Game theme is a highly subjective game attribute, but I think theme is part of the immersion of a game.
Immersion is when the game stops being rules, wooden bits, cards, cardboard, and so on and becomes something more. RPGs seem to be inherently thematic and immersive.
Without immersion you are just sitting around a table talking and rolling dice (not much of a "game" there isn't even a winner); RPGs are enjoyable games because of the immersion. And they acchieve this immersion via theme (plus social aspect of game).
Game theory seems to be unable to fully describe RPGs, but narrative theory does deal with RPGs. The more narrative based a game is the more each move in the game can be narrated.
Industrial Waste is very much a game theory game, but it also has some narrative. Each move is fairly dry. For example:
I recently played a two player game of Industrial Waste. I was the yellow company and my opponent was red. The red company's logo is NiN (industrial bands for industrial waste).But at a high level:
I went second. Action cards were dealt face up into 3 piles of three cards each (no duplicates allowed in a pile). The opposing company, NiN, picked up a pile containing Growth, Innovation, and Order. I took the pile with Order, Raw Materials, and Waste Removal.
NiN played growth moving up to 15 million Euros for a completed order (game ends once a company reaches 20 on the growth track).
I played my raw materials card to auction off 5 goods. The auction in this game goes once around the table. NiN bid 5 million Euros and I raised it to 6 million winning the auction. Since I called the auction and won the 6 million went to the bank. If I'd let NiN get the goods, I would have taken their 5 million bid for myself (person who starts the auction gets the money).
I played Industrial Waste again. I warned the other player repeatedly about the disadvantages of non-stop pollution in the game, but he filled up all of his waste storage area, and couldn't run his factory any more. He tried bribes to keep things quiet after pollution related accidents plagued his plant, but all the money wasted on bribery plus the inability to produce put him in a poor position for the end game.Chess and Go are immersive because of the level of thought involved, but there's no real narrative (hence, no theme from my point of view). Theme isn't critical for an enjoyable game.
A well themed game is one where you can tell a story about what happened afterwards, and that's inherently immersive for me.