Direct Conflict and Ameritrash

Direct Conflict and Ameritrash Hot

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merchant of venusAnother week begins, and another great user-submitted article to kick things off.  This week, Jorge Arroyo gives thoughts on conflict, theme, and Ameritrash.

 

I find I'm attracted to boardgames in mainly two different ways. Either the game has some puzzle like quality that intrigues me (this set of games is composed mainly of strange abstracts and the occasional euro) or the game has an interesting theme and manages to integrate its mechanics with its theme (this set is composed mainly of AT games).

There is a reason I usually refer to this last group as "Heavily Themed Games" instead of just AT, and that is because there are games in this group that lack some of the main aspects of AT games, especially direct conflict.

 

I find I'm attracted to boardgames in mainly two different ways. Either the game has some puzzle like quality that intrigues me (this set of games is composed mainly of strange abstracts and the occasional euro) or the game has an interesting theme and manages to integrate its mechanics with its theme (this set is composed mainly of AT games).

There is a reason I usually refer to this last group as "Heavily Themed Games" instead of just AT, and that is because there are games in this group that lack some of the main aspects of AT games, especially direct conflict.

As an example, I'll talk about one of my all time favorite games (which many ATers seem to like): Merchant of Venus. Here's a game with a Sci-Fi theme where your in-game actions are very close to what your "real" actions would be in the game's reality. You basically decide which planets to fly to, what to buy from the available goods and where to sell those goods. Whether to pick up that passenger which may take part of your valuable cargo space, or buy an extra shield to protect your ship, etc... Then later on you have to decide when will it be the best time to buy a new ship (too soon, and you won't take advantage of the new cargo capacities because you have little money left. Too late, and you will needlessly limit your cargo capacity and your profit...)

So, this game is no abstract and its theme is not pasted on. The theme's premise is a universe where merchants trade from planet to planet trying to find the best routes (in a way, similar to the old Elite and Frontier computer games) and all the mechanics support that premise. But, where is the conflict?

You could argue that Merchant of Venus is a multiplayer solitaire (how many times have I heard that criticism thrown at many euros) because there is little direct interaction between players. In fact the game has optional combat rules that I don't think anyone that plays the game uses because they're supposed to make the game too cumbersome. Instead, people usually stick to the economic game which is btw a great game.

So, would you define this game as Ameritrash? It has a quality that older American games have which certainly seems to put it close to the term, but not quite.

That said, there are a bunch of games that fit this category  and have been widely criticized by the AT community. Two recent debatable examples are: Race for the Galaxy and Agricola. (I say debatable because I haven't played any of them...)

Right when I learned of the first example, I was interested, if only because of the Sci-Fi theme. It's my favorite theme, so any game that has it will get me at least interested. So I read about it and asked around on BGG, trying to get a feel of how the theme integrates with the mechanics. Some people seemed to think that the game had an immersive feel and some said they just felt like they were playing cards. So I'm still not sure wether I would like the game or not, but I wouldn't say no if I got the chance to try the game out. Incidentally, it seems one of the expansions will introduce direct conflict to the game, so maybe that would make it more interesting...

Agricola, the second example, is interesting because of the attacks it has received from the AT community. Now, let me first make it clear that I'm not attracted to this game's theme at all. Farming is not really something I like, especially where animals are concerned (I'm a vegetarian). For months I didn't even read descriptions of this game because I never thought I would be interested. I just thought: "Here's another euro with a pasted on uninteresting theme". But it seems I was wrong...

The theme is not pasted on.

The first thing I thought after reading a bit more about it was, "Hey, this game seems to be very much like those Console RPG farming games". I was thinking of Harvest Moon. The much praised series of console games where you have to run a farm with all the little tasks, marry and have children, etc... (I haven't played any of those games, btw)

And after reading an extensive review from Dale Yu on BGG, learning about how the game works, I'm finding that we might just be wrong about this game. It has hundreds of cards that make the game different each time you play it (people have complained about too much randomness, you heard right: randomness). All the actions you take are closely tied to the theme: plowing, sowing, building improvements, baking, having children, etc... And these actions have consequences tied to the theme too (feeding the family, etc...). So the game doesn't feel like an abstract with an irrelevant theme. It's just that the theme is uninteresting to most of us that like AT games.

So what kind of game is this? It's a "Heavily Themed Game". Just one with a theme that I don't find very appealing, but even if I don't like its theme, I'm a little bit closer to wanting to try the game, just because it has many other elements I like in boardgames. Now, if (as it was suggested on a recent BGG thread) the game was about surviving and terra-forming a mars colony on 2150, then it probably would be different :)

-Jorge Arroyo  (maka on F:AT andBGG)


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Direct Conflict and Ameritrash There Will Be Games
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