The Long And The Short Of It

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Long-sharp-pencil-and-sho-001When I was young and freshly unleashed upon the world of boardgame columnists, burning with points to prove and issues to argue, one of the concepts that I did to death was the idea that Ameritrash games owe a huge debt to Euros. In spite of my flogging the subject to death, I still feel it’s worth resurrecting from time to time. Not least to remind people in the Ameritrash camp that no matter how many times we justifiably chant “boring Euro-clone”, it’s a self-evident truth that back in the early 90’s, AT games were in very much as bad a state as Euros are now. The market was glutted with tedious, unimaginative game which all copied stale mechanics from one another. It took exposure to the first wave of German games to hit the US, with their fresh approach to mechanics, to revivify the genre. That, and the gradual creeping boredom with Magic: the Gathering that a lot of gamers were experiencing after playing it for several years.Indeed so great is the mechanical debt that the games I love owe to the games I hate (generalisations, obviously) that I wouldn’t think it was that much of a step too far to think of virtually every successful thematic game released in the last decade as a form of hybrid. The trick has been borrowing mechanical innovations from the European paradigm and re-shaping them - and in some cases improving them - in order to fit a more demanding and rigid thematic mould.

However it would be misleading to imagine that mechanics are the only thing that Ameritrash games have borrowed from Eurogames. Indeed I'm starting to suspect that in the long run they might actually prove to have been the least important lesson that up-and-coming thematic designers learned from the first wave of German games to hit Britain and America.Just like a common set of criticisms can be levelled at the bulk of Euros on the market today, a similar common set of criticisms could be levelled at the Ameritrash glut of yesteryear. Chief amongst them was that there was too much “process chrome” for lack of a better word - resources in terms of game time and complexity that were being sucked into doing very little except making extremely minor thematic improvements and which offered no mechanical interest and indeed often detracted from the strategy of the game. Take the road-racing game Dark Future for example: a rule book of around 80 pages, much of which was taken up with detail you were never likely to need, such as carefully differentiation between side-on and end-on collisions. The result was that what should have been a fast, exciting tactical combat game was slow and boring. Or The Warlock of Firetop Mountain board game which borrowed a mechanic from the game book on which it was based of having each player randomly roll a skill score and make that score the basis of much the game mechanics with no thought at all of the effect it might have in a competitive instead of a solo environment.

(The reason all the games I’m ragging on here are Games Workshop titles is simply because they were, in the main, the games I was playing in the 80’s not because GW was especially guilty: all the board game publishers and designers of the era were at it).

Mechanical improvements on these problems was a huge leap forward. It wouldn’t take a lot of house-ruling with modern mechanical concepts to turn The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain in to something worth playing, for example. These games were often quite complicated and long, after all, and so ensuring that there was strategic interest in every hour of the game play was a massive improvement on what came before. But in doing this, early adopter hybrid designers missed a trick: mechanics aren’t the only potential improvement that can be learned from Eurogames, only the most universal one.In the past I’ve often been quick to criticise Eurogames that appear to be short and simple just for the sake of being short and simple - i.e. for no better reason that that was what their target demographic demanded. But that doesn’t make them bad things in and of themselves. A successful Civilization-style game probably needs to run for several hours at least in order to provide the sense of epic scope that the genre demands, and it also probably needs a reasonably hefty rulebook in order to offer sufficient realism to draw the players in. Certainly no good civilization game has yet been published which manages to skimp on these requirements. But why should a dungeon crawl game or a sci-fi combat game necessarily take a long time or be extremely complicated? The requirement seems to have been borrowed by the early Ameritrash game designers from the role-playing games that gave rise to board game offshoots. RPG’s tend to be long and complex and so the board games they spawned imitated them. And that’s the way it’s been ever since for, in many cases, no good reason.

Improving the mechanics of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is certainly one way of making it better, but in the same vein the problems it has with potentially massive differentials in randomly-generated player power would be a lot less problematic if the game were shorter or simpler to play. If you’re going to invest less than an hour in learning and playing a game then really, it doesn’t matter if the game is unbalanced or overly random: you can just sit back, relax and let the other cool stuff the game does well (such as reminding you of a misspent youth reading Fighting Fantasy books) come to the fore. Indeed in many ways this is, in my opinion, a rather better solution than carefully balancing the mechanics to make it a more strategic game. Highly random games can be tremendously fun and exciting after all, especially if they do something else (like theme) extremely well. In the rush to make our beloved Ameritrash titles mechanically deeper and more strategic whilst attempting to retain the hard connections to theme that is such an essential part of the appeal of the genre, this alternative route seems to have been relatively overlooked, at least until recently. Over the past few years a new breed of short, simple Ameritrash game has emerged from underneath the auspices of the excellent new-wave hybrids that marked the first part of the last decade. Castle Ravenloft is the most recent example and it’s predecessors include such illustrious company as Nexus Ops, Betrayal at House on the Hill and Last Night On Earth. What marks these games out is not just their quick and simple play but the fact that, for the most part, they’ve been massive commercial and critical successes. The reason, I don’t doubt, is because they managed to simultaneously be fun and accessible whilst retaining the same essential thematic and narrative connections that their longer and more complex brethren managed. If a zombie game looks, feels and plays like a zombie game then mechanically who cares whether it’s as simple as Last Night On Earth or as complex as Dawn of the Dead - the latter of which was a failure precisely because the bloated mechanics it employed in an effort to be as true as possible to its source material led to turgid, tedious game play.

Just to re-interate in case someone has missed the point: this is not a rant against long or complex games. Some of my favourite games are both long and complex and often a good weight of rules and a hefty play time are important if the game is going to succeed at its design goals. However, just as it’s long been a particular mantra of mine that game designers should approach a new title with specific mechanical or thematic goals in mind that are rather more concrete than ephemeral concepts like “must play in under an hour”, the reverse is also true. In other words if you can make a game about, say, evolution and get it to retain its core concepts and still play in under an hour, then there’s no good reason not to trim off that excess fat. With the benefit of hindsight it strikes me as being incredible that it’s taken this long for fans and designers of American style games to learn this important lesson. I suspect that some of the flak that the older publishers in the genre, such as Fantasy Flight, have been getting recently may be because they've only just come round to this same realisation: but recent releases that sit comfortably within my criteria such as Space Hulk: Death Angel and Cadwallon: City of Thieves to sit alongside their more epic games demonstrate that the corner has been turned. Very definately better late than never.

Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News.

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There Will Be Games
Matt Thrower
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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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