Theme and Grammar p3: Verb Theme

Now on to Verb Theme. If noun theme is the labels of the stuff, verb theme is the label you use to describe what you do in the game. The whole “Grammar theme” schtick really started with the verbs, inspired by Rahdo’s use of verbs to describe categories of games based on what you do in them. This question, to me, is a three-step process:

  1. What do you do thematically?
  2. What do you do mechanically?
  3. How closely are 1 and 2 related?

Now some games are perfect matches, and others are more on the WTF side. Truly, it’s a question of abstraction: as you try to fit a real-life situation into a 30, 60, or even 240-minute experience, you have to cut stuff out, and the more you cut, the bigger that divide gets. Battleline is a game about strategic combat, about planning where to send troops to react to your opponents. However, how much of that can you fit in a 20-minute card game? How can you fit something that evolves over months, something that takes a lifetime to master, to a game that you can teach in 5, play in 20, and not feel completely overwhelmed? By cutting stuff out, by abstracting large situations, by limiting the game to a manageable lot.

Picture by BGG user Charlescab

The games usually most held up as thematic are combat-heavy games centered around verbs such as Kill, Destroy, Annihilate, Exterminate, and other synonyms. If you look at the Thematic category on BoardGameGeek, that’s mostly what you’ll find. Of course, a game about combat, where you control pieces which attack your opponents’, well that’s a pretty close fit. I’m farther away from the action, I have all the time in the world, and a much clearer, bird-eye view of the battlefield, but the decisions I’m making are still the decisions a heroic knight, a Space marine, or a lieutenant would take.

On the other hand, my beloved Euros, about Building a castle in the European Middle Ages: what do you actually do? You’re actually building stuff. You’re collecting resources, then pay those resources to gain a card or tile representing the building you’ve built. It feels like the actions you’re taking in Vinhos, Brass, or Agricola, are pretty close to the ones you’d be taking in real life if you were in those situations as a Winery owner, British industrial, or medieval farmer.

Then, why are those games not seen as thematic?

I think the biggest difference is not in what you do, but how you get to do it.

In Memoir 44, the main verb is Fight, and that’s what you do. How do you fight? Well you play a card, move units around, and fight. Sure, the cards you have in hand do limit what you can do, and you have to plan around them, but the main thing you’re interacting with is the Fight.

Picture by BGG user RicMadeira

Then, you have games like Teotihuacan -and before I crap on it a bit, I have to point out I really like it! However, as much as I like the Teotihuacan for its tough decisions and the strategic and tactical thinking in it, it is pretty unthematic. Teotihuacan is a Build game: you even have the physical Pyramid getting built throughout the game. It’s a game about getting stuff and turning it into buildings: so far, so good. However, there’s the whole rondel/dice worker stuff: do you imagine Mayan leaders planning the building of a pyramid based on how the work sites were disposed in a perfect circle around the city, and how workers could only go so far, and how you had to plan them going to the same action exactly on the same turn? And how they couldn’t walk counterclockwise? Were Mayan cities built on that hill where our grandfathers went to school, where you had to walk uphill both ways? Were they built on that Mobius strip staircase from Inception?

Not only is the mechanism unthematic, it’s also the main thing you’re thinking about during the game. Any fun you have during the game, it’s not about getting stone and building stuff: it’s about getting all your 5s on one spot, getting a huge action, and triggering a scoring phase early because two of those 5s ascend. Sure, the Build part is thematic, but it’s not a Build game: it’s a Plan game. More accurately, it’s a Solve game, where not only do you plan your moves -you plan moves in every game-, but you solve the optimization puzzle presented to you. That Solving the main thing you’re doing, the main thing you care about, it’s the main thing differentiating it from the hundreds of other games which you could describe as “get wood, get stone, build stuff”. And that Solving (which again, is so fun and I love it) is absolutely unthematic -not that Mayan leaders didn’t solve problems, but that the things we consider during the game have absolutely no relation to the things our avatars in the game would.

So that’s the thing to keep in mind: Verb Theme is about how tightly what you do in the game world represents what you do in the real world, but you can’t limit it to the effect of those actions. Given that we interact with the board game through the decision we make, its that decision-making process we have to look at: how close is that decision making to those our avatar would take?

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