What's an Ameritrash game?
This question keeps coming up, and appears to have no entirely satisfactory answer - ask different people and you'll get different opinions, ranging all the way from "isn't it obvious" to "there's no such thing". It's the latter response that really annoys me, the idea that just because even the fanbase can't form a coherent definition of the genre there is no such thing as the genre. I'd like to see any fan of a particular grouping or subgrouping within the boardgame hobby come up with a watertight definition of what constitutes "their" group of games, especially given the modern design trend of deliberately borrowing cool ideas from across the spectrum.
Of all the times that this lack of focus gets used as a stick to beat the AT crowd, the worse is when one of us labels a game as an AT game and people come along and sneer and tell us that of course it's not for reasons x,y and z and then go on to point out what a shallow and desperate concept Ameritrash must be when it has to claim clearly unsuitable games as part of its canon. I've seen this happen with Memoir 44 more than any other game. To me, and, I suspect to most AT fans, this is clearly an AT game. It doesn't have enough of a simulation edge to please wargamers (and anyone who doubts this should just look at the huge number of Grognards who bash the game because it doesn't reward WW2 tactics in play) and it's too random and conflict-orientated to be a Euro. It's a lightweight combat game and nearly all lightweight combat games are AT game. Simple, right? Well, of course not. Turn the perspective and you can make all the opposite arguments - it must be a Euro because it's short, simple and streamlined. It must be a wargame because it's got a clear historical pedigree emphasised in the rules and scenarios. M44 is both a good and bad example of the problems that plague attempts at game classification because it shamelessly borrows heavily from a load of design paradigms which is of course partly why it was such a popular game in the first place.
So given that subdividing games is a messy and pointless business in the first place (albeit one that we all enjoy indulging in, me as much as the next guy) why is it that fans of other game groupings are able to sit comfortably in their corners and point and laugh at us while we squirm and attempt to justify what we're doing? I've no doubt that part of the answer is very simple - we're attempting to insert a new classification into a fairly well established landscape. For years no-one bothered with a tag for the particular group of games we now call Ameritrash, in the first place because back in the old days there were only AT games and Wargames in the boardgaming hobby and wargames back then had a very clearly defined remit, and in the second place because the advent of Euros had everyone talking about those instead so no-one bothered with a tag for the older games. I've always felt that getting that AT label was a really important moment though because it helped to crystallise together a group of disaffected gamers who were kind of milling around and trying to define themselves as standing against something (the domination of euro concepts as "truths" about the best way to design and play games) rather than as supporting something, which is never really satisfactory.
The other part of the answer is considerably less simple. The inspiration for writing this particular piece came from the conclusions that eventually struck me when I was reflecting on the question. It seems to me that even though the actual results of game design are becoming ever harder to place into succinct groupings, designers are still using particular sets of goals as their starting point in the design process which are much easier to group and define. Euros, for example, might be defined as games which have been designed to extract the maximum amount of difficult gameplay choices out of a minimal amount of rules and play time. Wargames might be defined as games which attempt to simulate and/or reproduce the events of historical conflicts. Going into sub genres you could have party games as games which are designed to accommodate a large range of player numbers and skills and which are more interested in inspiring laughter than strategic challenge.
Ameritrash games don't have this founding design paradigm to fall back on. The idea that AT games are interested in reproducing themes gets kicked around a lot but really, how much more thematic can you get than trying to reproduce the fine details of a combat scenario like a Wargame does? Also, in reality AT games are actually about quite a narrow range of themes centred around fantasy, sci-fi and faux-historical conflict. Surely if were that interested in theme we'd be buying into some of the more thematic eurogames such as Amun-Re when in fact these are often the sorts of games we reserve for the greatest scorn. I'm more sympathetic to the idea that AT designers go out to design games that can provide a worthwhile narrative experience but I find it hard to accept that the design teams behind some of the more war-orientated AT titles like Titan, Conquest of the Empire and others, or the more negotiation style AT games such as Cosmic Encounter were really interested in providing narrative. What other common themes do we see running through AT designs? Well, drama is another one I've heard but that's a very personal thing and I'm sure a Euro fan finds a close game of Puerto Rico every bit as dramatic as a nail-biting roll of the dice in an AT game. Ameritrash games also commonly seem to feature frequent screw-your-neighbour mechanisms but in a sense, any competitive game has to have elements to get one over on the other player else it's not much of a competition.
This lack of a specific direction has no doubt come out of AT's historical links with role-playing games. The origin of the AT paradigm comes from people who were effectively design board games either as light entertainment diversions or heavy wargame equivalents for the RPG crowd. Role-playing games don't have design paradigms in the same way as boardgames do - rather they seek to deliver a particular kind of character-driven experience that no other game can provide. So, inevitably the initial board game spinoffs from this hobby were rootless. Times have changed, and AT designers have absorbed enough clever ideas from other aspects of the hobby that we've definitely got the capacity to stand as a genre in our own right, but that lack of focus remains with us and remains a problem.
So where does that leave us? What's the answer? Sadly, I don't have one. If you love AT games you're going to have to continue to put up with being the bastard stepchild of the RPG hobby and enduring the scorn from Euro-purists. The only ray of light I can offer is that this lack of a specific approach point is as much as blessing as it is a curse. Ameritrash games have perhaps the widest range of themes (proper themes anyway, as opposed to bolted-on afterthought themes), play experiences and mechanics of any type of game across the whole gaming hobby. They've evolved and become increasing successful over the past few years by being able to experiment and re-invent themselves by stealing and borrowing ideas from all over the place. This is all down to the fact that our designers are not tied to a specific approach and can do whatever they want and it'll keep us from falling into stagnation as we increasingly see happening in other areas of the hobby. And maybe that is the answer, maybe that is a focal point you can bring up the next time someone asks: that AT games, much like the open and organic play strategies that they encourage, are designed not to get themselves tied down to one specific idea, but to remain open to explore.
Thursday, 19 July 2007
What's an Ameritrash game?