Get on Board: An Intro to Board Games, pt 2

Read part one of this feature, which introduces the current resurgence in board game design and briefly discusses the state of play pre 1990.

The Birth of the Eurogame

A 1000-strong Settlers of Catan tournament at Gen Con 2013
A 1000-strong Settlers of Catan tournament at Gen Con 2013

In 1995, everything changed when hobbyist German board game designer Klaus Teuber invented Settlers of Catan. Settlers was a revelation: an immensely popular global phenomenon which has since become one of the best known household names outside of the triumvirate of Monopoly, Scrabble and Risk, as well as spawning the classic board game T-Shirt slogan: “I’ve got wood for your sheep”. Eight out of ten gamers you meet are likely to cite this as their entry into board games, but like many influential things its innovations seem somewhat tame today. But testament to its longevity is the fact that it is still played at a tournament level and still continues to act as a gateway game, bringing people into the hobby.

The hexes and numbers in Settlers are randomly distributed each game
The hexes and numbers in Settlers are randomly distributed each game

Settlers sees four players building roads and towns on a large hex grid, with each hex containing a number. At the start of a round a dice is rolled, not for movement as was the norm, but to determine which numbered hexes become activated, producing resources for their owners. Next up is a round of trading, in which players can exchange resources, which are in turn used in the third phase to build roads and towns and score points. This elegant system utilised dice in an unconventional way to allow for a healthy dose of chance, but mitigated that chance by allowing a human element, and finally there was the strategic, spatial dimension of board placement. All three elements dovetailed perfectly together, providing ample interesting decisions to be made at each point and resulting in an engaging one and a half hours. I would argue that all the best games since have learned from Settlers, combining player interaction, strategy and chance in various ways.

Another classic German game is Carcassonne, released in 2000 by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede. Named after a famous French medieval town and drawing on the aesthetic of Myriorama ‘endless landscape’ cards (a popular Victorian toy), Carcassonne liberated the board game from the confines of the board, allowing you to build the game environment turn by turn as you placed down cleverly interlocking landscape tiles and jockeyed for points by building towns, roads and abbeys. Like the later popular train game Ticket to Ride by Alan R. Moon (another famous entry level game by German publisher Days of Wonder), Carcassonne is delightfully simple, and yet deep enough to be played friendly or cut-throat, using tactical placement to steal points off your opponent or block their progress.

A completed Carcassonne landscape
A completed Carcassonne landscape

Settlers and Carcassonne were among the new wave of games that made the world aware of the German board game scene, which is still unparalleled. Only in Germany is it possible to have a board game award (the Spiel des Jahres) that garners almost as much attention as the BAFTAs, to walk in a supermarket and find an aisle of board games, or to host a games convention of 150,000 capacity (Spiel in the city of Essen, at which around 800 new games are launched each year). The term ‘Eurogame’ was used initially to denote designer board games released in Europe, which were eaten up hungrily by hardcore gamers in America and the UK. They were characterised by minimal player combat and randomness, with the victory going to the person who had made the cleverest and most efficient decisions. Many dedicated gamers at the time learned German as a necessity and Eurogames built on their international success by developing clever ways to make their game’s language independent, using symbols and functionality over aesthetics and flavour text, something that would remain a hallmark of the genre.

Just as in books or films, or videogames for that matter, these designers had themes and mechanics that they would explore and modify from game to game, allowing fans to trace their personality in each new game they played.

The term has since loosened to denote any game dictated primarily by an emphasis on balanced mechanics providing multiple paths to victory that favours skilful play. The emphasis on victory points – often recorded on a scoring track around the board that has become something of a Eurogame cliché – also helps move the emphasis towards accessibility, making the game more about maximising your own points rather than stomping your opponent into the dust since Eurogames rarely involve direct conflict beyond denying choices to your opponent.

Another characteristic feature of the Eurogame is the inclusion of the designers’ names on the box (something that has since become common), enabling the cult of the auteur to enhance the respectability of the medium. Indeed this has followed a campaign initiated in 1988, and still continuing, in Germany by the Game Designer Association (SAZ) for designer recognition under copyright law. Just as in books or films, or videogames for that matter, these designers had themes and mechanics that they would explore and modify from game to game, allowing fans to trace their personality in each new game they played.

In Agricola, players compete to build the most attractive farm... yes, that's right: farm
In Agricola, players compete to build the most attractive farm… yes, that’s right: farm

Le Havre and Ora et Labora by Uwe Rosenberg, for instance, are very much evolutions of original concepts born of his earlier game Agricola, which remains a classic, influential design. Agricola possesses the initially unexciting theme of farming in the 17th Century, but quickly reveals itself to be equally charming and devious. Through the course of the game, players take actions to collect resources and construct their farmyard, which begins as a bare patch in front of them but by the end of the game will be covered in ploughed fields, pastures full of animals or an extended farmhouse. You’re helped on your endeavour by certain occupation and improvement cards (of which the fully expanded game has hundreds) which give you more powerful actions or other interesting effects, and provide the game with much of its nuance and replayability. The game relies much on the psychology of gaming that’s tuned into the joy of building something and seeing the results in tangible terms, which incidentally also accounts for the popularity of casual games like Farmville, manipulative free-to-play strategies aside.

Ameritrash and hybrid games

Unknowable, nameless horror and tommy guns... it must be a Lovecraft licence
Unknowable, nameless horror and tommy guns… it must be a Lovecraft licence

Meanwhile, in the Anglophone world, the creation of the RPG Dungeons & Dragons in the late 70s and the development of the collectable card game, spearheaded by Richard Garfield in the form of Magic the Gathering in 1993, took gaming in a different direction entirely, each one building a whole industry around it. Board games originating in America tended to be soaked in theme, high on production values (the company Fantasy Flight Games leading the way on this front) in contrast to Eurogames’ emphasis on functionality, and involved fistfuls of dice or cards with special powers. Affectionately called ‘Ameritrash’ (sometimes referred to by Germans as ‘Beer and Pretzel’ games because of their casual nature) these emphasised role play, table talk and tactile fun over the Eurogames’ deep, sombre strategising. Standout examples include Battlestar Galactica (still one of the greatest adaptations of a licence to a game in either digital or analogue form), and the convoluted, sprawling epics of Arkham Horror and Twilight Imperium, the latter of which was designed by Christian T. Petersen, the founder of Fantasy Flight.

The lines may have been drawn, but in the last few years the Euro and the Ameritrash styles have been slowly converging, with each new game drawing elements from the other. Immensely popular two years ago, Eclipse is a heavily themed, narrative driven 4X game (a genre that Starcraft players should feel at home with) which is built upon the kind of elegant resource management engine more often found in Euros but still with plenty of dice-driven space battles. Meanwhile, Archipelago was a deliberate attempt on the part of Christophe Boelinger to create a sophisticated Eurogame with a strong sense of theme and player interaction. Incidentally Boelinger has recently been connected to famed Japanese game designer Yasumi Matsuno’s latest cross media project Unsung Story that includes a new turn based strategy game in the tradition of Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre and an accompanying card game.

Archipelago is an example of a heavily themed Euro with lots of player interaction
Archipelago is an example of a heavily themed Euro with lots of player interaction

It’s becoming more and more apparent that board games are evolving by fusing together these two elements: the strategy derived from Euro mechanics married to the drama derived from an Ameritrash theme. Today, European companies such as Czech Game Editions are producing games that match even Fantasy Flight for engineering and artistry, and the quickly rocketing standards in gameplay and production are drawing more and more people into the fold. Modern games are often beautiful to behold; a far cry from the dry looking Eurogames of yesteryear.

This cross pollination of ideas from both sides of the Atlantic no doubt helped lead to Donald X. Vaccarino developing Dominion, which in a mere six years has irrevocably altered the gaming landscape. Vaccarino took the idea of the collectable card game, embodied by Magic the Gathering, and built a game around the meta activity of deck building. Each player begins with a small identical deck of basic cards, and uses them to draft cards from a central pool, creating a resource ‘engine’ with the ultimate aim of grabbing as many victory point cards as possible.

The victory point cards in Dominion are vital, but are also completely useless
The victory point cards in Dominion are vital, but are also completely useless

Dominion’s impact was unprecedented, and the deckbuilding genre was born. Within a year, Thunderstone took the base idea of Dominion, which was criticised by many as dry, and introduced a Dungeons and Dragons style theme, in which players bought heroes, items and weapons from the village and used them in the dungeon to fight monsters. Meanwhile Ascension took the deckbuilder off along its second major branch by scrapping the 10 central decks that defined those two games in favour of an ever shifting central draft of five cards drawn from a huge deck. Now players squabbled over the various cards on offer and struggled to build combos reactively, rather than based on a grand strategy laid out at the start of the game. In the years that followed, the deckbuilding mechanic was used every which way and has even been drawn into other games as a side mechanic, for instance in esteemed British designer Martin Wallace’s war game A Few Acres of Snow or City of Remnants by Isaac Vega.

Just as Eurogames and Ameritrash games are learning from one another and adapting to create more interesting hybrids, the worlds of videogames and board games are starting to converge in interesting new ways, something that I will explore in the next part of this article.


Leave a Reply