At the end of last year I wrote a short post on theme, and how character is injected into a game. This process often feels a little artificial in many ways, with special rules and restrictions on the types of miniatures that you can bring to the table, attempting to recreating a specific play style or bias. Theme and character, and incorporating it into a game or rules set is something that interests me a lot, and so I have recently been thinking how the inclusion of theme differs between tabletop wargames and board games.
Board games and tabletop wargames share a lot of surface similarities. Both often involve dice, some kind of counter to represent the player or forces under the control of the payer, and there is often a mix of luck and skill involved in winning. Nothing earth shattering in all of that. However, when it comes to character and theme, the two types of game are fundamentally different. While a wargame will usually have a ‘theme agnostic’ core rules engine, and then armies for us in the game which incorporate their individual theme into their composition and rules, a board game is often built from the ground up to be situated very specifically. That is, a tabletop wargame is essentially theme neutral and then theme is added, while a board game is usually theme specific by virtue of being a single contained rules set with no new army lists to add individual theme – although expansions may adjust this a little.
How many times have you heard the complaint that a board game ‘doesn’t capture the theme’ very well? And yet, what is the theme captured by the 40K core rules? I would argue that there is very little intrinsic theme in the core rules, and what there is, is included through the art direction, narrative and stylistic features.
What is the consequence of this? Board games are usually fixed into a specific theme, and this is vital to their success or failure. Look at that perennial, Monopoly! How many variations do we really need of this game? And yet people must be persuaded to buy a new version of essentially the same game, simply because this latest version is the special 1980s Back to the Future version! This is fine, but it limits the shelf life of board games. If you cant change the theme, then you are essentially stuck playing the same game every time.
The tabletop wargame method of a theme neutral rules engine backed up by theme specific army lists highlights another core difference in theme. Board games are often themed more specifically. For example, a board game may theme itself around the Napoleonic Wars, catching a mouse through a bizarrely intricate and over-engineered series of traps, or farming in medieval or fantasy fields. In contrast, a tabletop wargames rarely themes itself around such a specific scenario. Sure, some wargames will give you a background setting, but these are often just that – background but not integrated into the rules theme. For example, 40K will tell you that the Tyranid army works and behaves a certain way, and will provide you rules to reflect this, but it doesnt give you theme rules for the Tyranids on an ice world. And even when campaign additions attempt to do this, often the rules and lists are generic beyond the established these of the narrative setting.
See you in 7