Wednesday, February 10, 2010

You got your Ameritrash in my peanut butter

In recent years, a clear distinction has formed between two different styles of boardgame.

Eurogames tend to be characterized as "design-heavy, theme-light". You'll find elegant designs requiring few rules. Luck (and dice) are a rarity in most cases, requiring players to win solely through strategy and smart play. Player interaction is often light or nonexistent, and the most opposition players have to contend with is being blocked out of an auction or a space on the game board. The theme often feels tacked on, and a Eurogame set in medieval times would usually work just as well with a prehistoric or science-fiction setting.

The other category is widely known as "Ameritrash". It seems to be a derogatory term at first glance, but fans of this genre have embraced the title as their own. Ameritrash games tend to be theme-heavy, with a lot of direct conflict and tons of dice to roll. Game mechanics are tied closely with the theme; Space Hulk or Last Night on Earth would have to be completely redesigned if the setting were shifted to a stone-age village or a 17th century sailing ship. Many Ameritrash games have a "last man standing" winning condition, in which players are gradually eliminated until only the winner remains.

While I enjoy a wide variety of games, I tend to gravitate toward titles with a more Euro-style design. I like to experience some measure of player interaction, but I find constant direct opposition to be either stressful or monotonous. I don't enjoy seeing a string of bad luck ruin a well-laid strategy (even an opponent's). And I feel that player elimination is the worst design element in the entire boardgaming universe; the penalty for doing poorly should never include not being allowed to play.

However, I absolutely love games with a strong theme. Caylus and Power Grid, while being quite strong from a design standpoint, often fail to grab my attention. I enjoy the mechanics, so I don't usually shy away from playing these, but I don't find anything particularly engaging about either of them. They're just too bland and dry. A lot of my love for games like Arkham Horror and Talisman originates with the art style and solid theme.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a common misconception that Euro-style concepts and a strong theme are mutually exclusive.

Vlaada Chvatil's designs really stand out for me in this regard. They generally play more like "pure" Eurogames*, but the setting is inseparable from the gameplay. Galaxy Trucker simply wouldn't work outside the frantic space-junker universe, and I find Dungeon Lords to be an almost perfect balance of heavy theme, highly-stylized art, and well-integrated play mechanics.

I'd love to see more game designers explore this concept, because I think both Eurogames and Ameritrash can bring can bring something wonderful to the table.

* Except Space Alert. That one's impossible to categorize. It transcends mere labels and becomes something unique and beautiful. And terrifying.


At 10:52 AM, Blogger Joe Sack said...

Have you tried 1960: Making of a President or Twilight Struggle? They're fantastic two-player historical games. The theme is the game. The scoring is on a continuum, so the inherent conflict is that whenever your opponent scores points you lose points. That leads to a lot of subtle interaction, trying to figure out what your opponent's next move is. I think they take the best from both Ameritrash and Euro-games.

At 2:11 AM, Blogger kurniawan.q said...

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