Traditional Board Games

To Theme or Not to Theme?

Queen Nefertari playing senet in a tomb painting.
Queen Nefertari playing senet in a tomb painting.

Thursday, 2nd October 2014

We've all seen themed chess sets. Often based on a TV programme, a film or a book, these sets are more decorative than practical. They appeal to fans of a work or genre as something decorative for the table. If they are lucky, they might see some play.

Chess is typical of traditional board games in not having a real theme to it. These games will often allow a variety of themes to be pasted on them. As often as not, these will be treated with disdain. What chess grandmaster would play a serious match with a "The Simpsons" chess set? In this blog post I want to briefly explore how themes are pasted on to traditional board games.

Unlike many modern abstracts, most traditional board games have a very weak theme. Back in 1940 a scholar of ancient history, R. G. Austin, identified that most board games mimicked one of three human activities: the race, the battle or the hunt. Some ancient and many modern board games don't quite fit in this, but with the addition of one or two more well-chosen but vague activities the model would be complete.

Some games had a slightly stronger theme. Asalto depicts the siege of a fortress, while in hnefatafl a king's army is being blockaded by a numerically superior enemy. Senet was often depicted as a journey to the afterlife. Though chess's theme of battle is compromised with its unwarlike queens and bishops, and castles that move, xiang qi (Chinese chess) has war elephants, cavalry, war chariots, catapults, and foot soldiers facing each other across a river, each side's operation directed by generals and advisers in a fortress which must be stormed to win the game.

Many other games have had themes pasted onto them, and some are more receptive than others. Hunt games like asalto and hnefatafl are particularly suited. Hnefatafl has depicted various escape situations, taken from specific battles, from James Bond films and stories about escaped criminals. Asalto has had various historical sieges pasted onto it, but works very well as a game about two cats defending a larder against an invasion of mice.

There are games that are very resistive to themes, especially those whose mechanics are very stylised versions of the activities they represent. It would be difficult to see how backgammon could be given a convincing theme, or mancala. Some manufacturers have surmounted such difficulties, however, and even nine men's morris had a military theme pasted onto it during the First World War.

Themes added like this can often be tacky or tasteless. And as with the chess sets, the theme is so lightly pasted on that it threatens to come sliding off as soon as a piece is moved. But in other cases, the themes fit well with the mechanic of the game they are applied to. If a popular subject is used, it can even bring much needed attention to a niche game. I'd love, for example, to see a Lord of the Rings theme on hnefatafl.

I'd conclude that themes are not necessarily a bad thing. They're not conducive to serious levels of play. But they're simple good fun, and bring a decorative and appealing twist to games that may otherwise escape mass market attention.


I come at this from a different direction. My preference is for games where the theme matters. In my mind's eye, an ideal game is one where an expert at the field but novice at the game would have a good chance of winning because the game simulates reality. Having said that, there is no real harm in pasting on a theme.

Jeff Siadek - 04:15, 04/10/2014

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