Friday, November 30, 2007

The Great Debate: Euro vs. American Games

If you've ever stopped by the BoardGameGeek site and read through the forum posts there, you will have certainly stumbled across threads related to "the great debate". Just what is the great debate? It's the ongoing discussion of which tabletop games are better; Euro games or American style games.

For the uninitiated, a "Euro" game is generally considered to be a board game created in Europe (typically in Germany, the world center of board games). These games are also called "designer games" by many folks because the game inventor's name is written prominently on the box (as opposed to just the company name on the box, which is often the case with many North American mass-market games). Euro games tend to have very simple, elegant game mechanics and family-friendly and non-confrontational themes (you won't find any wargames here). Some examples of classic Euro games are Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Niagara, Tikal, El Grande, Power Grid, and Puerto Rico.

American style games, on the other hand, fall into that class of games that most of us grew up with as kids: Monopoly, Sorry, Risk, Scrabble, Rook, Pit, and Trivial Pursuit just to name a few. Also, classic wargames by Avalon Hill and SPI, along with heavily themed adventure & strategy and sports games such as those by Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, TSR, Games Workshop, and Strat-O-Matic also fall into the school of American style games. American style games tend to have much richer, immersive themes when compared to Euro games, more complicated rules, and longer playing times.

People involved in the debate about which type of game is best fall into 3 camps: (1) those who favor Euro games, (2) those who favor American style games, and (3) those who like all types of games as long as they're fun. I fall firmly into Group #3.

I must admit that the discussions about this topic on BGG are often quite entertaining. That's because gamers are an intelligent and passionate bunch who will defend their point of view to the death, sometimes at ridiculously convoluted lengths. Oftentimes, these discussions devolve into name-calling and outright snobbery. It's kind of like living through high school all over again! It's gotten to the point where Euro gaming elitists have labelled American style games as "Ameritrash", an obvious denigration of what they feel are games with inferior designs and overly fiddly rules. On the flip-side, fans of American games often refer to Euro enthusiasts as "Euro Snoots", deriding them as snobbish, egotistical jerks who wouldn't know what the word "theme" meant unless they were hit in the face with an open dictionary.

Frankly, I don't know where most people find the time to contribute ongoing posts about all of this stuff. Most of us have better things to do than sit on the PC all day and defend our likes and dislikes to a large bunch of people that we'll never meet in real life. I have enough difficulty squeezing in updates to this blog on a regular basis. Still, reading these discussions provides a lot of food for thought (especially to the Game Designer in me) and often gives me a chuckle.

I absolutely hate the word Ameritrash. That does an extreme disservice to the designers who created the vast array of excellent American style games out there. In fact, wargames and adventure games with their immersive themes and meatier rules are those that I like the most. To me, playing games is all about the experience. Who wins or loses is secondary to getting lost in the game and having it take me to some exciting place, be it a major league ballpark, medieval Europe, a fantasy land or dark dungeon, or an alien planet.

In my opinion, many Euro games fall flat because the game's theme is pasted-on as an afterthought or so damn boring that they feel more like a math excercise than a fun, immersive experience. I mean c'mon, just how exciting is farming or trading your sheep for someone else's lumber? I'd much rather command brigades of ancient soldiers, fend off hordes of bloodthirsty orcs, get in a dogfight with the Red Baron, sail my Pirate ship on the stormy sea, or manage a major league baseball team comprised of stars that I drafted. I want to be taken away from the mundane, not immersed in it.

It's quite evident from browsing BGG that the Euro gaming community is extremely well represented there. I can't say definitively whether it's a larger group than those who love American style games. But I can say that there are scores of snobs who look down upon anyone who doesn't think Puerto Rico or Caylus or Die Macher are anything short of the Holy Grail of Gaming. My personal belief is that many of these people are simply riding the popularity wave of what's "new and cool". It's only been during the last 10 years or so that Euro games have landed on the radar of most North American gamers. Prior to that, we all played American style board games and loved them. Nowadays, you're perceived to be cooler and smarter if you tell your buddies that you've recently played Power Grid, Notre Dame, Amun-Re, or Taj Mahal, than to say you've played Battle Cry or Talisman. People being people, there are many more followers who do what they think makes them cool, than leaders who do what they think is right or best (regardless if it's not popular at the time). I'm not saying that many of these gamers don't actually enjoy the Euro games they're playing. But I do think that many of them enjoy bashing older games because they're supposedly un-hip or not "now" enough.

To be fair, there are many good Euros that marry slick game mechanics with a fun and interesting theme. I love Ticket to Ride. Games like Tikal, Niagara, and Thebes have themes that mesh very nicely with their elegant mechanics. There are plenty of great Euros that I want to try and would recommend to anyone.

I harbor no ill will to Euro games. I own several and hope to add more to my collection over time. I'm a firm believer that every type and class of game is worthy of consideration. As long as the game is FUN, what difference does it make if it's new or old, is light or heavy on the rules, or takes 30 minutes or 3 hours to play? There's room for all kinds of games. That's why the "great debate" over Euros vs. American style games is an utterly silly one. There will never be a 100% consensus on this issue because games are art, and everyone has different tastes in art.

So gamers of the world, can't we all just get along!

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