July 24, 2013

What makes a Euro a Euro?

Every so often (like every other day it seems) a topic comes up discussing what it is that makes a eurogame a eurogame, and not something else, you know like an Ameritrash game. Or a wargame. The reality is that there will never be a perfectly accurate definition or checklist of traits that makes a game part of one particular group or genre and not another. All the terms are too subjective and mutable, and frankly the discourse continues to evolve at a rapid rate, making it a challenge to pin things down as generalizations.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, in large part as a response to an older article, The Essence of Euro-style Games by Lewis Pulsipher at the Games Journal. His article discussed 13 points, which he felt broadly defined the eurogame. Since the time the article was written, 2006, I feel the list remains only partially valid as the cauldron of eurogames has grown immensely since that time, and in particular the complexity of many euro designs has increased markedly since then.

Really, Pulsipher’s article is more successful at defining a particular slice of the broader euro-game spectrum: the “German family game.” German family games started the whole eurogame phenomena - and many of the underlying tenants of German family game design remain signature aspects of eurogames today. Yet the early German family games were designed to fit a particular social niche (note the word “family” in the label) and breaking out of that context we’ve seen designs evolve in all kinds of directions, particularly in regard to complexity and game length, yet they all share a common ancestry.

So, this post is an attempt to “update” the list of traits that typically make a euro a euro – and not something else. But first, a disclaimer:

The points made in this post are intended to generally describe characteristics of a eurogame. Games possessing more of these traits may be more likely to be seen as a “euro-style” game, as opposed to something else like an Ameritrash game or a wargame. But just because a particular game exhibits certain traits (or doesn’t exhibit others) does not mean any particular game is (or isn’t) a eurogame, not a euro, or some other Frankenstein monstrosity. If it helps, put the word “typically” before each point before you read it

Two games come to mind that couldn’t be more different in terms of play experience, and in my mind reflect the eurogame approach and the ameritrash approach quite nicely; 7 Wonders and Illuminati. So I'm going to use them as an example throughout.

Here we go…

#1 - Player elimination is avoided

In the (historic) spirit of euro’s being family games, keeping everyone engaged and part of the action is important, and so eurogames usually do not have player elimination. Even more so, eurogames typically avoid the phenomenon of “effective elimination,” where during the course of the game a player, for whatever reasons, is put in an apparent and irrecoverable position where they cannot win the game. The key is “apparent” and ties into the scoring systems eurogames often employ to keep the winning player or the final scores hard to ascertain until the game is over. More on that later.

7 Wonders (Euro): No player elimination. Scoring is not tabulated until the end, and with all the 3rd age bonus cards can be very difficult to guess in advance – so effective elimination is effectively eliminated.

Illuminati (Ameri): Players are eliminated if they lose all their groups. Players can easily be crippled and effectively eliminated from contention for the win at any point.

#2 - Everyone has a chance to win – i.e. close scoring

When the scoring is obvious or tracked over the course of the game, eurogames typically keep the scoring close – whether through the design of the game itself or through imposed catch-up mechanics. The intent is, again, to keep everyone engaged and in contention for a win. Everyone has to keep pushing forward. This “a chance to win” effect is also manifested through various hidden scoring mechanics that keep it difficult to derive player’s relative positions (and who is winning or losing) until right at the end of the game.

7 Wonders (Euro): See above point about scoring. Players are kept in the dark about who is going to win/loose until you tally everything up at the end.

Illuminati (Ameri): Players progress towards the goals is open information, and it can be readily apparent who does and who does not have a good chance to win. Politics can change that all however.

#3 – Point accumulation

Most eurogames are, regardless of what they are called in the game (prestige, success points, etc.), are about accumulating victory points, which are earned over the course of the game. And following from the points above, eurogames often incorporate additional point scoring mechanics at the end of the game to keep the ultimate winner hidden. Few eurogames have fixed win conditions based on achieving certain boardstates or defined objectives (i.e. Capture the King in Chess). When taken to the extreme, some eurogames are labeled as being a “point salad” where everything you do earns you points, and the challenge is figuring out what actions give you the most points over the course of the game.

7 Wonders (Euro): Yeup, get the most points at the end of the game.

Illuminati (Ameri): Nope, the goal is objective based, requiring players to satisfy 1 of 2 different win conditions, which ends the game immediately.

#4 - About building up, not tearing down – i.e. positive scoring

This ties in with the above, but generally most eurogames have players building things up, be it a city, a castle, or trade network. Points are earned for doing “positive” things. The vast majority of eurogames are VP engine games as well – spending resources/cards/actions/whatever to build up your means of production in order to score victory points. The key decisions are when to spend resources building up more means of production or when to spend them earning points. Points generally are not handed out specifically for hindering or attacking your opponents. In contrast, most Ameritrash games (or wargames) are about tearing things down and destroying each other’s means of production – that you may or may not have built up during the game.

7 Wonders (Euro): Everyone plays cards to build up their empire – no opportunities for removing/destroying cards or resources.

Illuminati (Ameri): Part of the game is building up your individual power structure, but really it’s about destroying everyone else’s power structure before they reach their goal or they destroy you.

#5 - No targeted attacking or overt conflict – Interaction is through competition

Eurogames typically avoid any type of player targeted actions or hostilities. The interactions in most eurogames are “mediated” by some game system or mechanic to prevent issues related to targeted attacking and combative types of interactions. As a result, most of the interaction in eurogames is through mechanics like auctions, or worker placement, or role selection. In each of these, player interaction occurs in a defined way in “neutral” territory and it is about winning the auction, getting there first, or picking the right role from a common pool of choices. Certainly there is opportunity for some targeted action – but it is mostly in the form of “blocking” your opponents from taking a particularly advantageous move rather than attacking them directly. At the extreme, some euros are branded as “multiplayer solitaire” where players are racing independently and in isolation towards the finish line.

7 Wonders (Euro): All the interaction is mediated through the card drafting mechanic as you decide what to purchase and/or to deny your opponents. You can “buy” resources from your neighbor – but there is no interaction in the choice, it’s all 1-directional.

Illuminati (Ameri): Direct, vicious, targeted attacking is the name of the game. You won’t win without being aggressive – the best defense is a good offense

#6 - Constrained opportunities for politicking / negotiation

Following from the above point – eurogames typically reduce or avoid the potential for politicking and negotiation – and by consequence many of the side effects that come with the “metagame” such as kingmaking. This isn’t to say that negotiation, or deal making, or trading is impossible – but rather that the game mechanics aren’t well-suited to reward these types of personal, player-to-player interactions. Sometimes of course they can play a key role in the game, but the game rarely degenerates into a purely “political game” like many Ameritrash style games do.

7 Wonders (Euro): See above points. The trade dynamic could have been a negotiation opportunity (ala Settlers) but is not.

Illuminati (Ameri): Get your megaphone (or your wisper-ma-phone) out – because it’s all about negotiation and the metagame, and dealing your way into victory, backstabbing whenever you can, etc. The embodiment of a political game.

#7 - Multiple, distinct, paths to victory

The whole “multiple paths to victory” concept is aligned quite often with eurogames. What we really mean by “multiple paths to victory” and what variations of the idea exist is a whole different topic. But for the time being, it can be summarized as players having to make a decision that will play out over some portion (or the entirety) of the game and that going down one path makes it harder or impossible for you to go down others, and may or may not make it harder for other players to go down your path or certain other ones. How’s that for simple? It’s the idea that there are efficient pre-made “channels” in the decision space of the game, and moving down one or more of these channels is reinforced by the mechanics. It’s the opposite of a sandbox-style game, where there are no roads telling you where to go.

7 Wonders (Euro): Building certain cards (i.e. blue cards or green cards) makes it easier to build more of that type of card in the future. With 7 or 8 different scoring paths, players are choosing a few to focus on in maximizing their point potentials.

Illuminati (Ameri): Paths? What paths? You have a box of tools (attacking, negotiating, etc.) and can try to reach your fixed goal however you can.

#8 - Reduced downtime and fixed decision spaces

Eurogames typically use a variety of mechanics to reduce downtime. Often, this manifests as players are given a relatively narrow set of choices at any particular decision point. This limited number of choices can provide significant depth to the game nonetheless, with players having to evaluate these few tough options in detail. This is much different from being presented with a large menu of different possible actions on your turn, and with each of those actions having many possible outcomes or choices for implementing it. The objective in eurogames is to maintain a high level of depth, but “weed out the noise” created by a large decision space and allow players to make choices more rapidly and keep the game moving at a brisk pace.

7 Wonders (Euro): All players take their turns effectively simultaneously and the choices are determined by the hand you are dealt. The hand size diminishes each turn until the next age, containing it more and more as you go.

Illuminati (Ameri): You have a menu of dozen or so different actions you can take on your turn, plus a few freebie actions you can take. All this compounded by the many, many options within each action (what to attack, where to move money to, etc.) making for some long player turns.

#9 - Managed game length and defined end game triggers

Eurogames tend to have an end game trigger that is governed by the game system, and not the players, creating a more predictable end point and more consistent playtimes. End game triggers occur a number of ways, e.g. after a fixed number of turns, when the cards/tiles are depleted, a certain event card shows up. These end-triggers are typically decoupled from the scoring – such that the player responsible for (or tasked with) doesn’t derive any special benefit when it comes to the actual scoring. So the end trigger is caused by the game system, not player choices. This is in contrast from many objective or win condition based games, where the player triggering the end condition is also meeting the win condition – and hence wins and the game is immediately over.

7 Wonders (Euro): The game ends after the Age 3 draft is over. No more cards, no more action. Game over.

Illuminati (Ameri): The game goes as long as it will bloody-well take until someone reaches one of the objectives. It can go on a long time.

#10 - Randomness used to frame choices, not determine outcomes

Random game elements, dice in particular but also cards, are generally used much differently in eurogames than in other types of games. In eurogames, dice might be rolled at the start of a turn or an event to shape the decision space to which players then respond. This is the opposite of traditional Ameristrash games were dice are used to determine the outcome or success of a decision after it is made. It is a key distinction that relates to the sense of player control over the game. Rolling dice first, or being dealt a hand of predictable cards and choosing how to respond to what is presented, is much different than having to make a decision based on a randomizing element with a high variance in outcomes.

7 Wonders (Euro): Players are dealt a hand of cards, which are passed. Players react to the “random” hands.

Illuminati (Ameri): After making any sort of attack/conflict action, players roll dice to determine whether the attack was successful or not. You can mitigate the odds to a certain extent, but you can’t guarantee success.

#11 - Family friendly themes

Given the eurogame’s roots, most eurogames have family friendly themes – and most are themed around real world contemporary or historic contexts. Themes generally deal with non-controversial topics that are aimed at appealing to a wide demographic. Eurogames historically avoid fictionalized themes like fantasy, science fiction, horror, zombies, cthullu, etc. (although this is certainly starting to change). When such themes are present – it is often handled in a toned-down or pedestrian manner.

7 Wonders (Euro): It’s a pretty tame civilization theme, rooted in historical stuff.

Illuminati (Ameri): It’s a pretty crazy theme, rooted in conspiracy theory and filled with all kinds of excellent things like Mind Control Lasers, the Porn Industry, and of course S.M.O.F.

#12 - Themes are abstracted, not simulated

In general, euogames are more focused on exploring the theme from an abstract standpoint, with the theme manifesting as a high level dynamic in the gameplay, rather than attempting to simulate the theme in an accurate and detailed fashion. In the extreme, eurogames are labeled with having themes that are “pasted on” or that the game is “mechanics first.” More often, there is a reasonable connection between the theme and the mechanics, they are just abstracted at a higher level. In eurogames, the decision process often hinges on examining the choices from mechanics first perspective rather than other styles of games where decision process may be more rooted in responding to the reality of the theme (i.e. putting yourself in the game world) – with the mechanics then simulating that decision.

7 Wonders (Euro): Pretty abstract game across the boardgame. The theme is evident but as little bearing on what the mechanics are.

Illuminati (Ameri): Theme is simulated to the extent that cards literally “control” other games in consistency with the notion of various real-world organizations (illuminati, cough, cough) controlling other organizations. High level of detail when it comes to conflicts, with all sorts of modifiers accounting for the thematic associations between the competing groups.

We’ve come to the end. Hopefully this list, and the illuminating example that followed, helped clarify the characteristics of eurogames a little better. In comparison with Lewis Pulsipher’s list, the big difference pertains to his absolutes about game length and complexity – specifically that euros are shorter games (less than an hour usually) and simple or quick to learn. Eurogames have evolved and diversified tremendously since then, and while there certainly are new eurogames that are easy to learn and quick to play, there are also many that are long, complex, and challenging to learn. So, I dropped those from the list.

I wonder to what extent these euro design tenants are simply matters of good game design. They are certainly appealing in some cases – but in other cases not so much. And for my money, I’d happily play Illuminati a thousand times, despite it ignoring all these euro sensibilities, over 7 Wonders – which I find uninspiring in its elegance and euro-isms at the end of the day.

Yet as hobby games and their designs continue to evolve, I’m most interested in the emergence of hybrid games, which mix and match these euro-style elements with approaches from other genres to yield something new. Certainly we are seeing a lot more eurostyle games that are taking on more thematic “ameritrash” style themes or war-based themes. We’re seeing more eurostyle games incorporate direct, targeted attacking alongside other interaction methods. And also we’re seeing a lot more eurogames playing with interesting victory conditions and end game triggers.

But at the end of the day … what does make a euro a euro, and not you know … ameritrash?

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