all games that had to fit their mechanics within a theme and I think they benefit from this restriction.
Ultimately, I'd like to see games that feature the clever mechanics of recent German-style games with the strong thematic connection of earlier American games. It really would be the best of both worlds.
- Greg Aleknevicus