It’s time for another blog post! This time I’m talking about theme vs mechanics. There seems to be a great divide in the world of gaming on which matters more. Some say that theme is what gets them into the game and others say that mechanics matter most. I mean just look at that epic battle in the featured photo (totally ignore that mess behind me)!
This titanic struggle becomes more apparent in the world of tabletop gaming. Where gamers have developed two terms of endearment.
Ameritrash: This is what those in the mechanics camp call games with all theme. These games tend to be highly thematic but usually have mechanics that rely heavily on luck rather than player skill.
Euros: This is what those in the mechanics camp call the games they like. Wait a minute why is the mechanics camp getting to name both… anyway these tend to have very tight mechanics that rely on heavily player skill. However, many have ‘themes’ that are nothing more than a skin that can be exchanged for another easily.
The game I think of most when I hear Ameritrash is Fireball Island. This is the type of game that is all theme no ‘substance’. I’ve played this game a grand total of two times. Then my friend sold it because it was worth a ton of money, boo. While that made me sad I have super great memories about it. Fireball Island makes my head explode with excitement! Those kinds of memories are what games are all about.
So here then is my question, if the point of playing games is to create a memorable and joyful experience, how can call Fireball Island trash? I don’t think we can, which is why the term Ameritrash has always bothered me on some level. After all I certainly don’t think my way of having fun is trash.
Contrast this with Dominion, this game has very tight mechanics and luck has little do with whether or not you are going to win. However, the theme is inconsequential it could be anything and the game wouldn’t feel any different really. Just take a look at the made up card to the left. While it’s text might be humorous you could re-skin all of Dominion to be Old Spice commercials and the game would still be played most likely, by those who enjoy. Whenever I play Dominion though, I feel like I’m playing multiplayer solitaire though. My experiences have been memorable for the wrong reasons.
Now don’t get me wrong my way of having fun isn’t the only way. Some people love games like Dominion. There’s nothing wrong with that. So I wouldn’t call it trash either, just because I don’t like it. What if this battle didn’t have to be a battle though? What if there was a better way?
That’s right it doesn’t have to be either/or. In fact in my humble opinion the best games are those that marry theme with mechanics. If the mechanics feel like they belong to the theme it really reaffirms and increases immersion. If those mechanics are very tight then all the better. On the inverse if the theme feels appropriate to the mechanics then it gives them a greater sense of purpose. It can take something as dry as “roll x” and make it feel like you are firing your turbolasers to knock out that enemy fighter. Speaking of lasers and fighters.
X-Wing by Fantasy Flight Games exemplifies this approach. Not only does it feel like you are having Star Wars dogfights, but the mechanics are very solid. It is in fact one of the few games that I think plays just as well casually as it does competitively. No easy feat in my opinion. It’s an excellent marriage of theme and mechanics.
So at the end of the day what you should take away from this is that it doesn’t always have to be about theme vs mechanics. You can have both, and when the two come together well it’s a beautiful thing. Remember though there are no bad games, only the right game for the right person. So even if you love mechanics or you love theme you are still doing it right. No need fight!
Take care and enjoy your games,
Kevin M. Hamrick