If there is one thing that nerds love to do, it’s argue. Whether its Marvel vs DC, Console vs PC gaming, or whether The Last Jedi was amazing or trash, there is no end to the topics that can be endlessly debated. The field of game design is no different. Arguments about
game design go back nearly as long as the existence of games themselves. Over the last decade or so there has been one debate in the board game community that stands out among all others – the debate between European and American style board games.
Today, I am going to present my thoughts on this debate. First, I will clear up some potential misconceptions regarding these two terms. Next, I will examine each styles of design, and the differences between the two. Finally, I will present my opinion on which style of design I prefer.
Rules of Engagement
The first bit of confusion that can arise from these two terms is geographic. While the terms “Eurogame” and “Ameritrash” both have geographic roots (Eurogame of course refers to Europe while Ameritrash refers to The United States of America), they do not necessarily refer to games that originated in a particular area. A game designed in America can be considered a Eurogame, while a game designed in Germany could be considered “Ameritrash”. The names refer to where the design philosophies originated, but any game could be considered “Euro” or “Ameritrash” if they follow those design philosophies.
The second piece of confusion I want to clear up is around the term “Ameritrash”. While this term was originally intended as a bit of an insult, it is now used in a mostly neutral
way to describe a particular set of design philosophies. Attempts have been made over the years to change the name to something that doesn’t have such negative connotations, such as “Amerigames” or “Amerigold”, but so far none of those attempts have taken off.
Ameritrashin’ the Camp
What exactly does the term “Ameritrash” mean? In a word – “theme”. In fact, some have suggested renaming Ameritrash games as Thematic games in honor of this central aspect. Games that are considered to be Ameritrash often have a strong, evocative theme around which the mechanics of the game revolve.
You may be wondering – if the term Ameritrash simply means a game that focuses on theme, why does it seem so negative? The answer is that a thematic focus can often result in mechanical elements that some players find undesirable, for the sake of enhancing the theme. The elements that are most commonly pointed to by Eurogame fans are complexity, higher levels of randomness, and player elimination.
In many Ameritrash games, complexity comes from trying to realistically model the theme of the game. Whether you are on an epic quest to destroy the One ring, conquering the universe with your galactic army, or trapped inside a mystical old tomb full of horrors, Ameritrash games want to draw you into the game as much as possible.
Often, this means that an elegant, streamlined game system simply won’t do. Instead,
Ameritrash designers will often end up adding additional systems, subsystems and edge-cases that may not come up often, but help to add additional layers of immersion into the game.
While additional complexity often comes directly from the games theme, the idea that Ameritrash games are more random is not as directly connected to this core idea. I don’t think that thematic games necessarily have to include randomness, but I believe that this aspect is often associated with the Ameritrash label simply due to a desire among Eurogame designers to specifically avoid randomness.
Particularly, Eurogame designers tend to avoid icons of randomness such as dice. Ameritrash designers, on the other hand, are willing to use these tools when it benefits the theme or when they believe it will make the game more fun.
I believe a similar thought applies to player elimination. This design element is commonly associated with Ameritrash game designs, and it is a common aspect of these games. However, I don’t think that this particular mechanical choice defines Ameritrash as a style. Many themes simply lend themselves to player elimination, and Ameritrash designers are willing to use this tool to enhance the immersion and drama.
Finally, Ameritrash designers tend to put more detail into little aspects of the games that they believe will add to the overall experience of the game. Instead of using identical meeples, Ameritrash games are more likely to have unique miniatures to represent players. They are also more likely to include asymmetric starting positions, such as through the use of individual character sheets.
If Ameritrash games have a design focus on theme, drama, and overall experience, the core of Eurogames is an emphasis on elegant design. The design of these games tends to focus on the mechanical core, with an (often ill-fitting) theme layered on top towards the end. These games tend to be highly focused on mathematics, strategy and skill, and have less of a focus on interpersonal interaction.
Because of this mechanical focus, Eurogames tend to shun some common design elements of Ameritrash design. While Ameritrash games may include extraneous rules that rarely come up for the sake of improving the theme or creating dramatic moments, Eurogames designers will often prune away any rules that are not absolutely essential to the core of the game. This does not necessarily mean that Eurogames are simple, but it usually means that the mechanics are very finely tuned.
Eurogames also tend to have a high emphasis on individual player skill. Because of this, they try to avoid random elements, especially when the player is not given a chance to properly respond to the randomness. Eurogame designers want to avoid creating the feeling that somebody won or lost due to luck, rather than their own actions. This same tendency also causes these games to often avoid asymmetry, as if it is not balanced properly it could unfairly affect the outcome of the game.
One of the most instantly recognizable aspects of the Eurogame is a rejection of player elimination mechanics. These designers often see player elimination as unfair and unfun for players who get knocked out, as they simply have to sit around waiting for everybody else to finish. In general, if you sit down to start playing a Eurogame, you will still be sitting at the table when it comes to a close.
However, this mandate against player elimination has a number of ripples that affect the rest of design. In a game where players lose and drop-out as time goes on, it is often extremely easy to determine the winner – they are the last one playing. In a Eurogame, however, it is not so simple.
First, these games have to establish some sort of criteria for determining when the game has finished. There are about three main ways that this is done. Firstly, some games simply have an amount of time or amount of turns that can pass until the game is over. Secondly, games can have a particular goal, such as reaching the other side of the board, that ends the game. Finally, the third method is to have the game end when one player reaches a certain number of victory points (VPs).
Speaking of VPs, they are an important part of the last major element of Eurogames – the
scoring systems. Through a similar instinct as the decision not to include player elimination, many Eurogames are designed so that every player feels that they have a chance to win until the very last turn. Because of this, Eurogames tend to have relatively complex scoring systems that can make it difficult to know where you stand until the end of the game when everything is tallied up.
And the Winner Is…
Both styles of game have their fans, and there have been great games to come out of both camps. However, if I were forced to choose a winner I would go with Ameritrash games. In general, I personally tend to have more fun when playing an Ameritrash style game. While Eurogames focus on the design of the game itself, the lack of connection between the theme and mechanics can cause these games to lose track of the most important thing – the player experience. Eurogames often feel more like cerebral puzzles to be solved than games to enjoy. While that does have its place, if I just want to pick up a game and have fun with friends it will usually be an Ameritrash style game.
Until Next Week
That is all I have for this week! If you enjoyed this article, please check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I look at a design problem that has stopped countless games from ever seeing the light of day!