Oh no, not another one of these games.
There are certain themes that get used time and time again in tabletop games to the point we want to scream, enough already. Okay, some of these themes are pretty good, so just because they’re on this list doesn’t mean I hate them; this is a list of themes that saturate the tabletop game market.
You can’t swing a backpack in a hobby game store without knocking a game with one of these themes off the shelf. (Note: don’t swing a backpack in a hobby game store.) I’m going to start with a couple of honorable mentions for this list because there’s an intellectual property that gets overused—and it doesn’t quite fit with the other themes on this list—and European games have their own overused theme that you don’t see too much of in North American games.
With that out of the way, let’s get to it.
Most Overused Intellectual Property
Prequels notwithstanding, I love Star Wars. It only makes this short list because there’s a Star Wars everything, and it’s going to get worse over the next few years. Carcassonne: Star Wars Edition? Yeah, there was one released this year, and it’s a good game. Risk: Star Wars? Ditto, but it’s not Risk. Risk: Star Wars has to make my list of worst names for a tabletop game. Casual gamers will see Risk and get disappointed it’s not Risk, while hard-core tabletop gamers will avoid the title because it has Risk in the title, when it’s a game designed for them: you’re working as a team to blow up the second Death Star. Awesome. If you search Star Wars board game (card game or collectable game) in Google, you’ll find hundreds of thousands of results, so it belongs on this list.
Most Overused Theme in European Games (Eurogames)
I got back into tabletop gaming with Catan and Ticket to Ride. The latter is a train game, so I have a soft spot for a particular train game, but every time a new Eurogame comes out, there’s a fifty-fifty chance the theme will be trains. This time it’s different. This time you lay down plastic train tracks instead of train cars. In this other game, you push cubes, representing passengers, from one station to the next. This train game uses cards, while this other one uses dice so it’s completely different. North American game developers use familiar themes to rope in sales, but European game developers are just as guilty. Still, I like Ticket to Ride, Steam, and a handful of other tabletop games that focus on trains.
With those two themes out of the way let’s get to the game themes that did make the Top 5.
5) Infiltrators (Spies and Hackers)
This theme isn’t as ubiquitous as the others on this list—that’s why it’s number five—but any game that features the hidden information game mechanism usually uses a spy, hacker, or similar theme. Spy and hacker games are fun and so is hidden information as a game mechanism, but we see a lot of these types of games and the theme is branching out into other game types (ones that don’t focus on hidden information). There are some amazing games that use this theme—Twilight Struggle is a great Cold War simulation game—but this theme gets overused.
Say it ain’t so. Say it ain’t so. It’s so. I like superheroes and I like superhero games, but they’re everywhere. Are you making a collectible game of any persuasion (cards, dice, or miniatures)? You’ve got to have a superhero variant. Deck building games are popular, so we have multiple superhero versions of that game type. Even worker placement games, a game type used primarily by Eurogames, has a North American superhero version: Batman: the Strategy Game. Actually, Batman: the Strategy Game is a darn good worker placement game but it throws you off with its title: you’re playing as Batman’s rogues. There are a lot of good to great superhero games, but superhero games are Starbucks.
This is hard to admit but I like this theme too and it gets overused. Eldrich Horror, Arkham Horror, Elder Sign, Call of Cthulhu, Munchkin Cthulhu, and Cthulhu Dice are all good games—in their own way—but the fact that I can rattle off six successful titles with this theme means Cthulhu is overdone, and this success causes more game designers to come out with a new Cthulhu flavor each month. It’s almost as if tabletop games want to recite the ancient rites until the Old Gods return to Earth.
2) High Fantasy
This theme almost doesn’t belong on this list, except that it does. I’ll try to make more sense. High fantasy shows up a lot in games (so it’s an overused theme), but it’s such a broad theme that it encompasses Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Dungeons and Dragons, the King Arthur mythos, and even Harry Potter. How many games have these themes? A lot. And there are more games that use a generic high fantasy theme in addition to these games. Remember that backpack you’re not supposed to swing in a hobby game store? Yeah, that backpack would knock over hundreds of high fantasy games. High fantasy, as a theme, physically shows up in tabletop games more often than any other theme, and yet it isn’t our number one.
Zombies, ugh. Zombies—like Star Wars starting off this list—have a new horde of games every month. They haven’t overtaken high fantasy as the number one used theme in games, but the reason zombies are atop this list (of overused themes) is that I could pick up any 50 high fantasy games and find 25 to 40 playable games—not good or great games, playable—and then I could pick up any 50 zombie games and find only 8 or 9 playable games. Warning: if a tabletop game has Walking Dead in the title, you should use it for kindling. Walking Dead games epitomize most tabletop games that use the zombie theme: they suck, and the designers don’t care. But there are some exceptions to this rule.
I can’t recommend Dead of Winter enough—it’s the best zombie themed game by far and better captures the feel of The Walking Dead—and there are a handful of other zombie game standouts (Zombie Dice for a light press your luck game, Last Night on Earth for a cinematic game, and Run, Fight or Die for an adrenaline kick) but for the most part, zombie game designers believe their customers are as brain dead as their subject matter.