As important as mechanics are, the theme of a board game is equally, if not more important. We all know examples of good board games that could be even better with a more engaging theme – and we all know games that are simply too dry and boring to be fun, regardless of their core mechanics.

On the blog today we look at some of the most common themes in tabletop gaming: why we love them, why we hate them and why they remain so popular.

There have been dozens of innovative game themes in recent years: chilli peppers (Scoville), Soviet dieselpunk (Scythe), and battling submarines (Captain Sonar) to name a few. And today many designers are creating games outside of the typical settings of board games, either by blending genres or creating entirely new ones. But for all these creative new ideas, there are plenty of worn-out tropes that just keep coming back.

First of all is a theme so common in modern media that is has become an entire genre in its own right. Zombies!!, Zombie Dice, Zombicide… like their undead antagonists the undying hoard of games with this theme seems endless. Zombies are one of the most recognisable horror villains of our modern age, and their proliferation in TV, books and films makes them incredibly easy to communicate in board games.

The faceless horde is also a convenient game mechanism for designers; each individual zombie is low in power, but in numbers they become unstoppable. If ‘Dead of Winter’ featured vampires for example, the mechanics would make no sense at all – twenty vampires would be (thematically) unstoppable! And as zombies as a theme remain a big part of our modern culture there’s no shortage of undead fans willing to try games they might not otherwise.

On another level of terrifying existential despair is Cthulhu, Arkham and the entire Lovecraft canon. So vast and unknowable that merely looking at Cthulhu drives you insane, he’s an easy metaphor for incredible power, and a ready-built super villain that acts as a sort-of devil figure that is accessible from almost any background. Lovecraft’s stories deal with beings so unimaginably powerful that humans are irrelevant and powerless to stop them. Cult rituals and terrible creatures; the perfect template for an occult theme. It feels grittier and more mature than zombies. But is the glut of Cthulhu games starting to diminish the entire mythos itself?

Transformed into just another Pandemic or Munchkin reskin, Cthulhu’s universe-shaking power is reduced to a marketing gimmick. The casual Lovecraftian clichés also gloss over the darker side of his work: the racism inherent in his worldview. A cartoon, tentacled slimy guy does no justice to either side of the Lovecraft discussion.

Much like Lovecraft’s extended universe, the work of J R R Tolkien has inspired a huge canon of work across all forms of media. For years Lord of the Rings has dominated geek culture in a way few other franchises achieve. Tolkien’s world, full of fantasy races with different skills and personalities, has been a well of inspiration for tabletop designers. It allows for easy characterisation (noble elves, grumpy dwarves) and clearly recognisable skillsets that people enjoy playing (mage, healer, fighter). Entire fantasy worlds, full of intricately constructed detail, provide plenty of escapism. Dungeons and Dragons, Talisman, Smallworld, Gloomhaven, Mage Knight – the list of high-fantasy games is long, and many rank among the most popular games around. Some of these games spin fascinating new tales around the genre, but hordes of elves, orcs and kobolds are starting to saturate the board game market. It’s time for some fresh new themes.

But not all common themes are entirely imaginary however. Japanese culture has been a steady feature of Western storytelling since the 1950s, when Godzilla and Seven Samurai were exported to enthralled US audiences. Since then, romanticized ideas of honourable, disciplined samurai have continued to be popular in mainstream culture. Combining this with instantly recognisable Japanese art styles and calligraphy, and you have the perfect theme for a game – so perfect, in fact, that it’s on the edge of overdone, with games like Samurai, Edo and Rising Sun filling up BoardGameGeek.

And finally, one of the most important themes within the board game world, and perhaps the only one that has not also features in other forms of media… trains. Trains in Europe, trains in Asia, trains in the American west. There’s seemingly no end to the board game community’s insatiable appetite for building railways. From the gateway Ticket to Ride to the hardcore 18xx game community, there’s just something about steel and steam that appeals to gamers. It’s also a very easy theme to translate to board games; all about networks and planning.

The Next Big Thing?