When I was younger, one of my friends attempted to create a “more fun” version of Settlers of Catan, complete with armies that could battle other players and conquer settlements. The new game was based on conflict, rapidly shifting alliances, and a loose system of rules that led to constant creative interpretations (not to mention debates). What seemed like a silly rules change, however actually speaks to a more fundamental disagreement in board game design philosophy, one that has emerged in the industry over the last several decades. My friend didn’t change because he liked battles, rather, he felt that direct conflict between players leads to a deeper and richer game of diplomacy and betrayal. In this, he picked up on a key difference between games like Catan (often called Eurogames) and more conflict-oriented American-style board games.
Since they emerged in 1990s Germany, Eurogames have taken the world by storm. Odds are most people have played at least one Eurogame at one time or another. The most popular and influential Eurogame is Catan. Catan exemplifies many classic qualities of Eurogames, from the ubiquitous wooden meeples to resource collection and the lack of direct competition.
Other popular Eurogames include:
Ticket to Ride
American-Style Board Games
Eurogames arose as a reaction to the older American-style board games. While Eurogames emphasize peaceful cooperation, American-style games are all about conflict (though not necessarily battles or warfare). The goal of the game is typically to in some way overpower the other players through direct confrontation.
Popular American-style games include:
Axis & Allies
The Game of Thrones Board Game
Eurogames tend to be built around an interesting mechanic that offers players a number of strategic options. American games tend instead to be built around a cool thematic concept. Each philosophy has its pros and cons. Eurogames have a tendency to feel very similar to each other, since they involve features like resources, action boards, and the universal meeples. That said, they are also very streamlined and designed for strategic nuance. American games, on the other hand, have a tendency to be complex and sprawling, with more asymmetry between players, but also no guarantee of a balanced or quick game.
My favorite American-style board game is Dune, a 1979 game based on the Frank Herbert series. Each player takes control of one of the factions in Dune, such as the secretive Bene Gesserit, the brutal Harkonnens, the wealthy Emperor, etc. Each faction has different strengths and weaknesses, and players can combine their strengths through alliances. The game ends when one alliance controls four of the five strongholds on the map. Unlike Eurogames, Dune is not a balanced or elegant game. Some factions are stronger than others, but the game anticipates that players will correct for that imbalance by targeting strong players. Depending on how aggressively you play, the game can last anywhere from half an hour to more than six hours. Games of Dune are wild and swingy, full of dramatic moments and shifting allegiances. I love it to death.
Advertisers are often careful to subtly market their games to either an euro or American audience. An interesting example of failed marketing is the game Scythe. Scythe presents itself as an alternate history of World War I-era Europe, where steampunk battle mechs trundle through Eastern Europe as rival powers battle. This sounds like a great setup for an American style game, but players are often shocked to open the rules and discover that Scythe is nothing of the sort. The bulk of the game is moving meeples (who represent peasants) around the map collecting resources like wheat, steel, and oil. The bulk of the mechanics involve customizing the player’s action chart so they can take more and effective actions. The mechanics are so classically Euro that the game could be about anything. In short, Scythe is a Eurogame branding itself as an American game.
Today, American-style games get a bad rep. Eurogame players see American games as shallow, random, and unbalanced. The criticism has given birth to the name by which American games are more often known – “Ameritrash.”
There are a lot of reasons why I prefer American-style games, from the asymmetrical gameplay many of them use to the cool thematic components. These reasons and more, however, have already been listed by others. I will instead focus on player interaction, the factor that, in my opinion, defines the appeal of most American-style board games.
In Eurostyle games, the goal is to beat the game, to utilize the mechanics in the way that scores the most points. That can lead many Eurogames feeling a bit like solitaire, as each player struggles with their own decisions, waiting for their turn to move. The actions of other players are unlikely to change your own move.
Because of a lack of player interaction, Eurogames tend to use victory points as a means of determining the winner. The problem is that victory points are by definition arbitrary and can lead players feeling unsatisfied. To the designers of Eurogames, the joy of playing a game is in discovering how to look at the mechanics of a game and determine the optimum strategy. The game is a puzzle pitting the game designer and the player.
In American games, however, the goal is to beat the other players. You must constantly observe other players’ actions and decide whether to be hostile or friendly toward them. Almost every action taken by players has the potential to influence your moves. What’s more, the rules that define player interaction in American board games tend to be looser, which opens the door for all kinds of creative alliance making or collaboration between players that the designers never envisioned. These player-devised deals form a kind of continuous evolving “unwritten rulebook.”
For me, board games are first and foremost a social experience, defined by memorable interactions between players. American games put that front and center. Rather than the slow, mechanical progression towards victory all too common in Eurogames, American-style games permit players to make dramatic plays, commit shocking betrayals, and build strong alliances. While American games don’t have mechanics that are as interesting as those of Eurogames, American games make the case that dealing with other people in open-ended diplomacy is at least as interesting as puzzling out the most efficient way to turn sheep into settlements.
Of course, not all Euro and American games fit into the broad strokes I’ve used. Many American games, such as Axis and Allies, use no diplomacy at all, while some Eurogames are highly social experiences. Not all American games involve war, and not all euro games involve resource gathering. As the board game industry becomes increasingly cross-pollenated, games emerge which incorporate elements of both archetypes. Root is a good example of a fusion game, where different players use different mechanics. If you play as the Cats, you operate under American-style rules, while the Eyrie player adopts Euro mechanics.
Perhaps there is something to be said about the continental psychology stemming from each type of game: the peaceful and collaborative Europeans versus the violent and zero-sum Americans. But I don’t want to push such ideas too far. The point is that people play board games for a variety of reasons. Sometimes player goals differ fundamentally. This disconnect has led to many a frustrating game night, but I think much of it can be summarized in the different philosophies exhibited by designers. Are board games a puzzle to solve or a direct conflict where negotiation and betrayal are key? I suspect many of us fall somewhere in the middle. Personally, I lean towards the experience offered by American games, but I’m not too picky. I’m always down for a game of Catan, whether it has armies or not.