Tuesday, 13 March 2007

The Bit Myth

I think if I had to pick one "front" to fight in the Ameritrash war...and understand, I'm using the terminology for war very loosely...it is the myth that Ameritrash fans are solely concerned with quality bits regardless of the gameplay that is contained within.

Hey, I'll admit it--there is a certain giddy feeling when you open a box for the first time and get what I call "Stuff Overload". If anything, yeah, that initial rush would give you a sense of satisfaction--at least from an expenditure standpoint--in that you had spent your money wisely. After all....look at all this STUFF!

This is no new phenomenon, to be sure. Games Workshop games in the 80s and early 90s had that "Wow" factor. Who hasn't seen Space Hulk in action for the first time and just been floored by it? Warhammer Quest...Blood Bowl...games that grabbed attention primarily viscerally and visually.

Sadly (and this is not a comment on GW games, but in general), in days gone by this criticism holds true. Ameritrash-style games in the 80s were notoriously bad at being imbalanced, broken, needing house rules and huge FAQs, some even barely playable out of the box without immediate fixes. Instead, those boxes were stuffed to the gills with metal, pewter, or plastic bits... and usually a very hefty price tag. So, in those days, there was this sense of rationalization taking place...the games were expensive and had great bits, so they MUST be great, right?

To misquote a cigarette ad..."We've come a long way, baby."

Despite some of the criticisms launced against Eurogames my some of my Ameritrashin' brethren, Eurogames were the best thing that ever happened to Ameritrash titles.

(Well, someone had to say it).

Eurogames came along and the focus was on strong, clean gameplay AND great gaming components. Sure, those wooden bits weren't exactly what you were used to, but they were durable and high quality. Plus, the games were GOOD. Yeah, they stripped away the theme connection in the process...but again, Ameritrash titles should be grateful for this.

So what did SMART Ameritrash publishers do? Well, when the writing's on the wall, you'd do well to read it and heed what it says. Those American-style publishers who were able to change with the times stayed around, and those who couldn't went out of business or were assimilated. Then of course you've got companies like Fantasy Flight Games and Days of Wonder who were barely players at all when this decade began but are now both HUGELY successful companies, much of this success coming from embracing strong, quality bits and production values but marrying it to great gameplay and most of all maintaining an evocative link to the theme.

But back to the "bits = good" argument...and honestly, I don't want to dwell on this, but there was a certain game publisher who tended to focus on boxes full of plastic bits but gameplay that was often left to be desired, and that company is no longer with us. Even with big mounds of plastic bits, somehow the "poor, deluded" Ameritrash fan was able to still be choosy in his or her buying and even after purchase was able to look past the gorgeous production values and fairly rate the game contained therein.

So goes my mantra: great bits can indeed make a good game better, but a bad game is still bad even when it is swimming in lovingly crafted plastic pieces. I think if we could get that point across to the non-AT fan--that we honestly do enjoy the games, and not just because we are "blinded by the bits"--then we could close some of the chasm that currently exists between the two camps.

--Ken B.


Michael Barnes said...

Yeah, I think that whole "you just care about the bits" thing is a load of shit, just a stupid argument that the 'opposition' uses to trivialize our opinions. How many times on BGG did we see someone toss the old "I don't need a box of toys" argument?

It's classic elitism...it's like how somehow something becomes more "refined" and respectable through minimalism, as if somehow substance with no style is superior to a balance of the two virtues.

Ken Bradford said...

Yeah, I'll take that balance.

That's what some people fail to understand--there's no reason you can't have BOTH, even crave and demand it.

Christian Petersen understands, and seems to be working to find that perfect balance. Making some pretty sweet coin in the process, too.

Michael Barnes said...

You know, I've seen a lot of comments too from these guys who'll argue that they don't care how a game looks as long as it's got good mechanics...I think that's ridiculous. In a hobby where a huge percentage of its followers can barely coordinate their wardrobe beyond haiwaiian shirts and sandals, I guess that's a pretty typical statement. Like the grotesquely fat girl saying "it's what's inside that counts".

No doubt, mechanics are essential to a good game but great bits/great graphic design are equally important and there is a reason Christian Petersen is making bank with FFG's benchmark-setting productions- for one thing, they appeal visually to more than just computer programming nerds and folks that love a brown/light brown/dark brown color pallet.

The best games will always feature a balance between great bits and great mechanics and hopefully publishers in the future will demonstrate this more and more. You've only got to look as far as the most recent LOTR expansion (BATTLEFIELDS) to see where shit bits pretty much derail the entire game- even though it has interesting mechanics.

Ironically, that's a FFG product!

Lajos Brons said...

My favourite bits are cardboard counters. I don't think 'nice' bits are that important and I sure don't think great bits define Ameritrash (which I tried to explain in numerous occasions).
I prefer my mouldy old copy of After the Holocaust (post-nuclear-apocalyptic USA) with tons of cardboard counters, pages and pages of rules and an insane amount of bookkeeping over any of these trendy, streamlined dungeon crawls with hundreds of plastic miniatures. Now if I just could find some people to play the game...

Cale said...

Man, that's an epic post. Well stated. To respond to a few key points:

> Bit appeal. I find bits funny. For me, they're not as attractive, useful, or interesting. The newest generation of cardboard bits are vibrant and communicative, and are eminently more sort- and storable than plastic figures. Plastic figures simply can't contain as much information as a cardboard chit - and let's be honest, who doesn't like a nice, complicated chit? In any case, I see chits as avatars far more than I see plastic figures.

> Eurogames = best thing for Ameritrash titles. And you know what, I think the American market and American style is the best thing to happen to Euros. I don't have the foggiest idea of what the numbers look like, but I'd wager dollars to donuts that when the Euro craze hit the States, the Euro market itself skyrocketed. Even if you argue that the Euro style is superior in every way, I find it hard to believe that the Puerto Ricos of the world would exist without the earlier success of Settlers in America.

> Games Workshop. Man, I love my old GW titles. I consider many of them to be absolute classics, paragons of their genres. I don't know if I'd consider them as 'Bitty' as I would simply... ahead of their time (for many reasons).

> Fantasy Flight. Half the reason why I like FFG so much is because of the interest they've shown in GW titles. While I think those old GW titles do translate nicely to a gaming world steeped in plastic figures (and FFG is definitely taking advantage of this), you have to admire FFG for at least recognizing the excellent gameplay they offered. And what about games like Britannia? Britannia could really have been Bittified, but instead they stuck with cardboard. I wouldn't argue that the FFG remake of Britannia is a flagship game (see WotR, TI3), but it shows an awareness of the industry I don't see in a lot of other publishers.

Ken Bradford said...

Thanks for the great feedback!

As far as the cardboard thing, I remember discussing this with Lajos originally, and I'll admit it was my own myopia that had me looking through the genre purely from my own experiences rather than those of my fellow gamers as a whole. (Hey, we're all human. We all do this).

I've made my peace with that and also come around to the idea that plastic isn't the only thing that makes "nice bits" nice. Heck, after reflecting on it, lots of my favorite games use plenty of cardboard counters (A Game of Thrones, Fury of Dracula, many, many others).

I think, though, when AT comes under attack, it is usually the "box of toys" that bears the brunt.

Hancock.Tom said...

I generally prefer cardboard counters because they usually provide more game information than a plastic bit. I'd rather have the information that I need on the counter so I don't have to commit it to memory or look it up in a book or on a chart. Now obviously, the perfect world would have plastic figures that have information contained either on the base of the figure or perhaps on a piece of plastic that sticks out from the base so you can flock it if you want.

Mr Skeletor said...

I always wonder why, if 'bits' aren't important, were so many geeks upset when rumors we going around that the reprint of "Through the Desert" would not have any plastic pastel camels?
I mean it's all about the game play, right?

Wargamer66 said...

Talking about "toy games" is a passive-aggressive way to be an asshole, something many BGG members have perfected.

Guess I don't have to worry about being censored here, eh? :)

Michael Barnes said...

Cardboard chits will never go out of style as far as I'm concerned. For all the hoo-hah over those stupid flags in BATTLELORE I'd still rather have a chit with a nice illustration and numbers so I can see what's going on at a glance. GMT is doing some really nice looking counters these days...

No censorship here Tom- this Radio Free Ameritrash!

bob_the_goon said...

For me the whole Ameritrash thing is what captures my imagination and sucks me into the game. Usually this involves plastic. Sure, Puerto Rico is a great game, but little brown disks and carboard tokens don't do anything for me. I'd much rather play Twilight Imperium, which borrows some mechanics. Trader's of Genoa is one of my favorite games, but I can't tell you how many times I held the box and didn't buy it because the picture of the game on the back made it look dry and boring.

Talisman (second edition) is probably my favorite game, and I'll admit that's partly because of nostalgia, but a huge part of it is also the art and theme draw me in. Yes, it has limited decision making, yes it's way out of balance, but it's a lot of fun with the right people, and it has no minis.

Ken Bradford said...

I thought Talisman did have minis? Was that just 3rd edition?

Looks like I could use some "old school" Ameritrash education, m'self.

Lajos Brons said...

"old school" Ameritrash (Ken)

I like that term. I guess that's what I am: and 'Old School Trash' fan.

bob_the_goon said...

They made minis for second edition Talisman, but you had to buy them separately. They didn't pack in minis until third edition, which I never got for some reason.

Shellhead said...

I got my start as an old-school AmeriTrash player, though I love the modern ones too, especially the FFG ones.

[quavery old man voice] When I was a kid, we played with cardboard chits and two-tone maps. And we loved it!

I have a game that was published in 1980 by Task Force Games called Intruder that we still play a few times each year. The map is frayed at the edges. A couple of the chits have been lost and replaced with generic chits from other games & my lousy stick figure artwork. But we still love it, because it's a decent AmeriTrash game with some unusual mechanics.

Intruder had a science-fiction/horror theme (based on the classic Alien movie), cooperative or solitaire play, combat, dice-rolling, and good replay value due to the unpredictable mutation of the Intruder over the course of each game. The bits are almost primitive by today's standards, but the quality game still shines through.

Darney said...

The biggest advantage, in my opinion, is that when u get a bunch of... bits, you can use them easily for other things. Easily.