So far, most of my readership has consisted of my friends. Maybe there’s some boardgaming bigwig who’s reading this (fingers crossed!), but if they are, they aren’t coming in droves. Most of my friends enjoy playing games, but they aren’t really hobbyists, and because of that I wanted to lay down some context for the sort of games I’ll be talking about.
Broadly speaking, most games I talk about can be divided into one of two key categories. While there are other genres and countless sub-genres, of these will either be Eurogames or Ameritrash. I wanted to give some background on these categories for those who aren’t already steeped in the hobby.
Eurogames are so-called because the design philosophy has originated in Europe, usually Germany. They started coming into the picture in the USA during the mid-1990’s, particularly with the release of The Settlers of Catan in English. As it turns out, Germany has had a thriving board game industry for some 30 years now, even to the point where board games are given reviews in local newspapers. The German Game of the Year (Spiel des Jahres) is the biggest board game award in the world these days, and many game gun for it throughout Europe, and increasingly, the United States.
From a design standpoint, there are a few common threads, though note that all of these are generalizations. First off, Euros tend to be shorter in length, usually no more than 90 minutes. Many games are actually designed to be as short and accessible as possible. Because of time constraints, the games often contain a large amount of abstraction. By this, I mean that a game about colonizing the New World might have no actual combat, but instead use an auction or some other bidding process. Most Euros will utilize a couple of these systems (referred to as “mechanics”) and create a short, straightforward game. Euros also tend to emphasize planning ahead of luck, at least in theory. The final key thing is a tendency towards indirect confrontation, where players won’t typically be able to directly attack each other. Blocking and board position will often come into play, but it’s the rare Euro game that will start a fight between you and your friends, like those old games of Monopoly.
Obviously, there are some big advantages to these types of games, particularly when compared to the old Axis and Allies type of games popular amongst hobbyists in the US in the 1980s and early 1990s. Turns are shorter, there is some solid strategy in a short amount of time, and it’s a lot easier to get your mom to play a laid-back game of Carcassonne than it is a six-hour game of Risk. For several years now, Euros have dominated the hobbyist board game market.
There are some big downsides though. AFter playing a lot of Euros, it’s easy to feel like you’re just doing little exercises without any connection to a sense of fun or looseness. The low-luck factor usually presents some big problems. An experienced player will routinely crush a new player, and the game will often become samey after 5-10 plays, since there isn’t always enough luck or complexity to keep the game unpredictable. In recent years, Euros have moved away from the family-friendly origins they had, and started moving to more complex games that are no less abstract. As a rule, games like this can be dreadfully dull, an impenetrable fog of auctions, repetitive turns, and brain-burning strategy.
Ameritrash games tend to head in the opposite direction. When Catan displaced the old guard back in 1995, it took a number of years before big sprawling American designs were able to start regaining ground. If you ask me, the turning point here was the epic release of War of the Ring in 2004, a huge sprawling game with lots of rules and dice rolls that ended up being an enormous hit with the very people who had turned to Euros. Players were taken with the sweeping epic feel of the game, where copious rules were used to make a player feel like they were taking part in the sweeping Tolkien novel.
Most AT games share three things in common: theme, theme, and theme. Theme comes before everything in the AT realm. If a game is about killing orcs to save an elf, then it had better actually feel like you are killing orcs to save an elf. To achieve this, AT games often require a lot of rules to do what they want to do. The other key quality is an abundance of luck, usually in the form of good old-fashioned dice. The logic here is the creation of an unpredictable, and therefore more exciting atmosphere. Ameritrash will usually take quite a while to play, often 3 hours or more. Not only that, but competition tends to rule the roost. Often, this can take the form of what’s called the “metagame.” This refers to the different political things that happen in a game that aren’t explicitly in the rules, like those double-dealing alliances in a game of Risk, or the mistrust in Battlestar Galactica.
A really well-done Ameritrash game is pretty exhilerating. If everything clicks in the game design, it can be very absorbing to spend an evening fighting monsters and rolling dice. The presence of luck can often make for a game that keeps you on your toes for a good long time. Because of the randomness, a lot of laughs are to be had from rotten luck. And with the right people, some good cutthroat competition is a great way to make a memorable night. The most memorable game nights I’ve had have come from epic game sessions of games like Descent and Cosmic Encounter.
The downside to this is that the games tend to be a lot more player-dependent. If you are playing with people who don’t like conflict, or just can’t understand that the game may not be about strategy, then you will be in for a long night. And sometimes, you just don’t want to take a long time to play a game. You don’t always have three free hours, you know? The biggest problem though is the price. The increased levels of theme usually require a lot of slick artwork and nice plastic pieces (as opposed to Euros, which are often content to use wooden cubes), and if the game has a ton of cards included, the price will often edge up towards $80. This year has seen two mainstream AT titles (Runewars and Horus Heresy) that retailed for $100.
At this point, the two genres rarely stay seperate. It’s not uncommon to see a simple, straightforward game that takes an hour that is also about killing each other by rolling dice. (Witness the sadly-out-of-print Nexus Ops) Not only that, but Euros have started to have some very thematic titles, often involving great quantities of luck and competition. It’s important to understand that these are more “schools of thought” than “genres.” This cross-pollination has resulted in some really exciting stuff, and it’s a good thing for games and gamers.
Note: The term “ameritrash” comes from a fairly ugly online spat from about five years ago, when several users on Boardgame Geek raised a not-unreasonable complaint that the site was focused too heavily on Euros. A Euro fan coined the term “Ameritrash” to refer to the type of games he hated, long confrontational games with tons of randomness. Of course, the ATers took this as a badge of honor. They’ve even formed their own site now…Fortress: Ameritrash.