Chess, Draughts, Cribbage, Bridge, Go and many other traditional games are completely abstract in nature. Yes, sure, there is a theme in Chess. There are two fighting armies facing each other in the battlefield, and it makes sense for the peasants, i.e. the pawns, forming the biggest part of the army and being the most dispensable – but it pretty tenuous when it comes to how these pieces move. Draughts, on the other hand, is a completely abstract game of course. Many traditional games have great depth and complexity, showing that there is no need for a theme in a good game. So let’s explore this some more.

I have mentioned it before, in my article How important is theme for tabletop games?, that theme is very important to me in tabletop games. I’m a very visual person, so when the gameplay is presented clearly in a visual fashion, then it makes it easier for me to learn and play. Theme is not just illustrations, graphics and design of course. The background story and overall concept of the game is also a part. Again, I feel if the overall story nicely meshes with the game’s mechanisms, then it’s also easier to learn and play. However, that’s just me.

Many people don’t care about theme. They are interested in the mechanisms, or the complexity and depth of a game instead. The overall gameplay is what matters, and not the beautiful illustration, graphics, design, lore or background story. Of course, I would never say that theme alone is what’s important in a game. Everything has to come together for a game to be great, and everyone will put different importance on different things to decide what games they like.

Abstract games are still very popular. In fact, a lot of classic games are internationally well known and played in global competitions. They often have a huge following, and professional players receive a lot of training to help them become the next champion, very much like you find in sports. Modern abstract games don’t tend to be treated in quite the same way. In fact, I would argue there are very few modern abstract games.

A lot of recent games had to give in to the pressure of the market, which expects stunningly beautiful illustrations, amazingly detailed miniatures, custom tokens, metal coins, a detailed and intricate storyline and a lot of other things that don’t actually add anything to the gameplay, even though they clearly improve table presence and player experience.

It is often these additions that drive up the price of modern boardgames, even though there are other factors of course. If you look at some of the cheaper modern games, you will find they are often more abstract. There are plenty of very simple card games out there that cost around a tenner and are very abstract, even if they do often still have a theme and nice illustrations, because they want to cater for the modern gamer’s appetite. A deck of cards and a good set of rules can create a very complex and deep abstract game.

Of course, many traditional abstract games can also be very expensive. Just look at the price of a nice Chess set. Yet, you can easily get a cheap set that works just as well – and that seems to be the point of many abstract games. It doesn’t take much in the way of game boards or pieces, because the focus is on the rules, which create the complexity. Even relatively simple abstract games, like Mankala, actually have a lot of complexity and depth to them – and Mankala just needs some indentations in the ground and some pebbles and you can play.

So abstract games are a very complex beast – excuse the pun. Even though I find them harder to wrap my brain around, it is not surprising that they are so popular and long lasting. Themes change, as society and contexts change, but rules remain very much unchanged. Abstract games don’t need a theme, so they remain unchanged and will still be around in decades, if not centuries, to come.

What is your view on abstract games? Do you like the focus on mechanisms and rules? Or do you prefer a theme to fully enjoy a game? Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

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