Those of us who are playing board games these days are fortunate enough to have an almost overwhelming amount of choice when it comes to selecting games to play. Everything from light two-player abstract games, to heavy multiplayer war games, is available. One can pick and choose titles to add to their game collection that fit their particular game style of choice. With great web sites like BoardGameGeek and Consimworld, finding information about games is easier than it has ever been. Trading or buying games second had is common and often times affordable. With all this choice, everyone is free to play what they want with whoever they want. I have a moderate sized collection of cardboard and plastic of my own, with nearly all styles of games represented in there someplace, but my personal favorite style of games belong to a category of games know as Ameritrash.
Let’s start by saying that the term Ameritrash is not a negative label slapped on games. It is a slightly tongue-in-cheek reference to the notion that these games are of a style that reflects design choices made in days gone by. Design choices that are usually missing from, and often intentionally avoided by a lot of the newer “Euro” or “German” style board games. My fondness for games of this style is, as most slightly subjective preferences are, hard for me to describe. My tastes in how I spend my free time have, and continue to, change. So please, as you read this, consider it a point in time reflection on the personal tastes of Michael Buccheri and nothing more. Maybe you agree, probably you will not.
Let me back up a bit. I rather recently rediscovered board games as a hobby. I have been an avid table top miniatures game player for some time, however due to some tine constrictions imposed on me by my choice to start a family; the constant upkeep of these hobbies became too much. I needed something I could enjoy, yet not devote hours of time too between playing. Board games filled this niche very nicely. I was immediately drawn to many of the modern popular euro games. Titles like Puerto Rico and El Grande, the usual gamut of popular games. For a while I was in proverbial hog heaven, however, after a bit I began to long for something more. The pre-programmed nature of these games and the realization that the game winner was often decided by sub-optimal play on the part of one of the other players left me wanting more control. Perhaps it was the mini’s gamer in me wanting the ability to tailor my style of play, maybe the lack of having to take a chance on some odds or maneuver myself so that the odds were always in my favor. Something was missing and I couldn’t figure out what it was. All I knew was that once I got past the novelty of the euro game design (and this is their true value) then the game play itself really was not that much fun, for me. I wanted bigger. I wanted more.
Enter Ameritrash. With not-so-clean cut rules, with direct player interaction, player elimination, long play times, dice, and all the things that modern euro game designers hand out frowny-faces for. What is it about this style of games that appeals to me? Haven’t we been there before; was there not a revolution that saved us all from downtime and the ever so pedestrian act of throwing a numbered cube about a table? Sure we have, but I for one need to go back. To me there is more to gaming than following a detailed set of instructions. If I want to do that I will bake a cake, at least at the end of that process I can satisfy myself by eating it as opposed to feeling like I got nothing for it. I need control of my destiny, I need options (that matter) for game play, I need what I do, both with the pieces on the board and with my relationship with the other players to matter, and not be some sort of optimization choice. For example, in a multiplayer game I have the choice of attacking someone, however I need to consider what this will do both in terms of the game mechanics (I.E. improve my board position) and also in terms of that players attitude toward me. In a lot of euro style games this becomes a total optimization choice. “I have to block you here so that you don’t score 3 points, you would do that if you were me”. In Ameritrash games this is not the case; often the optimal choice from a mechanical point of view will have very sub-optimal results from a diplomatic point of view. It is this type of decision making that keeps me coming back, having to balance the desire to improve my position rapidly with the fact that doing so too quickly will derail my relations with the other players. Add to that that once the other players are against me, they then have the ability to be dangerous. Regardless of what it does to their position in the game. A lot of euro games limit the ability to direct set up roadblocks to another player’s strategy. This limits a player’s ability to rein the leader in a game back in. The problem is so bad that a number of the more complicated euros incorporate some sort of play leveling mechanic. The income loss in Age of Steam is a good example of this. As is the auction, resource purchasing and build order in power grid, we won’t mention the drastic methods taken in less thought out games such as Tempus. The end result is a game that plays out in a very similar fashion each time. I much prefer a more open game style, where player choice, diplomatic maneuvering and even a little press your luck can make the difference in the end. Sure there is a cost to this, complexity of rules and time, are the two things that suffer most. These games are longer and tend to have an above average thickness to the rules. For me neither is a real show stopper. Game length is a limitation we have to accommodate. Sure, I cannot pull out my favorite Ameritrash multiplayer titles at lunchtime, but most of the game nights I go to are at least 4 hours long, plenty of time for a game. I do not suffer from the “I must play an auction, tile laying and an area control game in each session” affliction that many folks I know seem to struggle with. One good game (AT, Euro or War) is worth more than 100 not-so-good games. As to rules complexity, well even the most complicated AT game is no more complicated than the average heavy euro, and nothing when compared to war games or mini’s games. I see the lack of commitment to learning a game (any game) as laziness. When it comes to rules, you get what you pay for. For me the time investment pays off in game play; of course, your mileage may vary.