How Theme Affects Difficulty (in boardgames)
4 minutes read

I was listening to Vox Republica’s excellent discussion on gaming difficulty, when they brought up the question of whether theme affects difficulty. My immediate response was, “Of course. Obviously. Not much to talk about there.” …but neither of the hosts felt the same way. They proceeded to have a very pleasant chat on how theme can affect difficulty through reducing player engagement (a game about shipping logistics might be so boring a topic as to artificially inflate the difficulty for some players), but neither brought up the main way in which I feel theme affects difficulty.

Theme versus Topic

So that we’re all on the same page, I want to take a moment to touch upon theme and how it differs from topic. Theme and topic are intricately intertwined, but can still be separated. The topic of a game is the setting of the game, or what the game is about. Zombie Dice is “about” killing Zombies, that’s the topic, but the theme doesn’t go much further than that. It is not an especially thematic game – if you remove the topic entirely, or swap it out for a different one, it won’t be very noticeable. Monopoly: Spongebob Squarepants is still monopoly, despite an altered veneer.

A thematic game, on the other hand, is one where the topic/theme informs the game design or helps to clarify the decision space. My touchstone game for thematic design is Hive, because it so neatly illustrates my understanding of theme. Hive is an abstract game, both in genre and appearance. Its theme is almost totally divorced from the real world: I have never seen many species of insect collude against another many-specied army of insects. Yet, its theme is strong. Hive has many pieces which move in different ways, but I usually only have to explain the movement to beginners once or twice. Compare this to Chess, which I find is much harder for beginners to remember the movement for. This simplicity is entirely down to an excellent use of theme – the individual pieces move in ways that mimic our understanding of their real world counterparts. The bee, fat and lazy, bumbles steadily along in any direction. The grasshopper jumps in big, sudden leaps. The spider skitters around the edges of your baseboard in your house in fits and starts. The ants just pop up every dang where. The beetles aimlessly crawl up and over everything. The mosquito sucks the blood, the essence, out of other nearby creatures. Even though the topic of Hive feels no more represented than the topic of Zombie Dice, it’s thematically appropriate and aids understanding of the game’s underlying mechanisms.

How Theme Affects Difficulty

With that aside behind us, I want to look at how this understanding of theme plays into our perception of difficulty. If you want to establish whether two variables are independent, you can change one and see if the other changes, too. Similarly, if we want to know if difficulty depends on theme, we can change the theme and see what happens to difficulty.

OK, let’s take a big hairy game: Twilight Imperium (3rd Edition). Now let’s change its theme to be about baking cakes. So, we’re rival cake bakers, and we make lots of cakes that go from neighborhood to neighborhood, and sometimes we discover new neighborhoods or cake baking technology, and rival cake bakers can attack our cakes but only if they roll a certain number, and… You can kind of make it work, but it becomes a lot harder.

Let’s really stretch the boundaries of what we consider “theme”, and play a game of Pick15. The rules are pretty simple: Two players alternate choosing numbers from 1 to 9. Once a number has been picked, it can not be picked again. A player wins if the sum of three of his numbers is equal to exactly 15. The game ends in a draw if all nine numbers are exhausted and neither player has won. Go ahead and give it a shot if you have a friend (or enemy) nearby.

Now let’s play another game, one you might have heard of called Tic-Tac-Toe. Most people are gonna be better at Tic-Tac-Toe than Pick15, which is strange because they are the same exact game. This can be easily seen if you plot 1-9 in a magic square:

Magic Square Example

I would argue (lightly, with a hint of devil’s advocacy) that Pick15 and Tic-Tac-Toe are the same game with two different themes. Neither of themes are topics, per se, but they’re themes nonetheless. In my experience, people who never lose at Tic-Tac-Toe will still lose Pick15.

Theme absolutely affects difficulty, because theme is the oil that greases the gears of understanding. If a rule is intuitive and logical in the framework presented by the theme, players won’t have any trouble with it. If play is counter to common understanding of the theme, then it creates friction in the player’s mind and generates difficulty.

tags:  boardgames  theme  thematic games  ludology