24 October 2006
Eurogames (also known and German-style Board Games) are a particular variety of board game. If the phrase 'board game' conjures up Monopoly or Risk in your mind, that the wrong image. Eurogames are a relatively recent phenomena that's a whole new class of games which I really enjoy. (Sadly I don't get to play often enough as most of my gaming friends are in England which is a long way from Boston.)
Eurogames are called that because the center of activity in developing them is in Europe, more precisely Germany (hence they are often called German-style boardgames). The Eurogaming community developed a style of board games which are thoughtful, but not overly complex. Good Eurogames can be learned and played in a couple of hours. yet are interesting enough to play repeatedly.
A large part of this is a focus on good and clever mechanics. Die-roll movement (such as Monopoly) is something you don't see. Much of the interest in Eurogames is the varied mechanics people come up with to make an interesting game.
Eurogames are sometimes abstract, but usually have some kind of theme. (Settlers of Catan is settling an island, Puerto Rico is developing a colony.) However the theme is usually pretty loose, and there's no attempt to create a good simulation. In that way Eurogames are different to simulation games. The latter were usually long and complex, Eurogames don't hesitate to sacrifice realism in order to get a game that works well. Some people dislike this, arguing that the theme is "pasted on". I find the theme tends to add flavor to the game, but I also appreciate the fact that mechanics and playability are put first. Those who are bothered by imprecise simulations would find this much more off-putting.
A key element of Eurogames is that they can be quickly learned and played. A typical Eurogame will play in an hour or two and you can learn it and play effectively on your first game. There is some variation in complexity, but even the more complex games (like Puerto Rico) play in a couple of hours and can be played reasonably on your first attempt.
Balanced with quick learning is a reward for good play. Most Eurogames have a reasonable amount of randomness, but it's pitched at a level so that a less able player will win occasionally but better players win more often.
A big problem with many older board games, like Risk and Monopoly, is that players are eliminated before the end. This leaves people disengaged from events. Worse still the climax can easily be a drawn out attrition where it's clear who will win eventually, but it takes a while to finish the last opponents off (*cough* Monopoly *cough*). Eurogames avoid these problems by working hard to keep everyone engaged to end, often by increasing the tempo as the game goes on so that things move slowly at the beginning (so you can learn while playing) but finish fast to get close and exciting climax.
Eurogames tend to have indirect conflict. Rather than attacking another player's position (as in Chess or Risk), you concentrate on building up your own position while competing for resources. While there can be a little blocking of other players, it's usually a minor part of the mechanics. As a result it's no surprise that war themes are rare in Eurogames.
I'm not a serious gamer, so I find the balance between randomness and skill appealing. I like Eurogames because they are a social game that involves a lot of table talk. They act as a catalyst for interaction between people, unlike serious games like chess and bridge that are usually taken far too seriously. I'm not interested in a game getting between me and my single malt.
There are a number of good websites that discuss Eurogames in more detail. There's an excellent article on wikipedia. For more information than you can possibly digest: try boardgamesgeek; Stephan Wessels has a nice summary of several interesting games.
If you're interested in getting into Eurogames, here's a few suggestions as starting points.
For most readers of the this blog, the best game to try to see if you like this sort of thing is Settlers of Catan - the game that's paved the way for this genre around the world. You can learn how to play in ten minutes of play and be competitive in your first game. However there's lots of room for skill as you choose between multiple strategies which have to change as other people make their moves. The board represents an abstract island on which you build settlements and cities, for which you need resources that the island provides. The island is dealt out differently each time, which helps keep the game varied. You also get resources by trading with other players, which makes the game very interactive. We've played it a couple of dozen of times, often night after night, and so far it hasn't got stale at all. It's biggest fault is that it needs at least three players.
I say Settlers is the best for readers of this blog, as I assume that most readers here are pretty quick to pick things up. My more general choice as a "gateway game" is Ticket To Ride. The big advantage that Ticket To Ride has over Settlers is that the rules are a level simpler, maybe a couple of minutes to understand. This gives it an edge with less geeky people, and also with young children. We've given this game to a couple of nephews this Christmas and they were up and away immediately; yet there was enough strategy to hook their parents too. I don't think I like it as much as Settlers, but it's still streets ahead of Monopoly.
For a game of similar complexity to Settlers, but playable with two I'd suggest Carcassonne. It has a great mechanic where you build up the board as you go by laying a new tile on each turn. You score points by placing counters (referred to as "meeples") on the tile, but you only have a limited number of meeples so there's a lot of thought in both tile placement and how to best use your meeples. There's a ton of extensions and variants of this game; from our experience I'd recommend the Hunters and Gatherers variant - it's a later version which ironed out some the kinks in the original game.
If you've tried these and you want to go up a notch in thoughtfulness I'd suggest Puerto Rico, It's often considered to be one of the most serious strategy games in this style. There is a much lower level of randomness than the other games I've mentioned (which can be a problem for casual gamers). It's a harder game to learn than Settlers, you need a game or two to get the hang of it. The theme is building up a colony - you have limited resources to spend on building, producing goods and shipping them. There's a lot of things to keep track of at once, but it's still playable in a couple of hours.
A related game to Puerto Rico is San Juan. San Juan is designed by the same designer as Puerto Rico and has a similar theme and shares many mechanics. However it is really a different game. It's much lighter in feel, and has more randomness. It's also primarily a card game and I mention it on this short list because it's compact to carry around and can play in limited space, such as on an airplane. The thinking concentrates on card management, deciding which cards to keep, which to build, and which to discard to pay for the building.