One of my favorite exercises is to imagine a game if all theme has been stripped away. Replace everything with white and black abstract symbols and simple geometric shapes. Would it still evoke the theme? In this case the only place the theme could come from is the dynamics inherent in the mechanic. This is my test for how essential the theme of a game is to its mechanic (dubbed the "Blank Art" test).

Stripping the Theme

One of the most common criticism of a game is that the theme is "pasted on". You hear this all the time in game forums (usually about a Feld game). Even when it has an extravagant theme like Luna or AquaSphere (which may have been motivated by the criticisms about the lack of theme!) it still gets accused of being "pasted on". Why?

I feel it is because these games would generally fail the Blank Art test. The most amazing art in the world means nothing if it doesn't have some relationship to what people are doing in the game. Conversely, bad or minimal art can be amazing when synchronized with what the players are actually doing.

Luna and AquaSphere (both of which are really enjoyable games by the way) have elaborate and even fantastical art. If all of that art were stripped away these games would still be enjoyable (because the mechanics are masterfully designed), but they would never evoke the idea of being an aspiring Moon priestess or exploring and harvesting from an underwater laboratory.

Eklund takes the Blank Art Test

There are some other notable games where the reverse is true. One of my other favorite game designers, Phil Eklund, makes some of the most intricate games known to man. Criticized for being overly complex and fiddly, if you spend enough time with them there is something magical going on in his games. Take Bios Megafauna. You play a biological Order over geological time scales, speciating, adapting and competing with other animals in a fluctuating world of hazard and extinction. Tectonic plates shift, volcanoes spew greenhouse gasses, and biomes wink in and out of existence.

Daunting to learn, this game can seem chaotic and brutal. But if you stripped away all of the art and wildly specific flavor text (hindgut digestion? Dentition contests?) and played it long enough, I think you would end up guessing the original theme with uncanny accuracy. Questions like "Why when I expand on the board can I send one of my existing shapes or start a new one? Why do the letters on these cards let me occupy the spaces on the board with those same letters? Why when I use a new shape can I give it some of the letters from the shape I am expanding from? Why when certain cards flip over do the areas on the map shift up and down?" Countless details like this would eventually lead the curious game player to something like evolution, speciation, adaptation and tectonic drift. Every detail mixed into this elaborate mechanic is there for one reason: to evoke the experience of what it would be like to look out the eyes of an entire biological Order over millions of years in a constantly shifting and brutally unforgiving world. Now THAT is a theme.

His other games have a similar quality. In Greenland I feel like I am fighting for survival in a barren and inhospitable wasteland, struggling with other cultures over meager resources. And High Frontier is so close to feeling like actual rocket science that I am almost tempted to apply to NASA simply on this merit alone.

You can tell this is the ethic he brings to bear when designing a game. He is trying to evoke an experience through the mechanics themselves, then makes some art to support it, not just picking some art to go with a cool mechanic he made in a narrative vacuum (however cool that mechanic turns out to be!).

The Significance of the Blank Art Test

A game clearly does not need to pass the Blank Art test to be a great game. The whole genre of abstract games embraces Blank Art as a medium unto itself, so it is certainly not required. What mechanics that support a theme really provide is another dimension of enjoyment to a game, a relationship to something outside of the game itself that allows the players to truly imagine themselves as part of a world of their own imagination. When done well, the theme and mechanics create a work of art that can be inhabited and interacted with, something a painting alone, no matter how astounding, could never be.