That’s the whole “show don’t tell” thing – if the writer tells the reader “the guy was lonely and didn’t like it” it’s not very convincing. But let the guy look around his empty apartment, flick channels on the TV, stare at his breakfast table set for one and sigh and we believe, we feel that he’s in a slump.
The same goes for games. When the theme supports the mechanics we believe in the game, we’re sucked into it, engulfed in the world and enjoy our play. But if they diverge, if they clash with one another or with our gaming styles, then our minds are jarred out of the game and leave the table disappointed.
When Theme and Mechanics clash
Here’s an example: how many avid gamers play or like Monopoly? Monopoly has a theme of buying and trading but the mechanics are about rolling the right numbers on a pair of dice. They clash with the theme, making the theme hollow.
A similar problem is inherent in Axis & Allies*, where the game doesn’t feel logical from a military or logistical point of view (attacking just to retreat and that being the best solution in the huge battle of Nazis vs Communism? Not very likely). But A&A has the toy factor going for it, and the theme is much more rooted in fiction than in reality (we’ve got tons of action movies about WWII but not very many about real estate traders) so it’s quite possible to switch off the wargaming grognard and go into “action mode” and enjoy the game nevertheless.
Or take Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition*. You’ve got a highly thematic 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate) game, a virtual copy of Master of Orion, the computer game, and with
Deathstars Warsuns, to boot. Every part of TI3 is geared towards conveying theme – every part except for one. For when you get down to it TI3 isn’t a 4X game, it’s a race game where you’re racing to be the first player to gain 10 VPs. That’s something that the entire theme goes against and since the theme is so strong the mechanic starts to feel wrong (which it isn’t as without it the game would drag on and on and on unto unplayability, unless some more thematic endgame sequence was implemented).
Theme proves Mechanics
But then you’ve got games like :Eurofront:*, 1830: Railways And Robber Barons* or Fire & Axe: A Viking Saga*, which all contain numerous interconnected mechanics overlaid but a theme, but the theme works logically with the mechanics, thus reinforcing them.
That single requirement, the logic of the theme, is the “proof”, the part that strengthens the game in terms of intuition. 1830 could easily be overlain with another theme, as could Eurofront or Axis and Allies. I’d go as far as to say that any game could be rethemed as all games are, at their core, conglomerations of abstract mechanics.
The difference is that for some sets of mechanics certain themes will be more intuitive and that intuitive grasp of the rules is what sets a successful theme apart from an unsuccessful one. This has nothing to do with the strength or popularity of the theme or property – one need only to look at Monopoly: Star Wars edition to see that – and everything with how the players perceive the mechanics in terms of it.
And since perception is individual and players are different one can’t design a strong theme without having a target audience in mind. But that’s a discussion for another time.
(* Since intuition is individual these are only examples of games that I find intuitive, just as TI3 and A&A are games that I, personally, find counter-intuitive. If you’ve got an example of a game where the theme is generally intuitive or counter-intuitive, please share it.)