Monday, August 29, 2011

Boardgame Battle Lines: Eurogames and “Ameritrash” games.

While doing legwork, and double-checking details for some of the articles I've posted here about board games, I've frequently found myself over at Boardgamegeek. Any individual game that has a page on that site (and most of them do) will be tagged with descriptive links not unlike the tags you see on a blog post. Among these tags, you might find “4 player,” “wargame,” “cooperative” or other elements referring to particular mechanics or themes. Not so long ago, I noticed a tag I was unfamiliar with. The tag name was “Ameritrash.” I thought to myself “That sounds unfriendly,” and set out to determine what the term meant. I uncovered not only a new slang vocabulary word, but a schism in the hobby board gaming communtiy that I was previously unaware of, and one I'd be hard pressed to take a side in.

Eurogamers deep in thought at a Puerto Rico tournament.

Ameritrash games are, in general, games that have many components, use random elements to build drama, and strongly adhere to a theme. The term was coined in a derogatory sense by gamers who instead prefer a style of board game called the “Eurogame.” Eurogames tend to focus on balanced and logical mechanics with few or no random elements and if a theme is present at all, it tends to be represented in a highly abstract way. This seems to be a classic “Geek Wars” sort of question like Marvel or DC, on its surface, and I can see how the two styles are completely opposed on key points. That said, I'd find it difficult personally to take sides in this debate. I have in my collection games falling on both sides of the line, and I tend to enjoy both, so long as they are well designed.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Eurogames, according to my tastes:

Eurogames, in general, make a lot of sense. Assuming all players understand the mechanics, strategy should factor into a player's victory more than random chance. Dice are rarely used, and random elements tend to hinge more on whether a fortunate card, tile or counter is drawn at the particular time a player is capable of using it to gain an advantage. Action point mechanics are common in this sort of game, and frequently the individual elements of core gameplay could be distilled to their essential components and you'd have something that looks a lot like an equation. Game rules are in place to keep a single strategy from being too powerful or not powerful enough when compared to other strategies. Critics of this type of game sometimes find them overly dry, and in general they are not palatable to more casual board gamers, as frequently one or more plays are spent learning mechanics and grasping strategic subtleties. Someone who has never played a particular eurogame is usually at a disadvantage with an opponent who has played many times.

A great example of an entirely abstract Eurogame that is a lot of fun despite
a complete lack of theme, Ingenious. This one by German master game designer Dr. Reiner Knizia.

It is also worth mentioning, that even though games of this sort may not have a theme at all, where a theme is present, game objectives are almost universally nonviolent in eurogames. Trade, cooperation and building or connecting things are popular general themes, and elimination of other players pieces or resources are uncommon, and representation of warfare or other violence are nearly unheard of in thematic elements. This also means that many Eurogames may be played with little direct conflict between players, which many players like, but critics of the style of gaming lead to comparisons of eurogames as “competitive solitaire. Popular Eurogame titles include Puerto Rico, Power Grid and Settlers of Catan. In the United States, Rio Grande Games and Mayfair games are two of the largest publishers of this style.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Ameritrash games, according to my tastes:

Fans of this style of gaming have taken the “Ameritrash” label and turned it around as a term of distinction and affection for the style of game that they prefer. For those offended by the negative connotation of the term itself, or by its inaccuracy, as many games in this style are designed and published in countries other than the US, the alternate term “Thematic Game” is used instead. Theme is king for these styles of games, and virtually every play session results in a memorable and dramatic story. Many of these games focus on production values to reinforce the theme, and games with dozens or even hundreds of plastic pieces are not uncommon in the style. Success or failure at critical points in gameplay may depend on the draw of a single card or roll of a particular die, which is highly dramatic but some players may find the importance of randomness devalues strategic play. Sometimes, a player quickly finds themselves out of the running for victory due to chance, and “kingmaker” situations can occur where a player incapable of winning can instead determine who does claim eventual victory.

Runewars, with hand-painted components. Heroes fighting monsters instead
of engaging in commerce or trade... yep, Ameritrash.

It is important to note that pure wargames do not fall into this category, nor are mass market games like Monopoly or Clue meant to be included in the category. The focus on story, drama and theme means that most cooperative and questing games will fall into this category. Elimination of monsters, pieces controlled by opponents or even board elements are common in these games, and people who prefer entertainment with no simulated violence may find them distasteful. Popular titles that wear the Ameritrash or Thematic label include Twilight Imperium, Battlestar Galactica, Runewars, War of the Ring and Arkham Horror. Fantasy Flight Games is one of the largest publishers of this style of gaming, though Avalon Hill (both classic and post-WotC/Hasbro buyout) and Eagle Games are also well known publishers.

I've written articles about games in both styles, and until I was aware of the conflict in styles, I might have identified myself as a Eurogamer, but I find that more of my very favorite games fall under the Ameritrash style. I respect clever design and elegance of mechanics, and do believe that strategy should trump dice rolls in general (I hate Risk based on that principle alone.) However, on the other hand, I am a sucker for a good story, and I can't imagine recounting the tale of having efficiently spent my action points to friends. I will, however, re-tell the time in Battlestar Galactica when I was successfully outed as a Cylon in the early stages of the game, but was so convincing in my demonstrations of loyalty that I had the player who saw my loyalty card wondering aloud if he'd been incorrect, making my eventual betrayal of the fleet more exciting and the Cylon defeat more dramatic. I will, then, do the only logical thing. I won't take sides. I'll just keep playing both.
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Joe said...

That Battlestar game was even great to watch. :-)

Neat to discover a better way of referring to the games I love too. Thanks!

Conspyre said...

That's a schism that has always bothered me... For pure elegance of mechanics, sure, I think Ingenious might be one of the finest games ever made, but it's pretty damned hard to beat the tension of Battlestar Galactica, Death Angel, or Gears of War. (Yes, all 3 of my Ameritrash examples are co-op FFG games. This is not a coincidence) With the mix of players at our regular game night including a dose of fairly casual gamers, it's a hell of a lot easier to sell "You're playing as badass Space Marines fighting a horde of aliens" than it is "You're managing the early settlement of Puerto Rico". I am almost more in favor of euro-style games that have no theme at all (Ingenious) than the ones that try to shoehorn something in that may or may not actually make sense (Bohnanza).

Timothy said...

You hate Risk?

I can understand having moved beyond its simple approach to world-level conflict, but hating it?

I personally don't play enough board games to have a side. Truth be told, if Hungry, Hungry Hippos was constructed to endure play by adults, it would likely be my favorite game to play. I've enjoyed my share of Eurogames, but I am not as satisfied with my play experiences of them as I am with more conflict laden games (though oftentimes I am happier with the rules of the Eurogames).

Alpha said...

Silly man-children and their name-calling...

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