With so many excellent board games out there these days, a game’s mechanics need to be strong if it hopes to have any staying power. You can paste the most popular theme on a game and it might sell initially, but once people play it and realize that the mechanics are garbage it will quickly fall of the cliff, into the discount bin, and likely into oblivion shortly thereafter. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that a well designed abstract game with no theme at all, resting solely on its mechanics, can achieve critical and commercial status that blows the aforementioned game away. Chess, anyone?
I enjoy many abstract games. I enjoy the bare bones mental competition that they provide with no pretense of immersion, just my brain versus yours. I sort of think of abstracts as mind calisthenics – keeping me strategically sharp for a greater purpose. I mean, who wants to pull a brain-hammy? Sadly, though, abstracts are not what I find myself talking about at parties. They rarely provide enough memories worth invoking. “Hey, remember that time when I moved my king-side bishop to c4, creating a line of capture toward f7? That was awesome!” Not so much. I prefer something like “remember when my Nom-nom Lurker developed intelligence and then ate the shit out of your cowardly Flocka Stretcher with its lame climbing? THAT. WAS. AWESOME.”
Over the years I continue to find that my favorite games tend to combine strong theme and solid (not even superb) game mechanics to form a sum greater than their parts. These are the kinds of games that I think about when I’m not playing them, yearning to play them again soon. They are the games that leave me satisfied like my mom’s meatballs and sauce always do, full and happy. And they always remind me why I love playing games. I’ve assembled a few that fall into that category for me.
Best described as a sandbox pick-up and deliver game, without its theme Firefly would still be fun. But if you are a fan of the television series it’s hard to find a game more steeped with theme. You’ll fly your Firefly class ship around the ‘Verse, getting jobs, avoiding Reavers (and the Alliance if you are carrying illegal cargo), getting in good with the likes of Badger, Niska, and Patience, and hopefully getting paid. Along the way you will recruit a crew, acquire gear, and roam around the board misbehaving. At the end of each game I feel like I got a chance to be my own Malcolm, and that’s pretty cool.
Viticulture / Brew Crafters
These two games, though from separate designers and publishers, provide a similar thematic vibe. Both are worker placement games that require you to build a sweet euro engine to score the most victory points. But along the way you’ll feel like you’ve really created a winery or brewery that you should be proud of. From the different visitors in Viticulture to the unique brews in Brew Crafters (depicted by pretty cards and individual six pack tokens) the respective designers create an experience that combines gaming and fermenting in a special way.
War of The Ring
The vast map of Middle Earth is laid out before you as two players face off to determine the fate of the world. By the time you finish this 3-4 hour game you’ll feel as if you’ve written your own trilogy, with twists and turns that rival Tolkein’s story. The game usually comes down to a nail biter with either Minas Tirith falling to the Dark Lord, or the One Ring barely making its way into the crack of Mount Doom. This is a beast of a game, rules-wise, but it is a truly epic, thematic, experience that is worth pursuing.
Relive the tense moments that the delegates experienced during the summer of 1787 while crafting the U.S. constitution. This game brings history to life in a fresh and immersive way. Each of the cards in the game represents one of the delegates at the convention. Players attempt to manipulate these delegates to create votes to pass the articles that best align with their political factions. Founding Fathers is cutthroat and intense, as I imagine it would have been in Philly way back when. The board accurately represents Independence Hall, which adds a great thematic touch. This game has never disappointed.
Easily one of the most thematic games I’ve played. The different traits available to build your species offer an excellent combination of strategic options, all of which make perfect sense to the concepts of evolution. Emotions rise and fall as the struggle to survive ebbs and flows. You’ll feel proud to have a species survive the entire game. The art is very immersive as well. You also get a handy dandy chart to provide unique (fake) genus and species names to each of your different creatures, which adds a bit of humor along with theme. I mostly refer to mine as “meat,” however.
Create shows, hire stars, and advertise to create the best network on television. Players add cards to time slots to attract the most viewers in this light-medium strategy game from publisher Formal Ferret. The mechanics make thematic sense as you try to build the optimal combinations for each of the three different time slots. The cards also poke fun at real life shows and celebs. A tight, fun, game.
Fief: France 1429
You’ll guide your family of nobles through brutal 1400’s France with a mixture of area control, negotiation, empire building and a little dice chucking. Along the way, you’ll try to gain control of fiefdoms and bishoprics, and possibly snag the title of King or Pope. You’ll have to suffer famine, plagues, and assassination attempts – you know, the normal 15th century stuff. There is something about this game that is a perfect marriage of theme and game mechanics. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each game has a way of creating a story that has a way of creeping back into your memory days and weeks after playing – even though it is not a story game. There will be glorious victories and cheap defeats, but mostly just fun. For me, Fief is a microcosm of what tabletop gaming should be.
Last Will / The Prodigals Club
Two heavier euros both designed by Vladimir Suchy that somehow manage to add a light theme that gives them humor and vivacity. You and opponents are rich Victorian gents trying to blow your vast fortunes by making bad investments, letting friends and relatives leach off you, trying to lose an election, or trying to offend the most influential people in high society. The player with the lowest amount of wealth and status remaining wins. Both games provide themes that compliment their sound, but dry, mechanics beautifully.