Theme and Grammar p2: Noun Theme

Theme & Grammar is a series in which I explore different facets of theme in board games. Click here for the overview.

So Noun Theme, as I said last time, is the labels you put on stuff: this yellow cube is gold, and this grey one is a soldier, and this track there is your Political power. If you were to retheme a game, from Star Wars to Game of Thrones, or from spice trading to golem building, this is what you’d change.

Noun theme is the vocabulary used to describe the pieces in the game, which means it’s the concepts we use to make sense and learn the game, and the vocabulary we use to talk about the game.

Learning: Compare these two sentences:

  • You take a yellow cube on this action, turn it into a pink cube on this other action, and at the end of a round, pay 1 pink cube for each action you took.
  • You get wheat at the Farm, turn it into food at the Bakery, and at the end of a round, each of your worker eats one food.

Which of those do you think will be the easiest to learn? Of course, having that thematic vocabulary means it’s easier to make sense of the concepts the game throws at us. However, theme doesn’t help on its own: it’s only how well it represents what happens in the game:

  • You get a Gold at the Rocket ship, turn it into a Pollution at the Zoo, and at the end of a round, each of your Wizards makes one Pollution disappear.
  • You get a Schmamuul at Ozarakas’ Hut, turn it into a Gom Gom at the Darikan Academy, and at the end of a round, each member of your Kerra costs you one Gom Gom.

Does that help? Of course not. There’s no logical relationship to base your understanding on in the first, and the second is only gibberish. These examples are more egregious, but my point is that this vocabulary is a huge boon to learning a game, and therefore, should be used as the tool that it is: a weird, bizarre theme has certain advantages, but it definitely loses points on this one. Daniel Solis (who by the way is an amazing follow) talked on the GD of NC podcast (other amazing resource) about how Junk Orbit used to be a game about aristocrats putting catapults on Penny farthings to throw piles of cash to each other, which is an amazing theme and would get me to sit down, but most likely doesn’t help people understand the game. The same statement is true about using proper nouns, especially from a set fiction that not everyone knows, for whom it’s basically still gibberish.

Talking: After we’ve learned a game, we still use that vocabulary: we ask questions, we read card effects, we describe actions, we ask others to pass us specific bits which are out of reach. It’s what makes games which over-rely on complex icons, and never name them, so frustrating. As much as I love Arkham Horror LCG, I get angry when I draw one of the unnamed shapes.

“What did you draw?” “A… plane with… tails?”

I also think there’s a large spectrum of how thematic the vocabulary of a game is. If you play Splendor on a large table and can’t reach the stacks of chips, do you say “I’ll take two emeralds,” or “two greens”? On the other hand, in Scythe, do you ever say “This costs two browns”? In Terra Mystica, do you go up the blue track, but in Endeavor, you go up the Money track. Some games don’t bother naming the resources, but others barely go further. What pushes you one way or another?

  • Thematic use: You use wood to build stuff, and food to feed your worker. That means that the terminology you use follows the narrative: it’s why we say “wood” in Agricola, but “green” in Splendor.
  • Interchangeability: You go up on tracks to represent your advancements in both Endeavor and Terra Mystica. In Endeavor, each track has its own use: in Terra Mystica, they’re all the same. Sure, objectives evaluate one rather than the other, but that’s not an inherent difference: it’s a difference in what other stuff requires. When I teach the game, I say “these tracks all help you with objectives”, but in Endeavor, I have to point out “this one helps you get workers, this one helps you pay for your workers, this one…”. That is proof that they are inherently different.
  • Component: So obviously, calling a resource by its color is the shorthand we use to refer to them when the theme doesn’t help. That being said, in games where the color is not the bit’s main feature, you will call them by their name. It’s why we say “Oil” in Scythe, even though the resources are all mostly interchangeable: what else would we call it?

This type of theme is where a lot of Euros get criticized for “pasted on theme”, mainly with the criticism “it could have been anything”. Of course, a game about building a city could be about building Florence in the Renaissance, a Colony on Mars, a stone age village, or the lost city of Atlantis, or the Capital of Raghuerikka after the Gerrass destroyed it in the last age: as long as it’s about building a city, only the words will change. So why do we have so many Euros going with the boring Renaissance European nobility themes? Why are we always building castles and cathedrals?

That’s because Noun theme is only one type of theme! Next time, we’ll look at… Adjective Themes!

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