Boardgame Basics: Theme and Setting


Theme and Setting are two aspects of many modern boardgames that might be a little strange to some at first.  Both of these ideas deal with what the game is about or is meant to represent through play.  But just to be clear, let me attach a couple of definitions to these terms:

  • Setting – the geographic location, time period, and/or imaginative environment where the game is taking place
  • Theme – the underlying premise or set of assumptions that describes what the players are supposedly doing in the game

MonopolyTo better illustrate this, let’s look at an example – Monopoly.  The setting would be 1930’s Atlantic City, and the theme is that the players are real estate barons trying to make the most money through buying, selling, and developing different streets and neighborhoods. But for many modern boardgames, theme and setting play a much more important role than they do in Monopoly.

Games tend to fall all over a spectrum when it comes to these elements.  At one end, you have games that attempt to simulate an event or activity as closely as possible, while at the other, you have a purely abstract game such as backgammon or checkers.  Of course, all games are abstractions to some level, because they are just games, and you’re not actually doing whatever the actions are.  Games that are rich in theme tend to have more complex or complicated rules, as they have several exceptions or contingencies to cover all the possibilities that might happen in that “real” situation.  Lighter themed games focus more on streamlined gameplay, glossing over most of the small details of a setting in favor of having cleaner, simpler rules.  But don’t think that lighter theme necessarily equals lighter strategic depth, because the two aren’t necessarily linked (just think about Chess and the centuries of play and study that have gone into that thinly-themed game).

Exactly what level of theme is best is totally a matter of taste.  Some people prefer games just dripping with theme and the complicated rules that go along with them, while others couldn’t care less about theme and prefer to play a game with elegant and refined mechanics.  For myself, I’m all over the place.  I tend to get into heavily-themed games a little more, but sometimes I fall in love with almost purely abstract games as well.

So when it comes to actual themes, what kinds of things am I talking about?  Traditionally, “American”-style games tend to have more of the “geeky” settings and themes, like science fiction, fantasy, and war.  German and other European games, however, usually have more historical and/or mundane themes.  More recently, though, all rules are out the window, as both traditions have started to influence each other.  So, just to give you a small idea of the many, many different themes in modern boardgames, here are a few rough categories with some examples:

War and Historical Conflict Advanced Squad Leader, Paths of Glory, Combat Commander: Europe, Hammer of the Scots, Twilight Struggle (Cold War), Conflict of Heroes, Memoir ’44

Science FictionTwilight Imperium, Battlestar Galactica, Galactic Emperor, Nexus Ops, Space Alert, Race for the Galaxy, Mission: Red Planet, Cosmic Encounter

FantasyWar of the Ring, DescentProphecy, Small World, Cutthroat Caverns, Red Dragon Inn
HorrorFury of Dracula, Arkham Horror, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Mall of Horror, Zombiegeddon, Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow

Medieval Europe Shadows Over Camelot, Caylus Magna CartaArkadiaEl Grande, Kingdoms

Renaissance Europe The Princes of FlorenceMedici, Il Principe, Oltre Mare, Patrician

Imperial Europe – Age of Empires III, Struggle of Empires, Puerto Rico, Imperial

Ancient JapanShogun, Senji, Samurai

Trains1830, Empire Builder, Steam, Chicago Express, Ticket to Ride, TransAmericaIMG_2749

Racing – Top Race, Snow Tails, Formula D, Winner’s Circle, Ave Caesar, PitchCar

Civilization BuildingAdvanced Civilization, Through the Ages, Antike, The Settlers Catan, Tigris & Euphrates

Other1960: The Making of the President (Presidential Election), Tales of theArabian Nights, Fire & Axe (Vikings), Agricola (Medieval Farming), Tribune: Primus Inter Pares (Roman Politics), Zooloretto (Zoo Building), Vegas Showdown (Casino Building), Pandemic (Fighting Diseases), Modern Art (Art Buying), Wasabi! (Sushi), Ra (Ancient Egypt)

TI_Small_TitleNext time, my Boardgame Basics series will discuss thecore ideas around game “mechanics”…

Boardgame Basics

Part 1: An Introduction to Modern Boardgames
Part 2: Game Categories
Part 3: Theme and Setting
Part 4: Game Mechanics
Part 5: The Role of Luck in Games
Part 6: Conflict and Competition


  1. Chris Ingersoll

    But don’t think that lighter theme necessarily equals lighter strategic depth, because the two aren’t necessarily linked (just think about Chess and the centuries of play and study that have gone into that thinly-themed game).

    Chess can have more theme than you suspect, but most of it has to be fabricated. When I was growing up I repeatedly checked out a book called White King, Black King from the Children’s section of my public library. It basically gave a backstory and characters to each piece, which made the game so much more fun to learn. The “Queen” was really the best warrior from the actual Queen’s home kingdom, given to her husband as a gift to help him in battle; similarly, the reason the King piece moves so slowly is that the paranoid Kings wanted to have as much armor as possible to avoid being hurt on the battlefield. Eventually the two sides settled their differences but had a board game created so they could replay their epic battle for fun.

  2. Chris Norwood

    That’s pretty cool.  A story like that would have definitely made me more interested in Chess when I was younger. 

    And do note that I said “thinly-themed” instead of “totally abstract”, because Chess does at least use medieval terminology and pretends to represent a battlefield. 

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