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.