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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Seems Theme Can Be Important

Looking at the views expressed so far, it looks like the game has attracted some solid support. I hope that the reasons for this are evident enough to convince readers that we're not just fanboys. Still, I can't help musing on the impact the theme had on our opinions. I, for one, was willing to forgive aspects that have drawn sharp criticism from others because the design choices that were being critiqued, as I saw them, simply helped to support the theme. So, it is easier to forgive (or submerge) "little" things when the total package just seems so right.

I think a number of us may have been wondering how our fanhood affected our impressions. If I disliked the whole Middle Earth thing, would I be as easy on some of the niggling annoyances, most particularly the font on the cards? Or, on trying to fit a bunch of figs into some tiny space and also keep track of whether it was important for combat or victory point purposes? The whole design leads us roughly along the story arc of the trilogy. Knowing the story certainly helps the player accept where he is being led...but what if you don't know, or care, about the story?

Personally, I think the game design is robust and satisfying and simply benefits from having such strong thematic elements. In fact, I think the best games are those that have both strong design and theme. El Grande is generally credited with having a lot of good design hooks. Where it falls down for me is that most of them don't support the theme. Okay, I've read the design blurb and have a general idea of the timeframe and nature of the struggle in Spain that is supposedly being represented, but as I play the game I'm not being reminded of any of it. Same goes for Wallenstein. If you are going to do the Thirty Years War, shouldn't you try to have the game's timeframe roughly match the premise? A lot of "pretty good" games lack that certain something that compels you to be playing. It is why I prefer playing Settlers of the Stone Age to the original. As well as being a lot less random, it has a story to tell that you relate to as you play.

There are scarcely any hooks in WotR that don't contribute to both gameplay and theme in some way, from the use of the dice and cards, how combat works, the play of the individual leaders/characters, through to the way victory is defined. As you play, the story is unfolding. It's pretty hard to miss. Frankly, you are probably better off never having read the story than having been bored by it, because you are going to be re-living it in this game!

As for me, I enjoyed reading the story and now playing the story back through this game. Few others have done such a superb job of melding story and game together. As much as I admire and enjoy playing the board game rendering of Dune and believe it fairly captured the essence the book, I have to admit that this game does everything that game did but a great deal better!