Thursday, July 22, 2010

Definitions: What Are “Eurogames”?

No, they’re not games you play with a struggling transnational currency. (Although collapsing economies may in fact free up a lot of worthless paper for use in games.) The term “Eurogame,” or “European-style” or “German-style” gaming, is a reference to a boardgaming subgenre and design aesthetic. Europeans—particularly the Germans—are mad for boardgames, but they have a different style compared to more “American” games like Monopoly or Clue.
Ticket to Ride

What exactly is that style? Well, it’s a fluid thing: you just kinda know it when you see it. Some people say that Eurogame designers tend to eschew chance (ie: dice roles) in favor of more strategic play, but that’s just not correct. I can probably name one Eurogame that relies upon chance for every one that doesn’t.

If I had to break down a few characteristics of the Eurogame, they would be these:

1. Unusual themes. Once you start boring into the Eurogame genre, you’ll find all manner of unusual themes, from delivering fruit around the island of Mallorca using donkey carts (Finca) to helping stone age tribes gather food, make tools, procreate, and generally find their way through a prehistoric industrial revolution (Stone Age).

2. Minimal combat. That’s not to say no combat, but it’s not a common element.

3. Focus on trade. Certainly not all European games are trading or economic games, but a significant proportion have these elements.

4. Simple mechanics, complex strategies. If I had to pick the most appealing part about European-style game design, it would be their elegance and simplicity. If you’ve never played anything beyond the standard roster of American-style games, then this may not seem like the case until you get a few rounds of Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride or some other gateway game under your belt. But, once you grasp a few basic mechanics (worker placement, trading, building, etc), you’ll find they apply to a majority of the most popular games on the market.

5. Colorful components and appealing production. Eurogames are expensive ($30 to $60 on average), but they simply look and feel better. Pieces are painted wood or heavy plastic, cards are on heavy stock, boards are on thick cardboard, and artwork is generally superior.

Oddly enough, the progenitor of European-style games was an American title from one of the deans of game design. Sid Sackson’s Aquire, first released in the 1960s, is the title that found its way to Europe and inspired several generations of game designers. It can be considered the “first Eurogame.”

Avalon Hill also produced many games that anticipated the Eurogame boom, but often mired their designs in fussy details and obscure rules. Modern Eurogames simplified those elements to create a new genre. After they established their popularity in Europe from the 1970s to the 1990s, they finally made a splash on these shores when Mayfair games imported Klaus Teuber’s Settlers of Catan, which remains a hugely popular series and a perfect gateway game for introducing new players to Eurogames.

As it stands now, a few large companies translate and import most Eurogames to these shores. Rio Grande, Mayfair, Gryphon/Eagle, and a few others produce a large amount of the product available on American shelves.

One of the most respected Eurogame-style producers isn’t European at all. Days of Wonder makes some of the best (and best produced) games in the business, including Ticket to Ride, Memoir 44, Small World, and many others.

Some recommended beginner titles for those new to Eurogaming are Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, or some of Gryphon’s Bookshelf series. These are mostly old warhorses, but they’re still around because they appeal to the largest number of players, are easily available, and are a good way to move new gamers into the genre.

(If you decide to buy any of these on, please use my link to help support this site.)


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