About Look & Feel
I sincerely belief that look and feel is at least 50% of game. Let's try to give some examples. Consider a standard card game, actually, there is not much more to the game than 4 colors and 13 different cards per color. Now here are some examples of how that can look:
Maybe you don't like inventors, bombers and/or Chinese movies, but I bet there is a card game out there with a theme you do like and once you have discovered it, you will buy it, even though you have already maybe 10 sets of cards at home. Even more interesting: you may want to play with that set in the future alone, because it's YOUR card set: it suits you.
The same goes for the many Chess games, varying from fantasy to star wars to Disney.
One should note however, that neither Chess nor a regular card set is copyrighted. So the only way to make money on chess, other then selling the regular Staunton set is come up with diverse figures.
This piece of 'KITCH' (capital letters) is something you have to experience I guess (Greek Mythodoly Set). Kitsch is something that really has entered the Chess scene, there are many really obnoxious chess sets. But apparently there is a market for it. But I guess a 'true' Chess player would only play with a Stauton set and regular game board. Any other set will only be bought for the theme and/or out of collectors point of view. Only a few beginners would buy a 'themed' set as starter set with a reasoning such as 'If I have to play chess, then only with a .... set' (or just because they like the atmosphere (hey, you can't help it that you are Star Wars fan, can you)).
Now, talking about bringing back to basics, you could easily make Chess more abstract by replacing the several figures by simple coins, numbered 1 to 7, just black and white counters: for the game itself, it wouldn't make much difference, would it?
Nevertheless, many games these days could be brought down to simple basics, just the mechanics. Leaving out the atmosphere of the game however can really ruin a game. I've mentioned this before, an interesting analysis is done by Andrew Hardin, by breaking down the game Magic the Gathering. His conclusion: the theme is paramount: without the wizards, dragons and all other fantasy ingredients, the game looks quite silly.
The same goes for a game like Tikal, here again the game could be stripped down to mechanics and would be become absolutely silly, but the theme in combination with the look&feel breathes exploration and adventure. Nevertheless, the complete design including the many wooden counters make this game one of its kind, especially the art of the board and tiles. You are really about to explore an ancient civilization.
The most exiting example of a game that could be brought down to a simple game is Warhammer, there is no reason why the game can not be played with simple tokens. The atmosphere of Warhammer is probably even more appealing than the game itself, watching all the effort put into converting and painting all the individual models (my apologies to all the Warhammer fans). As a matter of facts, Games Workshop itself probably makes more money (if not 90%) from the miniatures (that set the scene) than actually selling the games themselves (that is probably the reason not publishing the old games anymore).
Another interesting game, just to state my point, is the game Witch Hunt. It's a very simple card game, but the pictures and atmosphere are key here. The fact that playing cards can mean as much as accusing your best friend to be a witch and get hanged for it, which makes it a very funny game (esp. given the cartoon on the cards), does not mean that game is not just much more than Rock-Scissors-Paper, because it simply isn't. The same goes for German cards games such as Uno and Wizard, which can be played with a regular card deck. Nevertheless, both sell very well, thanks to the atmosphere and art on the cards.
The most interesting L&F aspects are derived from games that are 'completely different'. There are many different examples, varying from simple to comples. A games such as Set! is very simple, but 'breath' quality. Lord of the Rings (Knizia) is more complex game, but breathes quality as well. There is not just one game bord involved here but 5 (well, actually 3, but 2 of them can be use on either side). Next to that, the art, the pawns, the box itself, the counters, the (oversized) rulebook, everything breathes quality, as a game, that refers to the books of Tolkien, should. Whether you like the game itself or not, there is no way you can't deny that the game has quality.
Quality of the look&feel
Note, it's not just the theme element that make a good look&feel, but also the quality of components. A game like Trivial Pursuit breathes quality, not just the game mechanics are very good and worked out very well, the game as a whole breathes quality, no matter if you like the game or not. And let's face, there is not much 'theme' in the game Trivial Pursuit itself.
Many German games come with lots counters as well these days, but I noticed that most of these games use wood instead of plastics. And I must say, it give a 'quality' look to these games.
If a game uses pawns, their layout and material is crucial. Personally, I prefer pewter or other metal, the main reason is that they don't fly over the table is someone get up to get a drink or something, but the again, plastic is more cheaper.
L&F related to the background story of the game
A number of games really set a background to the theme. If you look at Colditz for instance, this game is based on escaping from a German prison camp in WWII. The mechanics are typicall 'collecting' and 'racing'. The historical background is a nice theme for a game, but besides that, the game is companioned by a booklet from one of the survivors explaining the 'real life' situation back in the 40's and its relation with the game (He tell his >REAL< life, as this actually happened). Now, many fantasy / SF war games come with complete books as background story (I guess the most trivial story for fantasy battles is Tolkien's 'Lord of the Ring'). Games Workshop publishes, next to its games and miniatures, a line of Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K books. And in some cases, these books are, on their turn, companioned by a war scenario.
Also, many card games (CCG's in particular) come with flavor text (left to right: Magic The Gathering, Redemption, The Last Crusade).
stating (left to right):
In this case, the cards are refering to some none existing fantasy book (just to tickle your fantasy I guess), the Bible (Genesis 6:2) and some generic information about the tank that is represented by this card.
Background stories and look&feel sometimes become really stupid, when the game relates to something familiar, such a TV serie. Should I mention the A-Team or other out dated TV series? The good (or maybe bad) news is, these game never made it long-term, not because the mechanisms were usually pretty poor, but also as the TV series lost audience, the games were doomed too.
The most amazing (not in the most positive sense) L&F I came across was the Collectable Card Game Tombraider (remember Lara Croft?). The pictures on the cards were actually taken from the computer game... Should I mention that it wasn't a smash hit? Neeeeh: the computer game was much better.
Look & Feel of the box
There is a trend of better and more efficient games boxes. Every game you bought, let's say 20 years ago, is now about to fall apart. Next to that, if you open the box, you will propably find a complete mess of counters, cards, dices and so on. If you look at Tikal, you will find a highly efficient box, where all the pieces fit nicely. The same goes for the late Hasbro version of Aquire. Lord of the Ring (Knizia version) is another example of the quality box.
The only problem you have with quality boxes is that they cost money. So, from a manufacturers point of view, if they are not sure if the game sell at all, why invest in a expensive box at all? This tells you: an good box has more chance to carry a good game than a poor box (this is not always true though!), it tells you that the manufacturer has high expectations of the game.
Look & Feel of the board
Some players just can't play a game, if the board is up side down. If a game of Monopoly is played by 4 persons on a square table, each player can read his closest sided. Some other games, like Elfenland or Risk have a definite up and down side. Some players feel that playing on the 'right' side give advantages (they can read what's on the board). In some cases people struggle on the color of pawns that they want to play. (hilarious note: in the newsgroup rec.games.board it was noted that especially women want to play on the side where you can read the text on the board, in addition the color RED was favorite as it indicated speed, violence and agression). In some cases, the order of playing / position related to the board is of major importance (junta).
Is there a boys-girls thing when it comes to L&F?
Yes, there is. What I have noticed from the players I know, is that boys are far more attracted to games that come with loads of stuff. Ever seen a girl play Warhammer? Any GW game then? Maybe you have (and you got married to her), but that would be an exception (for the record, I'm no exception).
Apparently boys like to complicate things, by adding lots of detail (counters, miniatures, etc) to a game, while girls like to keep thing straight (I don't want to say 'simple', because the game themselves (the mechanic) does not need to be simple). And as mentioned earlier, women tend to enjoy socializing games more than men, so actually they usually don't give much about L&F.
But maybe I'm wrong.