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  • Sorry, Charlie: Drama, the Lifeblood of Ameritrash

Sorry, Charlie: Drama, the Lifeblood of Ameritrash

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Sorry, Charlie: Drama, the Lifeblood of Ameritrash
There Will Be Games

A discussion on drama, tension and why I still love this hobby. 



The definitions of Ameritrash, thematic, and narrative driven gaming all seem to blend together and coalesce into an obscure creed that is more about espousing a particular attitude than any specific mechanics or structure.  Limiting the scope of these terms and trying to box them into discrete informative descriptors is a monumental waste of time in the fusion menu of the current scene.  I'm no prophet or authoritarian and won't pretend to have any sway in reforming thought to align the contemporary industry with a certain way of thinking, but I think we need to strip off the enormous mounds of chrome, miniatures and flavor text so we can get back to discussing why these games truly stimulate our brain and shove our hypertension off a cliff. 

I consider myself an Ameritrash gamer; a proponent of moxie, trash talking and a militant terrorist to heads down number crunching and optimization.  The main tenet that weaves like a gazelle pounding through the gestalt of gaming in my universe is drama.  Dramatic tension in the form of bursts of alternating hushed intensity and shouts of ferocious emotion is my jam.  Memories about this intrinsic connection of equal parts affection and despair stick in my brain and if you aren't partaking in something that warrants remembering then you're wasting the few precious moments of your waning life.

Games foster drama from two distinct vectors: social and mechanical.  The social aspect shifts the burden of fabricating enjoyment from specific mechanisms to participants colliding and trading mental jabs.  This can be a result of negotiation as well as deduction via verbal sparring.  Negotiation is a trait that is inherent in some designs but is more of an attitude and approach to tackling the challenge of victory.  My groups tend to jabber away and go overboard, piling on peer pressure to gang up on the leader and bullying each other into making aggressor perceived sub-optimal moves.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but universally the result is interesting and impactful. 

Games like Cosmic Encounter and Sons of Anarchy set the pitch to bring this duel of wits to the fore.  By including mechanisms that require social engagement while leaving the door open to backslide it shoves participants into each other like the trash compactor walls in unit 3263827.  The victims become flush with anger and threats are issued and for a brief moment everyone forgets their miserable life and leaves their iPhone tucked away quietly in their pocket.  Emotion is the most direct path to the brain and the poignant response elicited is worth more than any grail game you have collecting dust on a Kallax.

Deduction is the other side of the social coin and has arisen like a leviathan the past few years, claiming a large host of cultist followers.  Releases like The Resistance and One Night Ultimate Werewolf have ushered in an era of prominent betrayal and complex social dynamics with minimal fuss and miniscule playtimes.  The impact of a traitor among a group of allies is a powerful tool and one that immediately manufactures persistent attention and witty scrutiny.  When Steve's sitting next to me in a game of Nexus Ops I might call his mother a lady of the night but if we switch things up and we're running Spyfall, well then I could care less about his immediate family and am more worried about protecting the soft flesh of my lower back.  Suspicion and paranoia fill the gaps of downtime and captivation becomes the overriding noun. 

Social deduction and negotiation are powerful and smooth tools for a design to casually integrate for maximum influence on the table's dynamic, but there's a whole other spectrum of designs that wield an altogether different wicked implement for maximum violence.  Concrete mechanisms are about guiding the users towards an intended experience by enforcing a small degree of control.  It's a delicate balancing act as squeezing too tight will choke the life and personality out of a system and leave you with a frowny Euro-dude running his fingers across wooden cubes of varying color like Matthew McConaughey pulled from his Lincoln into a game of Caylus.  Going the other way and letting things ride like the wild Autobahn results in formless meandering that leads to frustration - which is NOT the type of drama we're angling towards.  Yes, that's you I'm kicking in the sack Betrayal At House On The Hill.

The main away to smoothly transmit tension and intensity is by allowing varying outcomes and swings of power that are contained just enough to feel fair.  Resolution systems that employ dice or cards are the most prominent solution but more clever systems exist such as board states and force pools that shift to create openings and opportunity.  All of the great Ameritrash titles allow for unexpected reversals and daring gambits primarily because they strike that rich vein of emotional gold that always lingers at the surface of our conscious. 

Designs gravitating towards this connection can certainly be extremely well designed and full of thoughtful integration.  An underlying current of arrogance seems to be permeating portions of the industry as proper hobby games are deemed to feature multiple cross systems of shifting quantitative and mathematical challenges providing the framework for a large decision tree stretching into the caverns of the mind like a berth of Henry Ford assembly lines stretching into the abyss of greatness.  Games focused on less rigid structures of emergent challenge can be deemed elementary and relegated to the sidewalk like a popcorn stand with a broken wheel dwarfed by the gigantic steak house puffing its chest in the background.  The truth is inherent randomness and variety of perceived outcomes in no way constitutes lazy principles of design or mechanisms of an inferior variety.  When implemented well, these systems pound your skull with a verifiable flood of intense imagery like Alex strapped to a chair with his eyes forced open by a crude contraption.  I'll take that stiff broken leather seat every day of the week.

Drama, tension, passion, and intensity - these are the guiding principles of my hobby and why I'm still as enthusiastic as ever. If you want a seat at my table you best come willing to bear the truculence and take the abuse like a catcher without a mitt.  Just be aware that should the tides turn and your wall of ferocious warriors stand atop my broken army, I will be the first to slap you on the back and cheer you on, right after I've gathered my senses and wiped away the salty crimson tears.

There Will Be Games
Charlie Theel (He/Him)
Associate Board Game Reviewer

In addition to a solid writing background, Charlie Theel is a game designer and heavily involved in the hobby. He enjoys talking trash and ridiculing members of his game group despite the fact that he can't win a game to save his life. Besides gaming, he enjoys hockey, film, and heavy metal.

You can find more of his work on his blog Player Elimination. He also co-hosts the Ding & Dent gaming podcast with his Ameritrash brother-in-arms Rafael Cordero.

Articles by Charlie

Charlie Theel
Associate Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Charlie

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #204873 24 Jun 2015 11:14
A new AmeriTrash Manifesto. I love it. However, sometimes I like some limitations to the degree of social interaction in a game. Games like Werewolf and Sons of Anarchy give every player direct access to every other player. But when a game has an actual map with troops or dudes or monsters on it, the politics of the game can become more localized and focused. Instead of everybody dogpiling a perceived leader, it can be more about two players hammering out a border... with hammers.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #204875 24 Jun 2015 11:24

Shellhead wrote: A new AmeriTrash Manifesto. I love it. However, sometimes I like some limitations to the degree of social interaction in a game. Games like Werewolf and Sons of Anarchy give every player direct access to every other player. But when a game has an actual map with troops or dudes or monsters on it, the politics of the game can become more localized and focused. Instead of everybody dogpiling a perceived leader, it can be more about two players hammering out a border... with hammers.

Definitely a good point. There's certainly a shift in feel when you narrow the scope of negotiation via congested and limited real estate boundaries.

Related to this but with an altogether different veneer, are effects/cards with specific scope and requirements that inhibit interaction to a smaller selection of the table. Spartacus does this with stuff like "Target a Dominus with 3 gladiators". This isn't interesting if you only have a single choice but it is immediately interesting if the Influence requirement means you have to gain the help of someone else.

It's amazing how games like Cosmic Encounter, Sons Of Anarchy, Spartacus, Nexus Ops, and Bootleggers all have negotiation in different amounts with different scope. Despite the fact that they all feel different, if you like one of those there's a solid chance you'll like the others.

It's kind of like discussing different dynamics of a specific aspect of a sport, such as the different types of hitters in baseball or forwards in hockey. Whether a guy is a power forward or a soft perimeter player, we're still talking about putting up points and putting the puck in the net.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #204879 24 Jun 2015 11:34
I played a couple of games of Bootleggers when it first came out, but I don't remember any negotiation in the game. I was playing with a group of dedicated Euro-gamers, so that probably squelched any opportunity for discussion. People were too busy silently running numbers in their heads to talk much.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #204881 24 Jun 2015 11:56
I can't even fathom Bootleggers without negotiation. It seems like every play I've had people are making deals to transport each other's liquor and extort others by threatening to dick them over with cards.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #204889 24 Jun 2015 14:27
This article makes me want to play games! Awesome.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #204890 24 Jun 2015 16:02
Damn good writing.

Fortress Ameritrash 2008 apparently left a time capsule that just broke open.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #204893 24 Jun 2015 16:05
Thanks guys, appreciate the kind words.
Motorik's Avatar
Motorik replied the topic: #204897 24 Jun 2015 18:50
Neat article! I agree that lumping games into monolithic blocs is kind of a futile exercise, although it always makes for a fun thought-experiment.

One thing that jumps out: a number of the "Ameritrash" games mentioned in this thread (Bootleggers, Nexus Ops, Sons of Anarchy -- all games I like a great deal!) are absolutely hybrid games. That is to say: these are games that wouldn't exist in their final form had they not borrowed elements or mechanics from Euros. It's hard to think of them as pure Ameritrash, whatever that term may mean. I've been gaming since the 80s and I've pretty much done it all: minis, grognardy wargames, RPGs, "Ameritrash," "Euros," etc. Not trying to flex any seniority muscle, but for me, Ameritrash really means something wholly different. Stuff like SJG's Illuminati card game (a fucking HORRIBLE game, but one that I absolutely fucking LOVE) But, you know, there are certain memorable waypoints when you've been gaming so long. How, in 2000/2001, Princes of Florence arrived and in retrospect was kind of a waypoint between lighter, simpler, more interactive (and even occasionally cutthroat [!])"Old Euros" and the horrible optimization exercises that constituted "New Euros." How, when Nexus Ops arrived in 2005, it really did feel like some kind of bizarre, alien new territory. I mean, nobody was throwing the term "hybrid" around yet, but it definitely struck our group as some brave, strange new marriage of Euros and Ameritrash.

And for every SoA, Nexus Ops, Bootleggers, etc, there are totally clunky hybrids that combine the worst of both worlds. I mean, I think Ignacy's stuff is pretty fucking horrid, mechanically and thematically. IMO, Robinson Crusoe is the worst hybrid ever designed, and one of the worst games ever created. But I digress. Great article!
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #204903 24 Jun 2015 22:28
I actually wrote an article a couple of years ago called "The Game That Ruined Eurogames". It was Princes of Florence.
SuperflyPete's Avatar
SuperflyPete replied the topic: #204947 25 Jun 2015 17:06
The only thing I can add is this:

I have never said, "My dear friend SoloLubius... Your gladiator seems to have consumed wine tainted with spoiled semen" while playing Power Grid.
Sevej's Avatar
Sevej replied the topic: #204950 25 Jun 2015 17:58
It's kind of amazing how quick you replace Expedit with Kallax...
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #204985 26 Jun 2015 08:24
I think you could work that into Power Grid somehow Pete.

Kallax rolls off the tongue better anyway Sevej.