It’s a common assumption among fans of more narrative and thematic board games that abstraction is a negative thing, a subtractive element that reduces games to an assembly of mechanical systems that bear only tenuous connections to the themes or subject matter suggested by titles, box art, or game components. Further, when we talk about purely abstract games we are usually referring to games such as the GIPF series, BLOKUS, TWIXT, and the like- games that have no theme, subject, or meaning beyond the competitive execution of core systems of movement, placement, enclosure, or capture. Abstract games, as we define them, rarely have corresponding physical, emotional, or conceptual referents to provide meaning to rules, because the actions of play are the meaning- just as in how technique, theory, and experimentation are more significant in abstract art than representation or interpretation. On the other end of the paradigm, removed from the pure abstact games, are simulation games that strive to deploy rules, systems, and mechanics that explicitly refer to situations, events, and actions that are either real in a historical or real-world context or possibly in a fictional, fantastic one. Games like ATTACK VECTOR TACTICAL, CLOSE ACTION, or CAMPAIGN FOR NORTH AFRICA go to great lengths to provide a very specific experience accommodating an almost terrifying level of realism and finite detail- often at the expense of accessibility or playability. I’m fairly sure that most gamers’ tastes fall somewhere between the two extremes of total abstraction and comprehensive simulation yet it seems that over the course of hobby board gaming’s short history that the balance between them has shifted a few times. In the 1960s and early 1970s the games of designers like Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph were decidedly abstract but the early wargames of Charles S. Roberts and the rise of firms like Avalon Hill and SPI in the later 1970s shifted the balance toward simulation, along with the interest in roleplaying and storytelling games through the 1980s. In the 1990s, of course, we saw the Eurogame boom which shifted the balance toward abstraction and an emphasis on rules over significance and now it seems that games with strong themes, narratives, and a closer proximity to simulation are once again in vogue
However, all games- even those with rich themes and dense narratives like ARKHAM HORROR or TALISMAN- are ultimately abstract to some extent. Even CAMPAIGN FOR NORTH AFRICA, with its legendary rule depicting the Italian army’s need for extra water to boil pasta, refracts an infinite number of real-world variables, situations, and circumstances to a game system. The difference is in the degree to which a set of rules, components, and systems breaks down its referents to generalizations or reduces them to mechanical simulacra. Abstraction is a necessary function of game design and in fact of any medium; the process of designing a game essentially becomes one of compression and refraction in the service of capturing an experience or concept in what is really a fairly complex medium. It’s interesting to note that games can take on the traits of different types of expressive mediums: they can be cinematic, realist, impressionistic, expressionistic, baroque, satirical, tonal, symbolist, political, minimalist, or even rococo. Yet because of the nature of the medium, it is simply impossible to abandon abstraction.
TWIXT is a great example of the pure abstract. Despite the image on the old 3M box, which features a drawing of players engaged in a game with the ghostly images of soldiers fighting some vague war in the background, the game is essentially about nothing. It is a mechanic (the placing of two points and connecting them with a bar) with an objective (territorial control). Mr. Randolph’s approach to the design was almost certainly mathematical and the game isn’t intended to represent or simulate anything. The mechanics are the game, and therefore what it abstracts is actually pretty negiligible since what the game actually refers to isn’t anything, unless you squint your eyes and pretend that it’s about building powerlines. I believe it could be argued that we call “pure abstract games” aren’t really abstract at all since they really signify nothing other than themselves and their mechanics. BLOKUS is a good example, an abstract game that really abstracts nothing.
Moving on to something more specific TIGRIS & EUPHRATES, the classic Reiner Knizia game, purports to be about the rise and fall of civilizations in the Mesopotamian region and there are ample signifiers throughout the game and its rules to suggest that the game is ostensibly “about” something. However, gameplay reveals that the theme informs the mechanics on a very simple, nonspecific way and as a result the game feels very abstract- as if either the game were not designed to simulate or represent anything in the first place or that too much was stripped away. I’m fairly sure it’s the former, but nonetheless, the semblance of theme moves it away from a pure abstract like TWIXT. Most Eurogames make at least a nod toward specificity despite still remaining firmly entrenched in higher levels of abstraction. However, most Eurogames can’t shake the feeling that themes are secondary and as a result all the supposed Renaissance trade, medieval farming, Pyramid building, and authority figure brown-nosing is at best highly abstracted to simple mechanics such as card drafting and auctioning, at worst they’re meaningless ciphers serving only as a vehicle to depict mechanics. I can’t imagine anyone playing EL GRANDE and going home with a feeling that they have somehow experienced something of Caballero life or the dilemnas, issues, and political situations faced by Spanish governors- it’s a game that is ultimately about shifting wooden cubes from one place to another. The increase in popularity of Eurogames such as PUERTO RICO and CAYLUS have seen the gulf widening between abstract, complex mechanics their specific reference to anything real, and as a result I believe that most Eurogames of this nature have become increasingly empty and devoid of any meaning beyond mechanical exercise.
But abstraction, and specifically wise use of when and where to deploy it, can generate a vastly different and holistic gaming experience. FURY OF DRACULA demonstrates judicious and careful use of abstraction to translate the atmosphere, ideas, and actions of another medium (obviously the Stoker novel) to a board game format and is a good median point between pure abstraction and simulation. The abstraction serves to make the game a playable, interactive, and competitive experience while also compressing and manipulating events that reduce some things, such as travel and the passing of time, to distinct but very generalized and non-specific elements. It’s actually a very grand scale, top-down level of abstraction. However, when the hunters encounter Dracula, that scale suddenly shifts, and along with it the degree of abstraction. The game becomes very specific (yet still falling well short of simulation), detailing a blow-by-blow account of the encounter down to who used what weapons and the outcome of each attack. It’s an interesting mix of abstraction and simulation, and it really demonstrates how this approach can yield a very successful game that brings together the playability and functionality of a more abstract game with the specific activity of a simulation.
I think FURY, along with canonical Ameritrash titles like DUNE, ARKHAM HORROR, DESCENT, and so on demonstrate the value of smart abstraction and in doing so what really makes AT so great to begin with- they provide the right mix of detail and simulation without becoming too unwieldy or unplayable. Arguably, it is the influence of the European designs with their higher premium placed on abstraction that has resulted in AT games become more accessible, immediate and enjoyable- there is a far cry from MAGIC REALM to RETURN OF THE HEROES and even though both are great games in their own respects and in their own contexts, the balance of abstraction to simulation is quite severe. However, RETURN OF THE HEROES still bears some simulationist traits and represents very specific things while compressing things such as combat, movement, and the completion of (what are on paper, at least) very complex quests to generalizations.
Even the most complex wargames feature generalizations and abstractions despite the high degree of simulation- for all its complexity and finite detail, ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER still features a huge degree of abstraction- consider that a counter represents a squad of men. Consider that the morale number on that counter accounts for any number of variables including if somebody in that squad has on the wrong size boots, misses home, or is really shaken up by a nightmare he had the night before the game’s action. Or if some guy is simply scared to get shot at. Even deeper in the rules of ASL, there is the idea that the combatants are actually continually firing at each other throughout an engagement and the concept of residual firepower is an abstraction of time- you can fire into a hex and firepower essentially remains there if another unit walks into it. In card-driven wargames like HANNIBAL, PATHS OF GLORY, and the like cards may give very specific historical events or circumstances but ultimately those are abstractions as well- consider how a major world historical event in any of those games results in a card draw, a PC marker shift, or other seemingly minor in-game event.
The difference with wargames and other games designed with a simulationist bent (Phil Eklund’s designs such as ORIGINS: HOW WE BECAME HUMAN and LORDS OF THE SPANISH MAIN are good examples) is that abstraction is rarely applied to the exclusion of key referents, facts, or situations. The abstraction is still there, however- witness in ORIGINS how the economic well-being and viability of an entire species is boiled down to a simple producer/consumer paradigm or how in LORDS OF THE SPANISH MAIN a Mordida card might represent a huge amount of political and economic maneuverings to achieve a desired effect. Simulation, in a lot of ways, is kind of a devil’s bargain- without enough abstraction, games bog down in rules complexity or in details that either grossly imbalance or detract from playability. As interesting as a game like LORDS OF THE SPANISH MAIN is, the fidelity to its specifics coupled with a very free-form game style usually results in a lot of player disinterest or confusion.
“Chrome” is a term often used derisively by gamers to indicate rules or game parameters that are present exclusively to enumerate theme, setting, or situation and some would likely argue that Eklund’s games are all chrome despite some surprisingly Euro-derived mechanics. Sometimes, as in the case with several of Richard Berg’s designs, chrome can result in tedium but by the same token (and even in Berg’s better designs such as the excellent MEN OF IRON) it can bring a higher level of simulation and impart a much stronger sense of detail. I think chrome is almost always worth an extra couple of sentences of rules, an exception, or additional complexity because it shifts the balance more toward simulation while retaining its essential nature of abstraction. Chrome can mean the difference between the hopelessly abstract Ted Racier game FIRST WORLD WAR, which boils that conflict down to an abstract tug-of-war along flowcharts representing theaters of war and the same designer’s PATHS OF GLORY, which provides a much higher level of simulation.
So all things considered, I think it’s important to be aware that all games are to some degree abstract but most exist somewhere between self-referential “pure abstract” games and those that strive for simulational accuracy by directly representing external referents. I believe that where a game falls in this range is one of the chief ways that we, as Ameritrash gamers, are able to identify what we like and don’t like in games and I’m fairly sure that most AT gamers prefer something closer to simulation but stopping a little short of the degree of specificity in wargames. Of course, there does seem to be a lot of crossover between AT and wargame camps so in particular it seems that we prefer conflict, combat, and competition to be expressed in more simulationist (i.e., specific) terms whereas abstraction in other areas (such as production, economics, movement, development) is much more acceptable. However, it also seems that games like DUNE or even the old chestnut AXIS AND ALLIES that condense major campaigns or battles into very abstract bites with mechanics designed to give an overall, generalized result work well in the AT mindset because they’re couched in game systems that have a much stronger connection to theme or representation, and therefore a higher degree of significance and meaning beyond simple mechanical play.