Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Foreign Exchange

Whatever you might think of individual Eurogames, or the Eurogame in general there's one thing that AT fans everywhere ought to be thankful for - the fact that Eurogames revitalized the stagnant boardgaming hobby in the late nineties and lead indirectly to a new wave of games in other areas of the hobby. What these new games had in common was that they had learned some lessons from the lean, mean design paradigm of eurogames.

For a long time there didn't seem to be much traffic the other way. This is hardly surprising - the Euro was a pretty new concept, at least to those of us outside Germany, and we hadn't yet seen where those sorts of designs might have the shortcomings that we've discussed ad-infinitum before. Besides the fact they were new meant they had plenty of potential for exploration and play before people started to get a little jaded and look for something new. Eventually some Euro-American hybrid games started to appear and as regular readers will probably know I, for one, am immensely enthusiastic about their future as the next big thing in the gaming hobby.

We're all perfectly well aware that these sorts of vague categorisations are fairly meaningless. People like to categorise - as an ex-biologist who's sat through the vagaries of a number of different taxonomy systems I can well attest to that. But the fact is that the concept of "new wave" AT games and Euro-American hybrids have such immense crossover as to make the terms virtually interchangeable. Twilight Imperium 3 is often given as an example of the former, and War of the Ring as an example of the latter. When it comes down to it, aren't they both basically wargames that have imported wholesale a variety of mechanics first seen in Eurogames?

Amongst the AT fan crowd there also seems to be a slightly ridiculous attachment to old school games from the eighties, many of which were in fact pretty crap. Sure there were some absolute gems to come out of that time and which are still completely worth playing today - and most of them either are being or already have been reprinted by FFG or Valley Games! But people still harp on about how great it was to stay up until four in the morning playing game X, when in reality a play of game X now would probably reveal it to be a massively overlong turkey with virtually no worthwhile decisions in it. Nothing wrong with highly random games, but they need to be short, short, short to engage the attention of the modern gamer. I suspect what people remember is that playing game X provided a fantastic social framework in which you could sit around with your friends, drinking, smoking, chatting and generally having a good time to which the game contributed very little apart from a talking point and a reason to stay up until the small hours of the morning. That's how I remember most of my university-days games of Risk in any case.

So, with all this in mind I thought it might be interesting to make a list of all the useful things that AT designers learned from Eurogames, and all the things that I feel Euro designers ought to learn - and are now starting to pick up - from AT games. Well do the latter first.

  • Engaging game play is all about meaningful decisions

  • Far, far too many old AT titles were essentially overlong gambling games without any real decisions to be made or even any sort of framework on which to hang a strategy. I have no doubt at all that this is largely the fault of Talisman - a game beloved largely because it allowed RPG fans to recreate some of their favourite genre in a boardgame and whose recipe was copied ad-infinitum by far too many games at the time. Too many mechanics basically came down to either risk management or passing over the important aspects of the play to a dice roll. This just doesn't wash anymore - random mechanics are good and an important inclusion in modern games but they need to take something of a back seat to good decision making and strategic planning. I reckon that a good game should be decided by random factors no more that 20% of the time - and 10-15% is probably a better mark. Less than that and you start to loose much of the value that randomness adds to a game.

  • You can do good theme without a ton of pointless chrome

  • I have a big, fast nostalgic soft spot for a fantasy wargame called Dragon Pass - it's the game my bat-counter avatar comes from. The rulebook is some 32 pages long but the actual core game rules take up about six of those pages. The remainder is dedicated to the bewildering variety of "exotic" units that break the base rules in any number of colourful ways. Although this makes the game bewildering it also lends a lot of flavour to the play and indeed is partly what makes the game worth playing. But consider - amongst said exotics is a column of rules dedicated to a character called Hungry Jack. I've never seen Hungry Jack appear in a game of DP: he's not very powerful and you need to temporarily send a dragon (which is a powerful piece) off the board to collect him. In other words the rules space and playtest time dedicated to Hungry Jack are completely wasted. This is the sort of thing I'm talking about - too often old school AT games were so into implementing the theme that they forgot about what effect it had on the play experience. A number of Euro designers have shown that it's possible to have a satisfying level of thematic integration and still keep the rules size down. This has resulted in games like TI3 which, although "bloated" with different concepts, is not "flabby" like Dragon Pass - in TI3 almost everything potentially serves a purpose as a strategy lever to help progress the game. In DP, there's lots of stuff in the rulebook that doesn't.

  • Movement round a board isn't the only way to make a game.

  • Virtually every boardgame I can think of that I played as a teenager involved manipulating playing pieces on a board which was intended to represent a stylised version of a physical space. I assume this came from miniatures games and to the popularity of family roll and move games and although this basic premise does allow for an awful lot of variety in terms of mechanics and strategy, it eventually because just as limiting as any other self-imposed paradigm design goal, like keeping things fast and simple for instance. In fairness it has to be said that this remains the dominant way in which AT designers choose to approach their theme. What they've become much less shy about though is utilising mechanics borrowed from other games to represent supporting aspects of the game play, and having a much more innovative approach to using different mechanics to go about representing the space in which the pieces move. There are also a number of hybrid games, Bootleggers for instance, which have managed to move away from this entirely and either jettison the board or use it for something completely different - in Bootleggers it's used mainly for record keeping and area-majority play. The result is that modern AT games have become much more diverse, and as a result, much more interesting, than they used to be.

And on the other hand, when it comes to Euro designers, I'd say ...

  • Mathematical strategy needs to be balanced by something else

  • There's a variety of places on the internet where you can play puzzle games that involve moving various board elements in accordance with simple, logical rules to effect a "win" scenario - escaping from a maze or having a laser hit a target or somesuch. I usually find these games to be engaging for a short while but they quickly get tedious for me because the approach to solving the puzzle is often the same in every case. There is, in effect, a scripted "best" approach to the problem. I've explained before in this blog how I feel that reducing a game to the simplest possible rules results in gameplay which is essentially logical and mathematical in nature and games which have been reduced in this fashion tend to have the same problem. They reveal that there's a single best approach to the decision making and/or they end up feeling the same after every play. There's plenty of ways to counter this problem without resorting to randomness such as positional play on a board, piling on the variables until analysis becomes virtually impossible or allowing some sort of trading or negotiation metagame to take place. Indeed, Reiner Knizia has some particularly ingeneous solutions to this and I don't doubt that that's partly why he's such a highly regarded designer. But many Euro designers keep on turning out games which are, in effect, logic puzzles and which have correspondingly low replay value.

  • Random mechanics have value in largely strategic games

  • Amongst the Eurogame fanbase there seems to be a lot of love for the old-fashioned two player abstracts like Chess and Go. This is hardly surprising since they conform well to the basic Euro design paradigm - nonrandom games in which deep strategy flows from simple rules. The problem is that most gamers enjoy multiplayer games and when you export those same design paradigms into a multiplayer scenario it plays havoc with game balance as the decisions of the third player start impact more positively or negatively on one opponent than on the other. Euro designers have recognised this and struggled manfully to solve the problem and, in most cases, they've succeeded in making more problems like the left/right player binding in Puerto Rico. The obvious answer, as far as I can see, is to stop trying to emulate non-random two player games and just allow a bit more chaos in, as properly handled, a little entropy can actually help balance a game in the long run and doesn't need to frequently, if ever, trump skill in deciding a winner. It's also a potential solution to the problem mentioned above as it stops players relying on scripted techniques for problem solving and keeps them on their toes as well as providing a variable seed to ensure that games turn out differently each time. However, the glut of vastly random family games around seem to have made "random" a dirty word in the Euro community.

  • Simplicity and short play times shouldn't be design goals in themselves

  • This one probably needs some justification - what I'm really trying to say here is that while it's okay to take a game and try and work down to the minimum possible play time and complexity for your design goal, having that swiftness and simplicity you crave as a goal in itself too often results in poor, empty games. There's plenty of places to start your design - you might want to try an unusual mechanic, you might want to implement a particular theme, you might want to take the basis of a game you've played and throw a new element into it to improve it. But far too often it seems that in the cry for quick and easy games to play the original goal gets forgotten and indeed often gets trampled and destroyed by the ruthless slimming-down process resulting in a fast game that just isn't very interesting to play.

So there we go. I hope people will feel these are fair and interesting points on both sides of the debate. But then again, if you did there wouldn't be any debate. So come on and shoot me down!


StephenAvery said...

Ok point taken but you'll never get me to unhand my old GW games. Its a desperate attempt to recapture my youth...


Ken B. said...

On nostalgia--I did a Geeklist quite a while back on this very topic, and some of the answers I got on why gamers were so nostalgic for the old AT titles were fairly enlightening. I didn't agree with every point, but some valid ones were made.

See the list here

As a whole, I agree with you Matt--AT games now are better than ever. I wish games were this good when I was younger and had endless afternoons and weekends to spend on them.

When I was much younger, it was the other way around--lots of time to kill but very few quality games to choose from. No doubt about it--NOW is the golden age of boardgaming, and AT gaming in particular. All the great stuff from the old days updated, streamlined, and just in general made's technology, baby.

mtlawson said...

Oh, I'll agree that Talisman (especially with the City expansion) was overlong and was rather limited in it's design, but I'm still rather fond of it.

Because of it's limitations, Talisman is one of those games that I don't rate highly on the Geek, but is in my top 10.

--Mike L.

Shellhead said...

Good points overall, but I disagree with a couple of critiques about old AT games.

Matt, if you make just one die roll in a game for something important, that is extremely random. But if you are constantly rolling dice during a game, a bell curve of those dice results will typically emerge, so that the overall impact of luck is not great. The reason why the dice are still good for an AmeriTrash game is that the randomness of any single outcome prevents analysis paralysis and keeps the game moving at an entertaining pace. It also forces strategic players to make contingency plans.

Having game board spaces that represent some sort of physical space strike me as nearly essential to the AmeriTrash experience. If there isn't a sense of where your dude or dudes are, then the game probably has a level of abstraction that prevents any sense of identification or drama... in other words, a euro.

As for Bootleggers, I flat out dispute that it's a hybrid. Plastic figures do not make a game AmeriTrash or even a hybrid. In every other respect, Bootleggers is a Euro game. In fact, it's one of those games that's been solved. I could tell, because one of the guys in the group that I played with is notorious for sucking at new games and then kicking ass once the game has been solved. That guy won handily both times I played.

My gaming group from junior high through college played board games frequently. We missed out on all the GW games because we misjudged them by the stupid cover artwork. But otherwise, we played the hell out of some decent AmeriTrash games, and even had a lot of fun with some flawed AmeriTrash games.

For example: Intruder was just a low-budget pocket game from Task Force Games. But Intruder is also an exciting game that still hits my gaming table on a semi-regular basis, playable solitaire, cooperative or even player versus player. The very structure of the game creates tension, with a sneaky monster with unknown powers that gradually evolves into an increasingly bigger threat.

Another great AT game that many overlooked was a humble Yaquinto album game called Roaring 20's. It is the AT answer to a pickup-and-delivery game, with ample room for threats and negotiations, punctuated by frantic car chases as gangsters try to pull off their big jobs while chased by the police.

Or here's an old AT game that was flawed and yet still lots of fun: Asteroid. No, not the famous arcade game. Asteroid was a science-fiction version of a dungeon crawl. One player sets up a fiendish maze of tunnels and robots, while the rest of the players assemble a team of space adventurers. The game was clearly unbalanced in favor of the good guys, but we used reinforcements from the clone soldier scenario to help the robots have a fighting chance.

It's true that most old AT games were long. But I just don't understand why modern players have such brief attention spans. Even a short gaming session for our group will last at least 6-8 hours, so why can't we sometimes play a game that takes 3 hours to play? I think that the real problem might be that some of our younger (college age) players may not have the fortitude to play out a losing position in a game that lasts more than an hour.

Ken B. said...

Having game board spaces that represent some sort of physical space strike me as nearly essential to the AmeriTrash experience.

Yeah...but we forgive a lot in terms of that, don't we? Like troops in Risk being able to attack at the Canadian border in one instant, then suddenly turn and attack Mexico with the same troops? That's some freaking awesome technology!

I love longer games, 3-6 hours being the limit, though. Mostly that's due to being realistic. Twilight Imperium is a fantastic game but scheduling it is almost as strenuous as managing a project at work, and with almost as much overhead.

If a game (not just AT, but any) can fit inside 1-1.5 hours, you have the ability to spontaneously play. Like over the Labor Day holiday, didn't look like we'd have time to game, but then we had an extra hour and a half all of the sudden. They were like, "want to play Lord of the Rings?" and I said, "sure, that will work!" Fury of Dracula, Twilight Imperium, that stuff was out of the question.

I think both have their place...

But what Matt is saying kind of echoes my thoughts on the process of game design--it's like it's taken an inverse path to software game design.

In the old days, software coders had to strenuously optimize their code so it would run on existing hardware. Occasionally, they could really push the envelope but they had to hope that people were willing to upgrade just to play their game, and that was a real risk. Otherwise, lines of code were arduously optimized.

Then, as powerful hardware became cheaper and more prevalent, optimization was tossed out the window. Games are now designed just however they are, and hopefully you have the hardware to run it. If not, go buy some.

In the old days of boardgame design, it was as though there was no optimization. Just toss everything in there and the kitchen sink...hey, we need a rule for this, why not? Gamers are patient, they don't have many alternatives, they'll swallow this.

Now as time has diminished to the point where we're all running at 486-level on availalbe time, we need optimization. Successful games these days provide it, because "upgrading" to more time isn't an option for us.

Man, a game like Twilight Imperium in the 80s would've taken DAYS UPON DAYS to finish. Instead of Trade cards, we'd have elaborate charts for how much we could trade each season based on the weather of the planets that we've occupied since the beginning of harvest season, factoring in decay of goods over time and a fluctuating market based on the number of goods sold and/or traded this turn.

I don't want games to be stripped down to nothing and finish in 30 minutes, but if you have a game that should run six hours based on scope and theme but you can streamline it to a digestable three-hour or less experience, then you have my gaming dollar.

scott b said...

"Bootleggers is a Euro game. In fact, it's one of those games that's been solved. I could tell, because one of the guys in the group that I played with is notorious for sucking at new games and then kicking ass once the game has been solved. That guy won handily both times I played."

Ha! This is hilarious. A game is solved because a friend of yours got better at it and won two in a row. I guess Downfall of Pompeii is also solved since I lost my first game and then won three straight.

Shellhead said...

Maybe I'm just frustrated about my current situation. I've recently been in preliminary discussions with a major game company to do a boardgame treatment of one of their popular RPGs. My co-designer and I recently sent in a one-page pitch that summarized how our game would work, using what components, for how many players, and what time span. Standard stuff. Our game was going to be 90 minutes long for 2-6 players.

They looked over our proposal and then responded that what they really wanted was a 30-minute for 2-6 players, and they didn't mind if we made it more generic in theme instead of tying into their RPG license. We have been brainstorming alternatives for a week, but those are pretty ridiculous parameters. You might be able to run a tic-tac-toe tournament for 6 players in that time frame.

Jack Hill said...


Any chance I could take a look at it? I have practice in streamlining games for speed with some weird preloaded luck techniques.

You really need a 45 minute length to allow a game to have a proper story arc, and a good sense of progression, however.

As to the main article, Matt is perfectly on target. A lot of old 80's and 90's games were really and truly awful. The Talisman clones were almost universally dreadful

Asteroid, and the Leading Edge Aliens games were great, GW did a couple of nice games, and there are some iconic Avalon Hill games from the period. (I make sure to play Merchants of Venus at least once per year, and get in two or three Arabian Nights plays.)

I'm amazed however, that Rob Martin hasn't picked up on a new (German only) edition of Black Morn Manor.

Most of hte rest is crap. Civ is horribly painful to actually play. Divine Right is seriously clunky, and Kings and Things doesn't ever seem to end.

Ken B. said...

30-minutes isn't very realistic for such a game. I can understand your frustration.

I'd love to see your game released that did RPG in 90 minutes. I'd be all over it.

You could always just outright the "90 minutes" on the outside box of Doom: The Boardgame.

EXEC: "Does this play in 30-minutes?"

YOU: "Well, yes, it certainly could finish in 30-minutes..."

"...if one player is a moron and challenges the Big Bad while still level 2..."

Shellhead said...

Scott B., you might understand if you knew this player... the guy is like a 50-something version of Rainman, right down to the voice. He has zero social skills, and zero imagination. He often has trouble figuring out the door knob to the bathroom at a place where that group plays regularly. It would be easy to mistake him for somebody who lives in a group home. But once he reads about a winning strategy for a euro with lots of open information, he memorizes that strategy and starts winning.

Now, Bootleggers... why would this be considered a hybrid, aside from the plastic figures? Pasted-on theme, no player elimination, simple rules, relatively short play time, low interaction between the players (compared to AT games), and the only randomness is in the card deck. Those are all Euro game qualities, and everybody knows it. AmeriTrash games generally feature combat, drama, dice-rolling, chrome, and maybe even player elimination. Since Bootleggers lacks all of those qualities, it just doesn't look like a hybrid to me.

Shellhead said...


We might take you up on that. We had about 2/3 of the rules worked out when we submitted our proposal, but we wanted to act fast because the company is looking to assign the design to somebody soon. We just happened to contact them right after they decided to do such a game.

At this point, we're thinking of a dual-track design process, giving them what they want while also finishing our original design. Then we will submit them side-by-side.

I have prior experience with this publisher, and last time around they tried to force us to change a 2-hour game into a 30-minute game. The final result that got published is about a 60-minute game, but a lot of the fun AT elements got hacked away in the process.

So we are still going to submit our original design, in hopes that the sheer quality will win them over. And the shorter game will just be to hedge our bets, since my new co-designer really badly wants to get published, just to get his foot in the door.

scott b said...


Regarding Bootleggers, you are forgetting that still production is based upon a die roll. In fact, that die roll is what kills it for so many hard-core eurogamers. I personally think it adds the randomness needed to make the game interesting and replayable.

Shellhead said...

Scott B,

You're right, I forgot about the die roll. I can see how that would bother the hardcore Euro players, but I'm not convinced that makes Bootleggers a hybrid. I guess we could have a whole discussion about defining hybrids.

Jack Hill said...

Bootleggers also has those wacky cards, several of which are basic screw your neighbor.

Those are drifting into more Euro games in small doses. There are even Screw You cards in Zepter.

Shryke said...

Settlers has production based upon a die roll, and that also pisses off alot of hard-core Eurogamers too. I wouldn't call Settlers AT to any extent though. And if you want "Screw Your Neighbour" cards, pick up the Knights and Cities expansions (the one that makes it good, if a little too long).

MWChapel said...

Hey great read Matt. I agree with most of the points that you gave. I think the only place you and I differ on is replayability. Of course I like games that have more of a puzzle feel than the theme itself(probably stemming from my love of Chess and Go).

While a simplistic puzzle type game which has depth in strategy but lacks in "social" fun, I still consider more of a "game". But for me gaming is about the mental exercise than the social involvement. I still love playing "dumb fun" games like party games, yet don't feel they have substance for my serious side.

My backlash of theme over the last few years, isn't because I wasn't a fan of those themes. more so, my game base of friends became more "mature" or people who didn't play D&D or Talisman in college. So they look at those type of themed games with distaste. And without the people to play the games with you, then all you have is a lot of unused cardboard.

With every game the AT camp says is lifeless, well, I must say I have tons of people around here playing, and it has life. While my copies "Game of Thrones" or "Warrior Knights" collect dust. That is my definition of lifeless.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Very well written and thoughtful. I enjoyed your article.

Ken B. said...

You're right, Chapel. It has a lot to do with the people you game with.

For me, fortunately my friends are into theme-heavy dicefest know, the usual AT stuff. That's just the kind of gamers they are.

The people I game with at work? Not as much. Still, I like to game, so I bring some quick-playing Euros to play with them. It's not where my heart lies, but so be it.

Now...if those were the only people I had to game with...I guess if I wanted to game, I'd have to change my tastes, eh?

Like I said, luckily I don't have to worry about that. And I'd say that's a big bonus, because after playing games like "Oasis", I know *exactly* what "lifeless" means. Playing that sort of game all the time would drive me mad, and I'd wager I just wouldn't be into boardgaming at all if that were the case.

KingPut said...

Excellent article. I probably agree with about 98% of what you’ve written. Just one point to add. I think if TI3 had come out before Puerto Rico, San Juan or other Euros with the select a role / job aspect of the game, many AT gamers would love that mechanism of the game as adding to theme to the game. But since to the role / job selection was borrowed from Euro designs, I know there are AT gamers who dislike that part of TI3. Personally, I’m optimistic for the future of great game design because of borrowing good aspects of very different games.