Published on April 24th, 2013 | by Colin0
Cardcore Gamer: Cardboard on the Continent
Last time I wrote about the gloriously overblown funlump that is American style ‘Ameritrash’ board games and now I shall introduce to you the sleek shark to the Ameritrash cartoon whale; German style, or, ‘Euro’ games. For this article, you will need a monocle, a baguette and some cycling shorts!
Germany in the late 70s and early 80s was the birthplace of a style of game design which gave modern board gaming a good head start in life; teaching it history, culture, business sense, economics and the passive-aggressive positioning of little wooden cubes. Eurogames eschew the phone-book rules wad and plastic overproduction of Ameritrash games for a more focused and efficient model; relying upon simple rules which, through some kind of mathematical black magic, allow for deep and satisfyingly complex games.
The key phrase is ‘simple to learn, hard to master’. German style games tend to put you entirely in charge of your own destiny, where your chance of success is a direct result of the decisions you make and every decision matters. You won’t be relying upon The Dice Gods and a +1 modifier from the machete you yanked from a zombie skull, you’ll be making hard choices using open information; win or lose, you stand or fall on your own merits. It’s a deeply satisfying experience when things work out ‘just so’ and you’ll feel like Dr. Brainsmarts of Cleverton-on-Sea, setting up economic engines, trading, building and working toward a simple goal, often within a set period of time.
It’s not only the emphasis on elegant design which typifies the Eurogame ethos though, but the themes, which are rich and varied in comparison to Ameritrash’s ‘Space/Fantasy/Horror/Pop culture’ palette. Constructive play is emphasised in exploring temples, growing a town or civilisation, trading and producing goods to turn a profit, often with a ‘real world’ historical, geographical or cultural basis. There’s a unique feeling of time and place about these games where, instead of being a Generic Barbarian Loinclothman, you’re cast as a serf, or a medieval abbot, or a fishing captain.
And that’s all well and good, but I find that there’s an inherent problem with games about performing menial labour for a silent, lofty overlord; they often feel like actual hard work.
Designing games to be fair, even and non-random runs a very real risk of producing a soulless number-crunch, where you shuffle symbolic wooden cubes around a board, rarely even engaging with other players. A feeling of ‘Multiplayer Solitaire’ can arise, where each player is in direct competition with the others, but has zero interaction with them; You may as well be sat together solving Sudoku-for-one puzzles in a hospital waiting room. That’s not to mention the dread ‘Analysis Paralysis’ that sets in when a game floods you with such a wealth of possibilities that you sheerly cannot comprehend what the best move is and it’s still the first turn.
You’ve got order and you have chaos: go to far one way and games fail through sheer lack of structure, but too far the other way and the mechanisms of the game stifle any notion of fun, or play. The enduring appeal of German style games is their ability to exercise the mind through providing approachable games with plenty of replayability and depth. Eurogames don’t fall into an entertainmentless pit by default, far from it, but stripped of cute components and evocative story text, a game design, like the players’ success, stands or falls squarely on its own merits.