Game designs discussions, especially around board games, often round the corner of comparing the value of theme versus mechanisms. Well, I say we've been using the word "theme" wrong. I posit that what we really mean to say is setting, not theme. So, what's the difference?
In the classic false dichotomy of theme versus mechanisms, we often lump in the location or era of the game under the umbrella of "theme", and everything that makes the game a game under "mechanisms". This is pretty unique to our industry as other media, like literature or film, refer to time and place as a story's setting. The setting establishes the where and when. On the other hand, when you are asking about a story's themes, you are, rather, asking about what it explores about the human condition, its motifs and ideas. Clerks isn't a movie about a convenience store, that is the movie's setting, the movie is about growing up, moving on and taking responsibility for one's own actions, those are its themes. Why then do we lump everything that isn't the functional mechanisms of a game under the umbrella of theme? I think it conceptually makes sense in people's minds. It's an easy division to make, the game play versus the chrome, the mechanisms versus the theme. I would suggest, though, that by not distinguishing between a game's setting and a game's theme, we may well be limiting our discourse about what a games can say, as a medium. Take Brenda Romero's game Train. The setting is Europe, in World War II, but the themes it explores are so much more complex and thought provoking. Themes such as the value of human life, the detached nature of following orders and the tragedy of genocide.
Now, just as all movies and books don't need to be gut wrenching windows to the atrocities of the world, neither do all games need to hold a mirror up to our inner most demons. Games excel at delighting and challenging us, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I do think, that as designers, we could benefit from this distinction between setting and themes. By thinking of themes as a distinct aspect of games, it should help us define and identify them in our designs and to find ways in which the mechanisms can help bolster those themes rather than play counter to them. Take a game like Tikal, where the jungle setting and the tile drawing mechanism both feed into the exploration theme, or The Settles of Catan where the themes of capitalism and competitive cooperation emerge from the setting of settling a new-world island and the mechanism of resource trading .
So, as you find yourself pondering your next great game, take the time to ask yourself which themes you might want your players to explore through game play and see how your setting and mechanisms can help those themes emerge.