Sunday, April 19, 2009

Introduction to Eurogames - Presentation for Board Game Studies Colloquium 2009

Here is my first draft for a speech I will be giving on Wed at the Board Game Studies Colloquium 2009 in Jerusalem. The audience members are top board game scholars from around the world and some top movers in gaming in Israel. My speech is not exactly academic, but aims at some level of expertise, at least.

One thing that worries me is that it's a pretty boring speech. Any comments and suggestions are welcome!

After finalizing the speech, I will work on a PowerPoint presentation to go along with it.


--

The Eurogame Revolution

In the last century there have been some, but not many, innovative mechanics in game design. 1959’s Diplomacy introduced a game with secret and simultaneous unit deployment and tactics employed both on and off the actual board. 1972’s Dungeons and Dragons introduced a table game with no set board, rules, or end game. 1993’s Magic the Gathering introduced a game where each player brings a unique custom designed deck to the table at each playing.

Eurogames, otherwise known as German board games, family strategy games, or designer games, are games that bring innovative mechanics to the forefront of game design. Their roots can be traced back to certain board games from the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, but true Eurogames took their present shape in the 1980s and 1990s in Germany, quickly followed by the rest of Europe and the entire world.

What are Eurogames?

Ask an American game publisher about a game, and he will tell you its theme: it's about cars, it's about Star Wars, it's about pregnancy. The mechanics are not relevant to their marketing concerns. Ask a Eurogame publisher about a game, and he will tell you its mechanics: it's an area control game, it's a set collection game, it's an auction game. The theme is icing to help market the game.

The heart of every Eurogame is innovative uses of familiar, or totally new, game mechanics: modular boards; boards that shrink one space at a time; cards that serve multiple functions, forcing you to accept both positive and negative effects when chosen, or forcing you to choose only one of several possible benefits (and lose access the others); choosing your opponent’s available actions; secret and simultaneous movement selection; hidden roles; variable powers; variable phase or turn order; mission cards; personalized play decks that change each game; … The list goes on and on.

Eurogames are not overtly, and generally not directly, confrontational. Instead of capturing other players' pieces, money, or territory, as you see in many American or abstract strategy games, in Eurogames the winner is the player to reach a certain point value first, or have the highest value after a set end-game condition occurs. For example, in Settlers of Catan, the first player to reach ten points wins. Eurogames are not purely race games, as they are also interactive. Players may compete to acquire resources from a limited supply, or interfere with other player's progress. For example, in Carcassonne, only the player or players with the most pieces on an area scores for that area.

I mentioned "Family": Eurogames are aimed at families. They have relatively simple rules and require simple decisions on each turn, in comparison to simulation war games, deep abstracts, or complicated card games. There is no player elimination, so all players are involved through to the end of the game. Unlike traditional race games, in most Eurogames you convert your resource acquisition to victory points. In this way, the resource leader often makes a trade off against progress in point conversion; this helps to maintain game balance and give all players a chance to win through to the end of the game. For example, in Power Grid, the player with the best power plants and city connections is last in line to buy fuel to power their plants.

Playing time is short and oriented towards a typical family gathering: between 15 to 90 minutes for most games, with some heavier games taking 120 minutes, rarely longer. Family games means multiplayer, although a significant sub-genre of Eurogames includes two-player games for couples. Unlike rigid turn-oriented games, many Eurogames have constant involvement of all players on every players’ turns, like party games, so there is little downtime between turns. For example, in Settlers of Catan, part of each player's turn involves trading with the other players, keeping all players involved, even when it is not their turn.

Unlike pure abstract games, or simulation war games, Eurogames are lightly-themed: enough theme to give context and color to the game, but not enough to complicate the rules or detract from the essential game play. For example, Tigris and Euphrates is about conflicts between civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia, but the board is a simple grid, the pieces are differently colored tiles and disks, and each turn involves placing up to two pieces on the board, earning points in one of four colors, with conflicts arising whenever two disks of the same color end up in the same contiguous area. In order to reach all families, most Eurogame are mostly language-independent, or come with pieces and rules translated into two or more languages; Eurogames are almost never word or language-based.

I mentioned "Strategy": Eurogames are almost never perfect information games, such as Go or Chess, but are never highly-luck based games, such as what Eurogamers pejoratively name "roll-and-move" American games such as Monopoly, or odds-based calculation games such as Risk. Instead, Eurogames may provide random elements at the beginning of the game, or each game turn. The players must then optimize strategy and tactics in reaction to these elements. For example, in Settlers of Catan, the board consists of 37 hexes which are arranged randomly at the beginning of the game; after viewing the initial setup, players plan their strategy for the game.

There are generally various paths to victory, so the random elements force you to adopt your strategy, rather than provide one player or another with better or worse positions. Unlike "roll-and-move" or "pick-a-card-and-do-what-it-says" games, players have a few simple yet important decisions to make on every turn. If there are dice or cards, they provide randomized access to equal-valued resources, rather than better or worse fortunes. In Bohnanza, for example, players receive a random distribution of bean cards out of which they must create sets by trading with other players, but higher valued beans are rarer and hard to use to create sets.

I mentioned "Designer": Eurogames are a modern form of entertainment for adults, like movies or music. The components and artwork are of nice quality and good stock. They come with the designer's name on the box. Players follow specific designers and publishers the way that movie lovers follow specific actors and directors, or oenophiles follow specific vineyards or wineries. Well-known Eurogame designers include Dr Reiner Knizia, Wolfgang Kramer, Klaus Teuber, Alan Moon, Uwe Rosenberg, Andreas Seyfarth, Klaus Jungen Wrede, Martin Wallace, Friedmann Friess, , and many others.

Let's take a closer look at some common mechanics and themes that make up Eurogames.

Mechanics

Auctions: Auctions involve all players simultaneously, give all players a chance, and easily create game balance by forcing (equally skilled) players to expend actual value for actual benefit. There are hundreds of variations on the auction mechanics. For example, in Ra, each auction includes a number of tiles and an auction disk. You have a limited set of auction disks with which to bid. When you win an auction, you also win an auction disk that can you will use in the next phase of the game, and you lose your current auction disk, which becomes part of the spoils for the next auction.

Trading / negotiation: Trading also minimizes downtime, allowing all players to participate on all turns. Trading helps to maintain game balance, as players are often willing to give better trade value to other players who are perceived to be losing - giving them a boost - and less trade value to other players perceived to be winning - preventing a runaway leader problem sometimes encountered in other types of games. Many Eurogames also allow or encourage proscribed types of negotiation, again something that involves all players on all turns.

Tile placement: Placing tiles is aesthetically pleasing - watching a map or area grow into a definite shape - thematic - as brave explorers discover new territory - and Eurogamey – choosing where to place a tile provides a limited number of important choices on your turn, and since only one tile can be placed in a certain spot, the first to get it to a spot gains a slight advantage out of it. Meanwhile, the other players place their own tiles and in order to gain their own advantages. In Carcassonne, for instance, placing a tile extends and creates new board areas, and allows you to place one of your limited supply of pieces onto that tile, helping you to assert control of an area.

Worker placement / role selection: In many Eurogames, the available actions each round are limited; this is another way of forcing competition for scarce resources. Players take turns claiming actions, denying others the same choice. In Puerto Rico, for instance, each player in turn chooses an available role, and all players perform the action designated by the role, while the player who selects the role gains a specific benefit. The Governor chooses a role first, and then each player after him chooses a role that hasn't already been chosen. After every player has chosen a role, the roles are returned, and the Governor moves to the player on the left.

Set collection: Set collection is a race mechanic where players utilize resources to collect items - either the same, or specifically diverse - often from a limited supply. For example, in Tigris and Euphrates, your score is the number of cubes in your least collected color out of four colors. This forces you to diversify your tactics during the game.

Area control: Players choose where to place their pieces, generally with limiting factors proscribing where they may place them, and after a certain number of rounds or a depletion of resources, areas are scored, giving full benefits to the player with the most pieces in an area, and partial or no benefits to players with less pieces in that area. This mechanic gives forces you to choose whether to concentrate on a few better areas or a greater number or worse areas, and whether to concentrate on a few full wins or a greater number of lesser wins. In El Grande, for example, players can try to place a greater number of cubes in a few specific locations, or a lesser number of cubes in a greater variety of locations.

Route planning: Found in numerous games with train themes, route planning involves optimizing how to get resources or pieces from here to there. Generally, only one person can build a connection point on a certain part of the board. Other players are blocked or must pay to deliver through that location. Players earn money or points for efficiently building the right kinds of routes. For example, in Ticket to Ride, each route can be claimed by only one player, and you gain points for the length of your routes and whether you fulfill certain mission cards that you pick at the start of, and during, the game.

Random terrain or resources: Many Eurogames randomize the available resources available during each round or each game. Note that the players usually know and can use this information to plan their strategies, rather than dice being used AFTER planning to determine if you have succeeded.

Action cards: The optional action card that costs you a precious action to play, allows you to choose one of several possible actions (thereby forgoing all the others), or costs you one resource to gain another, is a common device in Eurogames. In well-balanced Eurogames, players do not win or lose based on the luck of which card they draw; instead, the cards you draw influences the type of strategy that you will best employ. Many Eurogames let you select one of several cards when drawing, or make cards available to all players in an auction.

Cascading points: Many Eurogames keep all players involved throughout the game by apportioning a small number of points in the early parts of the game and the bulk of the points in the latter part or end of the game. Depending on how the game is balanced, the early part of the game is often used for development of a point-earning engine, while early points may or may not make much of a difference in the final scores.

Game ending conditions: A key factor of Eurogames is a built-in limit to the game's length. Eurogames always end after a certain number of points is achieved, a certain number of rounds has occurred, or a certain number of resources are depleted. This prevents a game from dragging on, and is a necessary component when victory is not achieve only by beating the other players down.

Themes

Something a Eurogamer night say: if I see one more game about trading wares in Medieval Europe, I'll go nuts. Typical themes of Eurogames include Pre-historic (Primordial Soup, Stone Age), ancient (Amun-Re, Tigris and Euphrates), medieval (Carcassonne, Caylus), renaissance (Princes of Florence, Notre Dame), civilization (Settlers of Catan, Through the Ages), exploration (Lost Valley, Tikal), industry (Power Grid, Industria), agriculture (Agricola, Bohnanza), city building (Puerto Rico, Alhambra), political (Die Macher, El Grande), trains (Age of Steam, Ticket to Ride), space (Race for the Galaxy, Mission: Red Planet), fantasy (Battlelore, Lord of the Rings), and so on.

Influence

Eurogaming popularity is still a blip on the world board gaming market as a whole, but is already influencing games outside of its genre. Role playing games, collectible card games, American games, and war games are incorporating the mechanics and ideas of Eurogames in order to produce hybrid games, such as Richard Borg's card-driven war game series. Fantasy Flight Game produces licensed games based on video games, but unlike previous generations of board games based on video games, which are of no little interest to players or video gamers alike, FFG games, such as board game versions of World of Warcraft and Doom, are highly praised.

Hasbro and Mattel, at least, have Eurogame-aware executives who are slowly introducing Eurogame-style mechanics into their branded lines of products – the latest version of Risk, for example, includes a less abstract theme, missions, action cards, and a limited game time – and more interesting mechanics into some of their newer game lines. They also have begun to purchase smaller newer companies that manufacture Eurogames.

Eurogames are making their way onto major video gaming platforms, such as online games, PC games, Xbox Live, and mobile phones, where they tend to be well-received. This exposes the games to tens of millions of players who otherwise tend to look at board and card games (other than collectible card games) as old fashioned. Over the last several years, thousands of mainstream press articles have covered the resurgence of board games in general - and Eurogames and Eurogamers in particular, including nice write-ups this month in Wired Magazine and The New York Times.

Resources

The primary source of information for Eurogames is the biggest board game web site, Board Game Geek (http://boardgamegeek.com). BGG, as it is called, contains user-contributed information on over 40,000 games, user forums, reviews, session reports, variants, rule FAQs, Geeklists, game rankings, collection tracking, a marketplace, and much more. 80 of their top 100 games are Eurogames or hybrid Euro/war games. In 2008, BGG attracted 8.5 million unique visitors, 23 million visits, and 221 million page views. It has 225 thousand registered users who posted 1 million articles in 2008, uploaded 100 thousand images and 10 thousand files (rules, variants, player aids, and so on). Only 53% of these visitors were from the US; Eurogaming is an international phenomenon. There are German equivalents to BGG, such as Spielbox.

One thing BGG doesn't cover well is news. Board Game News (http://boardgamenews.com) exclusively covers Eurogame news, while my own Purple Pawn (http://purplepawn.com) covers news about Eurogames and other tabletop games. There are around a hundred and fifty active board game blogs, including mine (http://jergames.blogspot.com), Facebook groups, and a few mailing lists such as Spielfrieks. Hundred of Eurogames can be played online for free, at sites such as BrettspielWelt (http://www.brettspielwelt.de/), SpielByWeb (http://www.spielbyweb.com/), and others. Eurogames are available at local hobby gaming stores, and online at Amazon, FunAgain Games (which also provides extensive information and user comments about the games), and dozens of specialty online stores.

Major hobby game conventions, such as GenCon and Origins, include tracks for Eurogames. Hundreds of local smaller conventions, such as the Gathering of Friends or the UK Games Expo, are devoted to Eurogames. BGG.con, hosted and organized by BGG, gets over 700 attendees each year for open and casual game play. The World Board Gaming Championships (http://www.boardgamers.org/) gets hundreds for more intense competitive play. EssenSpiel and the Nuremberg Toy Fair, both in Germany, get hundreds of thousands of attendees, and exhibit the newest games from all major Eurogame publishers, in addition to mainstream toy and game publishers.

Industry awards exist to publicize the best of each year's games, including the most influential German award, the Spiel Des Jahres. One respected English-speaking award is the International Gamer Awards.

Finally, thousands of game groups exist in every major city around the globe, meeting weekly or bi-weekly to play Eurogames, and supporting and pushing the Eurogame hobby. Among them is my own group the Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club which has been meeting weekly for over ten years.

Thank you.

7 comments:

nijoos said...

Perhaps as an intro to spice things up, you could 'teach' a representative game which captures the essence of eurogames. May have to be one with simple rules though so it won't be a separate speech on its own. Just my 2 cents to help 'paint a pic' of what you are trying to share.

Ralph said...

One thing that is not really clear is how much your audience knows about Euro boardgames--it sounds like they already know quite a deal about the boardgame industry. If so, what's the point of your speech? Why convey what they already know? You do need to know the audience. Second, I would not simply draw upon your own knowledge but some secondary sources other than BGG, such as the recent Wired and NYT articles on Catan and Eurogames, and books about board games, as well as providing some facts about the German market of boardgames (surely there has been some published market research).

Thomas said...

Great speech Yehuda! I really liked it. I'm looking forward to reading about how it goes :)

Francisco Ortega said...

I think it is very good... you will do just fine. I got to present last year and the BGS attendees are a very classy bunch. They are well versed in euro games but you really hit key points that are important to highlight.

I wish I could be there this year and finally meet you in person, but other expenses got in the way. Please send my regards to Mr Gadi Kfir and good luck... you will fit just perfectly and feel in the perfect environment.

my best to you.

Francisco Ortega

Yehuda said...

Fransisco: I was working with the assumption that many of the attendees didn't know too much about Eurogames; Gadi indicated that the topic was of interest, and David Irving is quoted as saying that Monopoly was the last interesting thing in board game design.

If they all know Eurogames well, won't this presentation be too simplistic for them?

Yehuda

meowsqueak said...

In written form, it looks good - a lot will depend on the delivery of course :)

Are you planning to publish your final version here? If you do, I can see this being quite useful to others as an aid to promote Eurogames.

Helena said...

I was there. Yehuda gave a good paper and in front of this ''classy bunch'' appeared as modest, deferential, diffident and not at all ebulient. Beardless and red forelocked he gave the appearance of vulnerability heightened by lowering his eyes shyly. How should one dress for such a forum?