Theme and Grammar p4: Adverb Theme

Now on to Adverb Theme. If Verb Theme is how closely your decision process as a player matches that of your avatar in the game world, Adverb Theme is about the emotions that come up during that decision process, and how they match the emotions suggested by the theme. As a game designer, they’re a level removed from your control, because they are, of course, dependent on the players. In the Noun theme post, I talked about the frequent criticism that some games are themeless because they could be about anything: while sometimes that’s a comment on the game’s setting (“Sure, you’re building a medieval castle in Italy, but you could be building a Colony on Mars or a Bee Hive”), it’s often about that feel.

Because this subject is by nature more abstract, let’s dive in what I think is a perfect example: Lost Cities. Actually, before I went with the Grammar shtick, this whole series started with what I call “Knizia theme”, and Lost Cities is one of its best, and most well-known, examples. Still, a quick overview of the game if you don’t know what it is:

Lost Cities is a card game themed around expeditions. Players are rival entrepreneurs who fund explorers to go around exotic locales and bring fame and fortune back. Or artifacts? Or maybe it’s taking pictures and posting them on Instragram. Who cares, really? The game is abstracted to the bare minimum, and many would call it abstract, with that “it could be anything!” Yet, I argue, it couldn’t: that theme is the perfectest fit.

Picture from BoardGameGeek

Mechanically, the game offers 5 suits, each containing cards numbered 2-10, and 3 Handshake cards. You can play cards in your tableau, as long as they are higher than the number of the last card you placed in that color, with Handshakes having to be played before number cards. At the end of the hand, you score each color in which you played, adding up the cards, subtracting 20, and, if you have 1, 2, or 3 handshakes, doubling, tripling, or quadrupling, respectively -which could pay a lot, or, if you run short, could cost a lot. You also gain 20 points if you play 8 cards of a color. The game is mostly about not giving your opponent cards they need, not showing your opponent what card you need, and fighting against the clock of the deck running out.

Now the noun theme is barely existent: the cards represent advancement, the handshakes represent how much funding goes into the thing. There’s no money, no explorers, and the adventures are nothing but rows of cards. The verbs aren’t even clear in what you’re doing thematically: drawing cards and playing cards isn’t what I think of when I think of planning an expedition. The game is a lot easier to understand in abstract, mechanical terms: it’s almost impossible to teach it with any hint of theme.

Yet, if I were to describe the experience, I’d say it’s a game about taking risk, about deciding when to pull the trigger, based on incomplete information, and going from planning to action: you can’t wait until you know exactly how it will end before you get started. It’s a game about hedging your bets, about knowing when to go full throttle and when to take your time. It’s a game where you don’t directly hurt your opponent, but if you fall on something they need, you bury it deep. It’s a game about sometimes digging deeper and finding a gem, but more often then not you get something of little importance. Doesn’t that sound like expeditions to unknown lands? Like funding archaeological missions?

Many games described as Abstract thrive on Adverb Theme. Individual mechanisms seem abstract, yet the experience the game delivers is described in terms which clearly resonate with the theme. Sure, Lost Cities could be about funding start ups in Silicon Valley, or any other situation where you take risks based on limited information. Likewise, whether it’s finding cures while controlling the diseases’ spreading, closing portals to Hell while fighting demons, building pumps while controlling raising water levels, or negotiating alliances with barbarian leaders while defending Rome from their attacks, Pandemic is a game about trying to progress on long term solutions when you have time in between two emergencies. Are they less thematic because the Noun theme could be changed?

What do you think are other good examples of Adverb Theme, games where the actions and mechanisms are not necessarily good matches, but where the theme perfectly fits the emotional journey you go on during a game?

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