Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Ameritrash--Theme or Mechanics?

Here's today's thought...is Ameritrash defined more by theme, or mechanics?

On the one hand, it's pretty obvious that it's theme that gets you in the door. Science Fiction and Fantasy are the two main themes that you'll find in most Ameritrash games. It's also why there is debate over what fits and what doesn't--"But...but it has Terminators riding Dinosaurs!"

Think about it--games with Zombies, or Cyborgs, or Dragons, or potty-mouthed Clerics...where is your first impulse to classify these? "Pff! That can't be Euro. It's got friggin' Pirates!" That's an actual train of thought when attempting to classify Pirate's Cove.

This often bounces right into the mechanics portion, and based on how European gaming influences have bled into American-style games--"cleaning them up" if you will--this adds to the confusion. Is Shogun Ameritrash? It has cubes and a highly abstracted combat resolution system, but it is about war, combat, and conflict, about duking it out on a Risk-style map.

What about individual elements of Ameritrash games? Dice? The first thing people hit you with is, "well, Settlers has dice." Yes, yes it does. Randomness in general? I've determined that Lost Cities is about as random as it gets, so much so that even if I played 200 games of it I still wouldn't feel comfortable putting money on any individual game. Plastic figures? Game manufacturers have figured out that plastic figs have a genuine appeal to a segment of gamers so it's not uncommon to see plastic figures in games that are not essentially Ameritrash. This adds to the confusion in games such as Bootleggers or Age of Empires III, which at a glance have all the plastic eye candy you could ever hope for but feature game mechanics that are not immediately at home in your typical Ameritrash game.

Mr. Skeletor doesn't like the term, but I can't help but think that the lines will further be blurred as each camp borrows heavily from the other. Euros seem to want to get out of their "pasted on theme" box and are trying very hard to give us games with crossover appeal, such as Arkadia or Pillars of the Earth. We're seeing American-style games incorporating more in the way of threaded turns, simultaneous actions, role selections, and auctions. We're seeing ambitious American-style designs coming from game makers the world over, including things like Duel in the Dark and Tannhauser.

Theme is going to continue to be important. I mean, imagine Risk, just like it is, but change the theme to ameobas battling it out in a petri dish or something. Imagine that Cave Troll is actually about a cave-in (oh wait, it almost was).

Just ask yourself--"would it seem out of place if this game included sharks with laser beams mounted on their heads?"


MWChapel said...

Just ask yourself--"would it seem out of place if this game included sharks with laser beams mounted on their heads?"

Or 20 Plastic Ninjas.

Malloc said...

Is Shogun Ameritrash? It has cubes and a highly abstracted combat resolution system, but it is about war

Shogun about war? it about building fucking buildings for VP's..... EURO!


Malloc said...

I think with AT, were are talking about a mindset, an acceptance of a certain openness in a game. Theme over mechanics would probably be the best way of putting it. Both are important. I can make a game with the coolest theme in the world, but with the wrong mechanics it sucks.

Also its not the mechanics themselves that make a euro. It is the almost abstract nature of the games. No all eurogames have good mechanics, but the games engines are all driven by mechanics and not on theme or player interaction.

Player interaction is also the unsung hero of AT titles. It is the gaming equivalent of piss me off all you want bu do no be surprised when my fist is crushing your nose.
Most Euro's are totally lacking this or limit it severely. So to stop a leader you have to play an unintentional meta game of talk the newbie into helping you or, the game has to have catch up mechanics built into it.


Ken B. said...

I think that's why AT has been impossible to classify in a quantifiable sense.

Boardgaming's most famous curmudgeon Clearclaw once responded to my Geeklist about American-style games by saying what I was describing sounded more like "some sort of performance art, and one that I don't like at that."

Anonymous said...

You guys are really running out of things to write about over here, huh? Theme or mechanics!

Anonymous said...

I think that's why AT has been impossible to classify in a quantifiable sense.

Whoops. Missed that brilliant bit of insight. Now it all makes sense.

Ken B. said...

Always glad to be of service. My mission in life: "To disappoint anonymous jackasses."

Shellhead said...

My answer: AmeriTrash is about theme plus mechanics. An AmeriTrash game will definitely have a theme, but more importantly, will deliberately use rules that support that theme. Sometimes there is actually no other justification for certain rules than to support theme, and we call that chrome. Euros are strictly about mechanics, and the theme only gets pasted on after the mechanics are fitted together.

Ken B. said...

I think Euro designers are trying to fix that, though. It's like, "If this is your only complaint about our games, we can fix that."

They're pretty far from that point just yet, but they're working on it. The same tired Euro stuff these days just doesn't move as many units, and ends up as Tanga fodder where everyone and their dog tries to dump the four copies of whatever Rio Grande offering was just on there and they clog up Math Trades for MONTHS.

ratpfink said...

Euros are strictly about mechanics, and the theme only gets pasted on after the mechanics are fitted together.

Like Dune. Exactly.

Anonymous said...

I thought you guys were just goign to do joke pieces and pictures forever and I'm glad to see some content on this site and not a link to some other site....not your best stuff but shake the dust off and keep em coming.....can't you guys get martin to post again??

ubarose said...

Euros us theme to describe their algorithms (mechanics). AT's use algorithms (mechanics) to describe their theme.

Ken B. said...

Exactly. So it isn't a focus on one or the other, but through which funnel the design process evolves from.

mads said...

I think that most AT games have a storyline - a sort of dramaturgy. Of course every game has one no matter how abstract it is, but in AT games it's easily identified and - most important - it's obviously tied to the real world. In Sct. Petersburg, for instance, you supposedly hire nobles and build buildings in order to be the most influential or some such. But I wouldn't be able to retell the story in other than abstract, gamey terms. But I can always retell a game of TI3 or even Risk. And that is, I think, one of the main differences.

Lucas said...

Man, some people are rude (the anonymous ones, I mean). There are douchebags extremists to give both Amerigamers and Eurogamers a bad name.

Anyhoot, this discussion got me thinking about a game my girlfriend and I are designing, and whether it would appeal to both camps (or to neither if it alienates each camp too much).

The game is table-top wargame inspired, but is played on a modular hex-based board. It will hopefully have individual plastic models, which you don't have to put together, but can convert if that's your thing.

However, it will not use dice (**gasp!**). How will we prevent analysis paralysis? There are some random elements, but the focus is on replacing major, persistent randomness with 'unknown factors'

What are these, you ask? They fall in 2 major categories: cards that you can use, and objectives. The cards fall into another 2 categories: "special effect" cards (e.g., give 3 units a free Move action), and 'Booster Cards'.

The latter kind of cards is used every time an Attack or Shoot action is performed -- the attacker and the target each secretly chooses from a small selection of Booster Cards (which increase or reduce casualties by anywhere from +/- 1 to +/- 5), and reveals these cards simultaneous. The catch is, players have a decoy card that they can play each time, but has no effect.

So you think, "Ok, he may play his -5 card to prevent me from killing off that unit, so I have to play at least my +3 card to ensure the kill." But then your opponent goes and plays his decoy, and you waste a good card on overkill. Hence, unknown factor.

Now, the other unknown factor were the objectives. Each player always has 2 to 5 objectives to give them Victory Points. This is the only way to get VPs. You only known 1 of their objectives. So you never known exactly what they are trying to do, and what will give them victory. There is a bit of a random factor in which objectives you get (you have some choice on this matter).

WOW, that was a long post! Ok, so on of my primary questions here is: can a board-based 'wargame' (with a solid Sci-Fi theme) succeed without dice, if the result of each attack is not mathematically guaranteed and the victory conditions are partially unknown?

Do these unknown factors add enough 'drama' to satisfy the removal of dice from the game (from the Amerigamer perspective)?

P.S.: The armies are customizable using a points system, and game length is 1-2 hours (depending on game size, in part).