If you’ve been reading this blog recently, you already know that I’m a sucker for a good theme. As I’m a big Rick and Morty fan, I can’t wait for the Rick and Morty games from Cryptozoic, and as a reader and watcher of Game of Thrones I can imagine myself playing Clue: Game of Thrones in my future.
But I’m not alone. The success of Star Trek Catan stems from the simple fact that if you smack Star Trek on Settlers of Catan, Catan lovers will buy what is essentially the same game all over again; also, Star Trek lovers will buy it, just like they’ve bought many other things with Star Trek branded upon them. Imagination isn’t everything—to be honest, imagination isn’t even material—but as it is an immense collection of shared universes that unifies and motivates the intelligences that move the material world, it is very important. And it would be naive to assume that since Settlers of Catan and Star Trek Catan play nearly identically that they are the same game. Each affects the imagination in a different way.
I have an antipathy toward the zombie and vampire craze, which makes me less than enthused to play Zombie Dice, but I could play several rounds of Doctor Who: Dalek Dice. Yes, Zombies chant “Brains!” and Daleks chant “Exterminate!” but to me that is a world of difference, as to me zombies connote soft stories full of tiny holes and nasty (yes, those words could also be used to describe rotten Twinkies), and Daleks connote the inspiring interconnected and optimistic universe of think-pieces that is Doctor Who.
I’m not really interested in playing Carcassonne, but I had a good time playing Star Wars Carcassonne. Like four sevenths of the Star Wars movies, I found it deeply flawed, but much of this was due to the elements borrowed from Carcassonne, and not those imported from Star Wars. Star Wars Carcassonne wisely borrowed from the best of the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back, for its character cards: Boba Fett, Yoda, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Stormtrooper. They didn’t pick the more alienating mix of Ewok, “It’s a Trap!” Akbar, Jabba, Ghost Kenobi, and Emperor, because the makers of this iteration of Carcassonne knew the power of a good or bad theme to attract or repel buyers. They chose Star Wars in its best incarnation to represent Star Wars Carcassonne. A change of theme requires a redesign, not just a reprint, so it’s important to get it right the first time.
Even on a more general level, theme is vitally important, which is why Settlers of Catan isn’t called Manure Spreaders of Catan. When developing a theme from scratch, game developers, whether they go for the archetypal or the abstruse, arrive at some compelling theme. Sometimes game themes aim at primal themes like settling places or conquering them, and other times the theme is very specific, such as Takenoko‘s theme of pandas in bamboo fields. The good theme captures the user’s attention for the game duration, so that the repetitive action in the game does not become monotonous.
More often than not these original themes are just as evocative as the themes that are licensed. Sometimes the original context of a game has a sway over its players, which may explain why we’ve only played Star Trek Catan once in our gaming group compared to dozens of times playing some version of Settlers. Speaking for myself, I admire the design of Star Trek Catan, but I would prefer to revisit the original island or its expansions than to play in the final frontiers of Star Trek Catan.
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