Theme and Grammar: Overview

A lot of board gamers talk about theme: thematic game, pasted-on theme, dripping with theme. I don’t think there’s a single other term -not even worker placement- which is used in as many different ways as theme: it’s the world your game is set in, it’s the artwork, the table presence, the actions you take.

Picture from BGG user Tankx07

I’ve found four ways people use it, and while they overlap some, I think they are quite separate, and should be treated as such. Because I used to be an ESL teacher, I name these different types of theme after 4 parts of speech: Noun, Adjective, Verb, and Adverb.

  • Noun Theme is the labels you put on stuff in your game: this meeple is called a Soldier, this yellow card is called Run, this number here is your Political power. It’s linking a part of the game (whether a component or a mechanism) with the virtual world.
  • Verb Theme is how what you do in the game relates to what your avatar does in the game world. Where noun theme looks at pieces, verb theme looks at actions: How aligned are the thematic descriptions and the mechanical impacts of what you do.
  • Adjective Theme is the looks of your game. It’s related, but not limited, to table presence. It’s not the “toy factor”, or how pretty it is, but how well it represents the world the game is set in and the frame of mind players need to be in.
  • Adverb Theme is more nuanced: it’s a level more detached than verb theme. It’s not about being able to imagine your actions in the game world, but it’s about evoking the same emotional states, the same stakes, the same decision processes.

Throughout the next two weeks, I’ll go more in depth in those different types: For each of those, I’ll give a brief overview of what I mean, why that type of theme is useful, and of a game that does it particularly well.

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