Thursday, 19 July 2007

Wave Without a Shore

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.

33 comments:

LilRed said...

Wow is this a tribute to Gamer_dog?

And I think that Ameritrash is a genre, but with all genres there will always be discussion if this or that game belongs to the genre.

There is no clear guide for it. But the general guidelines are there. And to piss off Gamer_dog: Ameritrash games are great and Eurogames are crummy.

Fortress said...

What is this, Ameritrash University? "Anonymous" is going to be pissed.

Great article, Matt. Very topical too as discussion about this has surfaced again.

MWChapel said...

That's easy. You can just ask me. I will tell you if it's Ameritrash or not. Yes, I am the definitive guide...

Ken B. said...

Note to self: sign out of "Fortress" account after checking F:AT mailbag.

mtlawson said...

Yeah, amazing how this topic keeps coming back up in different places, and in threads that didn't start out with that at all.

Good job, Matt.

--Mike L.

Shellhead said...

Matt, I admire your noble effort to define AmeriTrash, as well as your commments about the challenges of arriving at a definition of AmeriTrash that everyone will agree upon.

To quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (when he was speaking about pornography back in 1964), "I know it when I see it." In fact, it is probably even harder to define pornography than to define AmeriTrash games, because porn sometimes overlaps with the boundaries of art, an even more elusive topic.

Pat H said...

Ameritrash games are exactly that - games.

Eurogames are homework in a box.

notbillysparkles said...

Nice Article Matt.

I've always thought it moronic that some people would actually argue that there is no such thing as a genre. What horseshit!

Is all music the same? What about movies? Food?

Look, the bottom line is a good game is a good game PERIOD.

All this posturing about between Eurosnoots and ATers really gripes my fat ass.

Who cares? If it's good- I'll play it.

On that note, is anybody going to be attending Gen Con this year? If so I'd like to hook up and play something... anything.

My wife's due to give birth to our baby girl the 4th of August (our first) and I didn't want to plan too far ahead( just in case), so I didn't register for any events.

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Now seeing as how she might pop early I'm going to be that game slut with a handful of generic tickets, hoping to turn some tricks by walking the mean rows of the boardgame hall, looking to find that vacant seat at "fully booked" game.

So, if anybody's interested please lemme know. I can be PMd at the other leading boardgame site. I'm billyz.

Me so horny, me play with you long time.

Billy Z.

Pat H said...

Some people wish that games were soilent green.

Shellhead said...

Pat H: "Some people wish that games were soylent green.

Made from meeples?

alan polak said...

Umberto Eco came up with a great definition of porn.

You can tell when you are watching porn if the time it takes a character to travel from one location to another is longer than you are prepared to put up with.If it is then it is pornography.

SenorOcho said...

Yeah, I'll be at GenCon... I've only signed up for one event (Starcraft - 10am Thursday morning! woo!), so I see a lot of random board gaming and whatever Shadowfist events I can get myself into...

Shellhead said...

Shadowfist rocks! I keep hoping that Z-Man will do a Shadowfist boardgame, especially now that the CCG is nearly dead. But playing the Shadowfist CCG is definitely an AmeriTrash experience.

Pat H said...

Meeplent Green - the all encompassing genre.

Mr Skeletor said...

Ameritrash games are exactly that - games.

Eurogames are homework in a box.


Brilliant. I too am baffled by the fact people are still asking this question. Apart from the fuzzy edges that some games fall into (which happens with ALL game genres) it's not exactly rocket science to figure it all out.

All this posturing about between Eurosnoots and ATers really gripes my fat ass.

Did Billy just knock this entire site?

Fellonmyhead said...

That was an interesting article, Matt; it's actually quite good and holds coherence a lot of the posts here lack (which makes it legible of course).

I was going to come out with some clever answer to it all but I found I couldn't be arsed. You FATties really have to lose the chip on the shoulder; everybody already knows no genre needs a strict definition, that even includes the Euros you love to hate; not many of us give a toss.

I just personally dislike applying the term "Ameritrash" to games I have loved for years and never regarded as "trash". Since the term was previously applied to games that were truly shite I still can't understand why you lot wanted to adopt it.

In short, I say nothing is AT - so blow it out your arseholes.

(Oh look, aren't I clever - not only did I go and do what I couldn't be arsed doing when I started writing this shit, I also swore a lot.

I might as well add an insult then, while I'm at it. You FATties are nothing more than Eurosnoots without Euros!

Sorry, that was far too clean for your blog; I'll try again. You shit-stabbing FATties are nothing more than arse-reaming Eurosnoots without the fucking euros - up yours you bunch of fucking fruits!)

Tom Hazlett (Southernman) said...

After jumping on Gamer_Dog (waiting for a note from the Admins) I thought I had better put something productive on the latest AT thread 'over there', so following on from Matt's lament here I put this up in an attempt to get the picture across to those who do not want to see (probably wasting my time) .....

Tom Hazlett (Southernman) said...

Black magic going on over there - watch out Mr S !

notbillysparkles said...

Skelly: No, no ya big hooded doof. I love this site. It celebrates the AT games I love and the motley crew of misfits that play them, and as Martha wood say, that's a good thing.

I just want to be sure we don't fall into the slump where we knock games because of genre rather than because of quality.

'Cause,let's face it, there are a lot of AT games out there that I wouldn't piss on if they where on fire. Not to mention that when we fall into said slump we become no better than the pricks on the other leading boardgame site.

Senorocho: maybe we can hook up and play some games. I've never played Shadowfist-- is it really all that?

Fellonmyhead: You just insulted me and made me laugh at the same time.
h
How can you hate a guy for that?

notbillysparkles said...

HAHA! I spelled "would" "wood"...er...a freudian slip about Martha Stewart...I feel all icky.

Pat H said...

Lamer Frog is a tool. I just don't get this whole business.

This is a timely article by Matt and seemingly served at the right moment again. It has just as much to do with the type of people you game with as it does the actual game type. If you shudder to hear colorful cursing, the smell of beer breath, lively music, lots of trash talk (Ameritrash-talk games?) and the occasional threat or destruction of furniture, then you probably won't like one of my game nights.

Hell I'm sure I could find a way to liven up any game but some people would still not be happy.

Fucking Carcassone is dying to have zombies house ruled in there (this game needs some carcass's) somewhere and I'm sure most of you would try it out for laughs. It's the eurosnoot types that would vomit at the prospect of defiling such an elegant jewel with trashy elements.

Keep the trash people, keep the trash.

ubarose said...

I don't think of Ameritrash as a genre of games, as much as the legitimization of a set of criteria for assessing the merit of a game. If all gamers used wargame or dexterity game criteria to assess TICKET TO RIDE, the consensus would be that TtR sucked. Gamers recognize that TICKET TO RIDE is best assessed with Eurogame and Family Game criteria. They also can recognize that the game can be referred to as BOTH a Euro and a Family game.

There are games that suck by Euro standards, are just okay by Wargame standards, are off the bottom of the scale by Family game standards, but are damn good by AT standards. There are also games that do rather well by multiple standards.

Debating over whether a game belongs to one genre or another, or whether genres even exist, or which set of criteria is the best, or what we call a set of criteria is a stupid, boring boondoggle. Over the past several months we have more or less reached consensus on a set of AT standards and criteria. I don't feel that means a game that scores highly by that set of criteria is exclusively an AT game. It does means that a gamer will probably enjoy that game if their personal "good game" criteria closely parallels the AT profile. I think it rocks that someone can simply say, "I'm looking for an AT type game that plays in about an hour," rather than having to write a dissertation to describe the kind of gaming experience they are seeking.

Rliyen said...

Ameritrash games are exactly that - games.

Eurogames are homework in a box.


DING DING DING! We have a winner!

Rliyen said...

Senorocho: maybe we can hook up and play some games. I've never played Shadowfist-- is it really all that?

It is all that, and a bag of chips. Easy to pick up, far less BS rulings and rules changes than Magic.

AND ITS GOT FLYING CYBER MONKEYS WITH GUNS!

What's not to like?

Shellhead said...

Yeah, you gotta love a game that allows shaolin monks, cyborg apes, sorcerors, demons, and cops to fight at multiple time junctures for control of history.

Mr Skeletor said...

Can someone tell me who Gamer_Dog is?

Russ Fade said...

Can someone tell me who Gamer_Dog is?

He's a BGG'er who had to leave during what he termed "The Barnes Era". He was able to return after Barnes was banned. He started a thread about his triumphant return-march on BGG: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/1428476#1428476

He is still in denial that the genre of Ameritrash exists. He does not want you to enlighten him on the subject though he will be sure to drop by an AT thread and leave a slightly-condescending post. He is brave without Barnes and crew around to mop the floor with his hurt feelings.

Be sure to welcome him back to BGG everytime you see him. I've now welcomed him back 4 times.

Ken B. said...

Nah, that's the funniest part; he thinks someone actually cares about all that.

It was like, "Dude, while you were away, all that great stuff you've done for the hobby really suffered. WHEW! I'm glad you're back, bro."

Russ Fade said...

Hey, someone over there cares. He got like 20 thumbs up didn't he? ;)


Who gives a flip. I finally played a full game of WAR OF THE RING last night!!!! OMG!!! It's b-b-beautiful . . . .

Mr Skeletor said...

Yeah I have seen those posts, but apart from those has he ever actually done anything? The way he struts around I thought he must have been famous or something.

Rliyen said...

Who gives a flip. I finally played a full game of WAR OF THE RING last night!!!! OMG!!! It's b-b-beautiful . . . .

Please, Russ, don't look at it! KEEP YOUR EYES SHUT!

Rliyen said...

Yeah I have seen those posts, but apart from those has he ever actually done anything? The way he struts around I thought he must have been famous or something.

Famous for being a wanker. He was one of those who played the, "I am one of those no name BBG users that was run off by BARNES THE DEVIL INCARNATE!!!ELELVENTYONE! LOOK AT ME!"

Apparently, he wasn't held enough as a child and needs validation from faceless BGG using strangers to add value to his banal life.

Thaadd said...

For what it's worth, I'd love to try to get together with some F:At people at GenCon - I can't say for sure if I will actually be up to a longer game after 8 hours of Demoing, but I could try, or just be peanut gallery. last year was both my first GenCon, and my first real week at FFG, so I was something resembling a puddle of goo at the end of the big days. (and for this year there are evening events I am to attend Thursday and Saturday)

If someone a) is attending and b) is willing to try to claim a place and spot to call a F:At meet up for games, it would be cool if they could throw themselves on that grenade and organize something. Even Hotel lobbies worked last year, as the neighborhood is geek-saturated enough.

Billy -
I still don't know for sure what I will be running (Possibly Starcraft!) but if you only have Generic tickets you can still try out the games in the booth. It's likely not to be a whole game, but it'll give you idea...