On the one hand, it's pretty obvious that it's theme that gets you in the door. Science Fiction and Fantasy are the two main themes that you'll find in most Ameritrash games. It's also why there is debate over what fits and what doesn't--"But...but it has Terminators riding Dinosaurs!"
Think about it--games with Zombies, or Cyborgs, or Dragons, or potty-mouthed Clerics...where is your first impulse to classify these? "Pff! That can't be Euro. It's got friggin' Pirates!" That's an actual train of thought when attempting to classify Pirate's Cove.
This often bounces right into the mechanics portion, and based on how European gaming influences have bled into American-style games--"cleaning them up" if you will--this adds to the confusion. Is Shogun Ameritrash? It has cubes and a highly abstracted combat resolution system, but it is about war, combat, and conflict, about duking it out on a Risk-style map.
What about individual elements of Ameritrash games? Dice? The first thing people hit you with is, "well, Settlers has dice." Yes, yes it does. Randomness in general? I've determined that Lost Cities is about as random as it gets, so much so that even if I played 200 games of it I still wouldn't feel comfortable putting money on any individual game. Plastic figures? Game manufacturers have figured out that plastic figs have a genuine appeal to a segment of gamers so it's not uncommon to see plastic figures in games that are not essentially Ameritrash. This adds to the confusion in games such as Bootleggers or Age of Empires III, which at a glance have all the plastic eye candy you could ever hope for but feature game mechanics that are not immediately at home in your typical Ameritrash game.
Mr. Skeletor doesn't like the term, but I can't help but think that the lines will further be blurred as each camp borrows heavily from the other. Euros seem to want to get out of their "pasted on theme" box and are trying very hard to give us games with crossover appeal, such as Arkadia or Pillars of the Earth. We're seeing American-style games incorporating more in the way of threaded turns, simultaneous actions, role selections, and auctions. We're seeing ambitious American-style designs coming from game makers the world over, including things like Duel in the Dark and Tannhauser.
Theme is going to continue to be important. I mean, imagine Risk, just like it is, but change the theme to ameobas battling it out in a petri dish or something. Imagine that Cave Troll is actually about a cave-in (oh wait, it almost was).
Just ask yourself--"would it seem out of place if this game included sharks with laser beams mounted on their heads?"
This is a copy of an article originally published on the old F:AT blog. Read original comments.