Why I Love Thematic Board Games

A reflection inspired by Legendary Encounters

The devastating Chestburster card

“The aliens won’t attack me as long as that — that thing is inside of me. There’s no reason the rest of you can’t get out alive if I can just kill whatever spawned it. I just have to — *cough* — hurghhlthud

A last-ditch effort at victory, cut short by a twist of fate. An attempt at self-sacrifice ultimately thwarted by the untimely demise of one our heroes. No catharsis, no hope for salvation. Just a punishing, devastating ending to what was otherwise a promising mission. All of this, brought out of nothing more than a shuffling of cards, a bad draw, and stunned silence.

This is the core of thematic gaming — the stories that arise from the intermingling of gameplay and theme, a synthesis that can inspire, devastate, or astound. But let me back up a bit.

Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game is a cooperative deckbuilder by Upper Deck where players take control of various characters from the Alien films and set out against missions, enemies, and challenges also drawn from the quadrilogy. As with other deckbuilding games, players start out with a set of very basic cards and have to continually add more potent cards to their decks in order to be able to overcome greater and greater challenges, in this case culminating with a showdown with the big alien baddie du jour. In a very short time, I’ve become very passionate about how well-done this game is, and how well it represents this particular brand of tabletop gaming.

Some background: The somewhat unwieldy name results from this actually being a “spin-off” from Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game. Legendary’s mechanics are very similar, even interchangeable in many circumstances. 1–5 players assemble decks, purchase cards that correspond to various superheroes to improve said decks, fight the bad guys, and ultimately try to throw down against whatever supervillain has decided that this time, their devious plans are bound to work. Delving into the differences between the two is how I intend to make the case for truly thematic, story-rich gaming.

The first addition that fundamentally changes the feel of the game is that Encounters gives players Avatar cards. Each with their own specialization, hit point totals, and card art, you immediately form a connection — you’re not some guy doing some administrative work for a superhero group, you’re a Commander in the thick of it with his troops, you’re a Scout doing reconaissance, you’re an adaptable, Synthetic jack-of-all-trades.

This also ties into the way damage is dealt with. In Legendary, you receive Wound cards which gum up your deck by being dead weight in a game where every draw is crucial. This is a very common mechanic in deckbuilding games, and can even make some thematic sense — our heroes are not fighting at their full capacity, not able to contribute as well because of their injuries.

This is actually among the tamer art for Strike cards

But Encounters develops a system that feels much more raw, much more visceral. Part of that is certainly the gory card art, which does not shy away from blood and guts one whit (hey, it says 17+ on the box). It’s more than that, though. The strikes don’t go into the deck of a player who has some tenuous connection to the action of the superheroes. They stack up next to your avatar, forcing you to try to heal them or end up dead if you get enough of them. For real dead, out of the game dead, toss your cards in the “dead characters” pile because you are done.com kind of dead.

Again, this adds personal stakes to the proceedings — you’re not just playing a suboptimal deck because some trash cards are messing things up, your character is being seriously injured or possibly even killed because of the violent onslaught. There’s a creeping sense of doom as the Strikes accumulate, and desperation starts to influence your character’s actions.

To bring it back to the start, by far the best example of Encounters having a pitch-perfect grasp of theme are the Facehugger and Chestburster cards.

Gah!

The Facehugger often comes out of nowhere: it can be part of the scenario, can be spawned by an Egg card, or even gained from the Strike deck. Once it appears, a timer starts. You have exactly this turn and the next to kill the monster, or things are going to end violently for you. Anyone who knows the Alien universe knows exactly how this goes down. And in many cases, them being relatively weak opponents, you can handle the surprise.

But not always. And if, for whatever reason you can’t kill it in that timeframe, a new clock starts ticking. The Chestburster card goes into your deck. Every turn you have to draw a new hand, knowing that it’s only a matter of time until the Chestburster comes up, a xenomorph tears through your ribcage, and the character you’ve spent so long developing is dead. If you’re playing with the alien player variant, you can even return as the very xenomorph who killed your player, now working against your former comrades.

That’s how the story from the beginning comes about. A Scout in a game I was playing had gained a Chestburster card, and knew it was only a matter of time before it was over. But the other aliens ignored him (why would they want to harm their incubator?) so in some ways he was actually faring better than the rest of the crew. He had one final turn and needed just a single card to finish off the final enemy. You can guess which card he drew instead.

This story, of the crew doomed to die by a devastating twist of fate, is as clear and vibrant in my mind as almost anything shown in the actual movies. Certainly more interesting than anything that happens in Resurrection. You can almost see the slow-motion as he drops to his knees, horror in his eyes, and he realizes it’s all over. None of them are getting out alive. Roll credits.

Wow, this got dark. Hey look, it’s the Alien parody from Space Balls!

“Hello, my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime-gallllll!” Adorable. Ok. Let’s recalibrate.

I don’t want to give the impression that “thematic” necessarily means “dark” or “violent”. For me, thematic gaming is all about capturing the essence of a property in a way that also makes for good gameplay. Everything I’ve said up to this point works because the Alien film series is itself very dark and violent. They focus on the development of the characters, establishing relationships among the various crews. They have the crew run up against seemingly-impossible odds. The crew fights to the very end, but any victories are Pyrrhic at best. Mostly everyone dies. Mostly.

So, we’ve seen how key changes can make a spin-off game like Encounters actually work much better as a thematic experience than its parent game. But there are certainly other ways to incorporate theme. Another of my favorites is by capturing memorable characters from fiction and perfectly attuning their mechanics to them.

Lord of The Rings: The Card Game by Fantasy Flight Games is also a great example of a thematic game, though I admit I’ve fallen a bit behind because the Living Card Game model tends to keep marching and leave all but the most fanatical in the dust. But it does a spectacular job of distilling the characters from Lord of the Rings into playable, interesting cards.

Take Frodo, for instance. You don’t need to know the nitty-gritty details of the game to grasp the fundamentals of his ability. If Frodo is about to be damaged, you can cancel it by raising your threat. In this game, threat represents the attention of Sauron, and too much of it will end the game completely. So, we have Frodo able to evade injury or combat by using the Ring, but doing so can have devastating long-term consequences as the Eye of Sauron’s attention focuses more and more on the players. The temptation to use the Ring is ever-present, and it may even be strictly necessary at times. But it’s always dangerous. Perfect.

I should also point out that it’s not necessary that thematic games be licenses of some kind. Space Alert is a great example of a thematic game that’s a sort of tongue-in-cheek take on generic sci-fi tropes. Flash Point: Fire Rescue gets at the hurried desperation of firefighters trying to save people from a burning building (or airplane, subway, laboratory, even submarine).

And although my tastes tend towards the cooperative, that’s not a necessary part of thematic gaming either. Many of the most popular take the one-vs-many approach like Descent, Mansions of Madness, or the red-hot Star Wars: Imperial Assault. The number one ranked thematic game on BoardGameGeek is (and maybe always will be) War of the Ring, pitting one player’s Sauron against the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth.

No, the core of thematic gaming is immersion. It’s getting lost in the characters, in the universe, in the spirit of the game. It’s when the mechanics fit so perfectly, you see exactly how the designers have fit the pieces together to create a larger whole. It’s when the game gives you constant opportunities for big moments that you want to share with your friends, or post about online, or maybe write long-winded articles about. The best thematic games hook you with their links to properties or genres you love, and keep you with the ability to delve more and more deeply into them.

And damn, do I love ‘em.

BoardGameGeek’s list of the top Thematic games