Intro to modern boardgaming 2: The Euro
by Gil Hova
Sadly, that just didn’t happen. You might think that a board game is a board game, so what’s the difference? But there are so many aesthetic options a designer can choose, that there’s now a dizzying array of board game experiences out there.
Now, by “aesthetic options,” I’m not just talking about what color the board is, or whether the art is cartoony or mature. Play styles are all different. Some games are aggressive, others are contemplative, and still others are silly. Some games require you to quickly change your plans, based on your opponents’ recent actions and in-game events. Others challenge you to think many turns ahead, planning for the future.
I don’t think there’s any board game genre that’s done more to widen this palette of options than the Euro. Some time in 2004, I started figuring out that I wasn’t someone who liked to play any kind of game. I like Euros, and other genres really didn’t do it for me.
So what’s a Euro? A Euro is a genre of board gaming that is popular in, here’s a shocker, Europe. Most come from Germany, but France and Italy supply a lot of games too. A Euro usually offers these features, for better or for worse…
- Lack of direct conflict. In a Euro, you usually can’t directly attack another player. If one of your opponents plays a card, you can’t play another card to cancel it. If one of your players constructs a building, you can’t knock it down.
- Bland themes. Most Euros sound really bland, if you just describe the theme. The Settlers of Catan is about building faceless towns and cities on a generic, fictional island. Puerto Rico is about creating a shipping industry in the 17th-century Carribean. Are you bored yet? Carcassonne is about constructing the eponymous French city in the middle ages. Agricola is about farming after the Bubonic Plague has passed. For crying out loud, Bohnanza is about bean farming. Can you imagine how hard it is to get a bunch of people to play a game about farming beans?
- Ingenious mechanics. As tough as it is to sell people on these games because of the dull-sounding themes, everything changes once you actually start playing these games. Settlers suddenly reveals itself to be a tight, compelling game of planning your moves and trading resources with players. Puerto Rico is one of Euro gaming’s crown jewels, with a fantastic role-selection mechanism that forces you to consider your turns very carefully. Are you interested yet? Carcassonne is a gorgeous game that starts with a few tiles on the board, but slowly grows into a gorgeous landscape of colorful tiles and playing pieces. Agricola, one of the new kids on the block, is filled to the brim with deep strategy and incredible replayability. And Bohnanza, that game that no one thinks they want to play, often gets requested again and again, once people play a card game in which you’re not allowed to rearrange your hand; the only way to get undesirable cards out is to trade them with other players.
- Beautiful bits. Euros usually look and feel luxurious. Think matted cards, solid wooden pawns, and thick tiles. Lush, colorful artwork. A clean, well-written rulebook. There’s attention to the tactile side of the game.
- A shorter playing time. A “feature-length” Euro usually takes between 60-120 minutes to play. Also, the games are designed to end in a predictable amount of time. I mentioned in the Take-That post that games like Munchkin have a habit of outstaying their welcome, because players can move away from the endgame condition. Munchkin, in particular, ends when a player reaches Level 10… but players can easily lose levels as well as gain them.
A Euro will usually move forward, not backwards. In other words, if Munchkin was a Euro, players wouldn’t lose levels. Or, the game would ensure that more players gained levels than lost them. That would guarantee that someone, at some point, is reaching Level 10. The way the game is now, players can keep gaining and dropping and gaining and dropping between Levels 6 and 9, and the game just keeps spiraling around and around.
- A mix of strategy and chance. Euros have random elements – some even have dice. But you’ll rarely see a “roll and move” mechanism, where a player’s movement (and turn choices) are completely dictated by a die roll. Or if they are, there’s some safety net that guarantees that the player will have some meaningful choice that turn.
What’s good about Euros, other than what I’ve mentioned above, is that they’ve done more to redefine the boardgaming aesthetic than any game out there. Board games have changed more in the past 10 years than in any other time in history. The bar is much higher as a result, and one of the reasons I started writing this blog is to try and pick apart some of these new, refined ideals.
For example, let’s look at one of the first Euros a lot of us have played: The Settlers of Catan. (What, you don’t know Settlers? Never played? You can download a fantastic tutorial for your Windows computer by Dana Ledet here, and then go here [as “Xplorers”] or here to try it!) It’s an eye-opening experience for a lot of people because of its clean mechanics. People are used to zoning out on other players’ turns, but Settlers keeps you involved because you can get and trade resources on other players’ turns. Also, there are only five resources, so it’s pretty easy to get a handle on what the different resources are worth… though after a few games, it’s quite clear that different combinations have certain powers.
Now, Settlers isn’t a perfect game. If you don’t place your opening buildings properly, or if you have incredibly bad dice-fu, you’re going to have a bad game, no matter what you do. Lots of people have sworn the game off after an evening of watching their opponents trade with everyone else.Look at Carcassonne (if you haven’t played, another great Dana Ledet tutorial is here, and you can play it here as “Toulouse”). It’s a game with a great tile-laying mechanic, and the added twist that you can place a “meeple” on different parts of a tile to score it… but since you only have a few of them, you have to manage them well.
That’s a game that, once you start including its expansions, starts to take on a nice depth. However, one of the game rules, the “farmer scoring,” was tweaked a couple of times after the game was released.
Settlers is 13 years old, and Carcassonne is 8. Since then, gamers’ expectations of game rules have gone up. We don’t want our games to bog down if we get bad dice rolls, like in Settlers. We don’t want fundamental rules to be corrected after we buy the game, like Carcassonne. There are things you could get away with then, that you can’t get away with now.What’s bad about Euros, other than what I’ve mentioned above, is that there’s a “same-ness” that’s been haunting them for a few years now. Oltre Mare is a good example of a fine game that has slipped under the radar because its mechanics just couldn’t lift it past the blandness of its theme. Personally, I don’t see myself designing a game about constructing a castle to please a king, or trading silk to the Medici family, or colonizing some distant, inexplicably uninhabited land.
It’s not just the themes that people can find bland. I mentioned that Euros have clean, elegant mechanics. Think of it is a very safe car. It’s a bit like a Volvo: very clean, neat, and safe… but not daring, risky, or thrilling.
Next week, I’ll get into another genre of games, the Americans, that are a sharp contrast to the Euro. They’re games about theme and conflict. Those games are more like muscle cars. They’re fast, loud, and dangerous.
Lots of people don’t like Euros. They want their games to have a strong theme. They want to blow the other players up. They want their pawns to represent their characters. They don’t want to play a game about castle building, or silk trading, or farming, or colonization. Well, they might play a game about colonization, if it means actually battling the other players and the natives for territory.
They want the theme to mean something. They don’t want to play a game that’s supposed to be about 17th century feudal Japan, but is really about collecting different tokens. Or a game that is supposed to be about exploring a dangerous cave for treasure, but is really about having more cubes in certain parts of the board than other players.
But the biggest point about safety is this: Most people who dislike Euros want to talk about the game months, maybe years after playing, and say, “Do you remember the time when we played Civ, and sometime in the 6th hour, I finally wiped out Sam’s tribe?”
You don’t really get that with a Euro. It’s tough to recall how a certain game played even weeks after the game ended. The games are so smooth and stable, that nothing that extraordinary happens during their play. They’re safe, and a lot of people find them too safe.
So, why do I like Euros?
I’d love to tell you how I’m a fan of all games, and I’ll play anything as long as it’s fun… but no. I really don’t enjoy playing the American aesthetic. That’s not a judgment on those games, just a stylistic preference. I’ll talk more about that in my American Games post, but for now, I’ll just mention that I prefer Euros.
I like Euros because I like to worry about game strategy. I like to make plans, and while I understand that some uncertainty is necessary to make it a game, I find that it’s not as much fun if the uncertainty comes from the other players. Because generally, it’s quicker to react than to act, and if reactions are just as powerful as actions, why bother acting?
For instance: we’re playing a game where I have to play a combination of cards in order to get a point. I spend a few turns gathering the combination through some intense maneuvering… but when I try to claim my point, you play a card that cancels my action, and forces me to discard the card.
So what happened? I just wasted a bunch of turns, because you happened to have a specific card in your hand. That sort of design aesthetic is completely contrary to the Euro philosophy: that players should always be building and advancing towards the end of the game, and that a player’s ability to push a player away from the end of the game should be severely limited.Not completely removed, though. Let’s look at some examples. Settlers has the infamous Robber Baron. Roll a 7, and you get to place the baron on any hex, blocking it, and you steal someone’s card. It’s nasty, but rarely devastating. You don’t blow up another player’s settlement or city, and you can’t disrupt their road system.
In Puerto Rico, there’s a very limited capacity to ship goods for Victory Points. One player can easily block another player from getting these precious spaces, or even force them to discard their goods. But again, you’re not destroying their buildings or killing their “colonists.” You can get in another player’s way, but you can’t smack him.In Carcassonne… ooh, this is a good example. In the base game and first few expansions, once a person has claimed a “feature,” like a city or a road, you can’t ever remove their meeple (pawn) from it. You might be able to push your way into the feature with more powerful meeples, but that takes some pretty careful planning, forethought, and luck.
In the most recent expansions, there have been new game mechanisms that let you remove other players’ meeples. In The Princess and the Dragon, you can sic a huge dragon on the other players’ meeples. In The Tower, you can actually snipe them from a tall, eponymous tower.
At first, either expansion might seem to make the games more exciting. But they’re like drowning an expensive porterhouse steak in ketchup. The direct conflict gets in the way of the whole fun of putting the meeple down in the first place. I find it more rewarding to defeat someone’s meeple by horning in on their territory with twice the meeple power, than to just pull the right tile to let the dragon dine on meeple meat.
I’m sure some will disagree. But I’ve already revealed my bias. Once I do something in a game, I want it to stay, unless something extraordinary happens. That’s the heart of a Euro game. Constant progress, towards the end. A certain degree of security and freedom in planning your actions. I love that. I love the release it gives me. I can’t find it in any other kind of game.
Maybe that says more about me than it does the Euro.
But it is my blog, after all.