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
- You can do good theme without a ton of pointless chrome
- Movement round a board isn't the only way to make a game.
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.
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.
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
- Random mechanics have value in largely strategic games
- Simplicity and short play times shouldn't be design goals in themselves
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.
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.
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!
This is a copy of an article originally published on the old F:AT blog. Read original comments.