I was reading some posts on a blog about video game design entitled "Theory and Principles of Game Design" by Adrian Lopez. Specifically, there was a short article he wrote about a "design flaw" in a basketball video game called "In Your Face" where he criticizes the "coin flip" animation at the beginning of the game because it's "cosmetic" - meaning the human player "always gets initial control". He said that this breaks the game's "implicit promise" to the player because what happens does not "agree with the player's expectation that a coin flip should produce random outcomes". (There are links to the articles at the end of this post if you want to go read more about some of his thoughts along these lines.)
These articles got me thinking. Specifically, with respect to the decision to play a game, when someone actively decides to sit down and invest time in learning a game that is supposedly about theme "X", but plays nothing at all like what one would expect a game about theme "X" to play like, then a virtual "promise" has been broken between the theme of the game and the player.
Usually, the more "rich" a designer wants a theme to be, the less abstract the game will be. This is because theme is often more fully developed with nuances in the game that reflect the narrative. The more nuances, the more reflective of the narrative the game play will be. However, the more nuances there are, the more "rules" there will have to be in the game in order to create a sufficiently diverse palette of game mechanics to reflect the theme to a degree that can be classified as "rich". If you want games very heavy in theme, one way to find them is to go buy one of the big-box games from Fantasy Flight. However, you'll also typically be buying a game with a much thicker rule book and with lots more exceptions to the general rules of the game for specific circumstances.
Take wargames as a genre as a further continuation of this idea that the more a theme is reinforced, the more rules are needed to support that reinforcement. With many wargames, the objective of the design is not necessary to create balanced game play. It's to recreate as much as possible a historical skirmish, battle, or war. To do that as accurately as possible, you'll see rules about landscape (with different rules governing different types of landscapes), morale considerations (with rules to govern them), different types of weapons (each with different rules governing how they work), etc.Having said all of this, for Eurogame designers, this idea of thematic reinforcement can present somewhat of a problem as Eurogames are noted for their simplicity of rules and relatively streamlined mechanics. So, how does one design a Euro-style game without creating a "promise" that will be broken once a player sits down to play the game?
I would argue that the better a designer gets at designing games, the more and more that designer thinks about ways to portray the elements and objects within his game as things that act on as much of an intuitive level as possible for the people playing the game. When people have to make huge "leaps" in logic in order to accept that something happening in the game is as the theme is describing it, then the flow of game emersion is disrupted and the fulfillment of the game experience is lessened. The same thing happens in movies when one watches an actor having to deliver very poorly written dialogue. When dialogue is identifiably bad, it will come off as phony. The cascading consequences of that are that the viewer is then immediately reminded that that is an actor on the screen, that the walls and objects in the scene are merely props, that the clothes are just costumes, and so forth. It pulls the viewer away from the story being told and reminds the viewer that it's all just an illusion. The same effect can happen with board games.
I think that one huge mistake a person can make in trying to design a Euro game is to think that it's okay to just put together mechanics and then try to figure out a theme in the aftermath. I think that a commitment to consistency within a theme will tend to drive the mechanics towards more interesting interactions than would an approach that is purely mechanic based. Thus, if someone has a cool idea for a mechanic but not a theme, my first suggestion is to commit to a theme before going much further with the mechanical development. Otherwise, you could end up with a game that, though interesting, unfortunately breaks its promise to new players once they actually start playing it.
Here are the articles I was talking about: