eurogames vs ameritrash

Eurogames vs. Ameritrash: What’s the Difference?

In All, Blog, Game Lingo by Mike Mihealsick4 Comments

This article is courtesy of Mike Mihealsick from Coalition Game Studios.  The Coalition helps take your prototype or game to the next level with logged blind playtesting, quality assurance reports, and rules manual copy editing.  His blog focuses on lessons and thoughts on tabletop design, and can provide an insight into the way we see games.  

Coalition Game Studios

What is the difference between a Euro and an Ameritrash game?

Gameplay action

Castles of Burgundy could be described as a “eurogame.” Its presentation, aesthetics, and theme are secondary to its elegant mechanics.

Spend any amount of time reading up on board gaming, and you’ll come across two terms–Euro and Ameritrash (or, for the politically correct, Amerithrash).  Look a little longer, and you’ll find that it’s not exactly easy to pin down a definition for either.  Even in my personal circles, from veteran gamers to dabblers, I’ve heard several different views on what these descriptors mean and their role is in classifying games.

The truth is, the terms Euro and Ameritrash are commonly misunderstood.  Let’s define them first, and then we’ll talk more.

Games described as “Euro” typically focus their design on innovative and intuitive mechanics, then develop a theme that fits–an approach more common in European releases.  “Ameritrash” design tends to focus on theme first, then it uses gameplay and mechanics as a vehicle to express the narrative–an approach more common in American games.

Does this sound familiar at all?  Coalition Game Studios uses something similar in its profiling process.  Games can be classified and described by their design focus–procedural or thematic.

purpose

Imperial Assault could qualify as an “Ameritrash” game. It’s all about providing the best Star Wars experience possible on your table, so theme, presentation, and narrative come first. 

Changing the Labels

Why would Coalition use the terms “procedural and thematic” rather than “Euro and Ameritrash”?  Because of context.  Euro and Ameritrash have become polarizing labels, and tend to be used to describe the absolute opposite ends of the design focus spectrum.

Action

Tzolk’in takes the worker placement mechanic, and spices it up with a central gear that constantly shifts players’ positions on the board. The mechanics are tight enough to make the game feel mainly procedural in design, but there’s a touch of thematic focus with the strong Mayan motif and big plastic wheels.

Very few, if any, games can be said to have a truly unilateral focus in design.  The reality is that the vast majority of games fall somewhere closer to the middle.  For this reason, Euro and Ameritrash are largely irrelevant adjectives.

Instead, imagine a game like a box with a little cluster of churning gears on the inside.  Looking at it, you know that this box could have been made one of two ways.

One way, the engineer knew what he wanted the contraption to do.  He knew its function.  He figured out the best way to build this, and then shaped the box to fit the insides.  If it’s a bit lumpy, it’s because there’s machinery underneath.  This is bottom-up design focus–or procedural focus as we call it in Coalition profiles.

The other way, the engineer knew what he wanted this machine to look like.  He knew that its interface would matter, so he built the box and figured out a way to make the insides fit.  It could have been smoother, but the presentation is worth any hiccups.  This is top-down design focus–or thematic focus as we like to call it.

Design Lesson: Procedural vs Thematic

So, which is better?

You’re asking the wrong question.

Presentation and mechanics can coexist.  In fact, they’re quite fundamentally different.  It isn’t unreasonable to ask for strong gameplay and theme.  If we can expect these two forces to be present in a game, then why profile games by their design focus at all?

wide

Blood Rage has procedural sensibilities with its action drafting and deterministic combat mechanics, but it also gushes with theme and strong presentation quality–it’s a great example of the successful union of procedural and thematic design.

Getting warmer.

It’s all about compromise.  Theme and mechanics are different beasts with different needs, and as designers we have to create an ecosystem that accommodates them both while still being a nice place for the player to visit.  We sculpt that landscape, sometimes at the expense of one or the other, to create a world closest to our intended vision.  Profiling by design focus is a subjective measure of this compromise.

So, seriously, which is better?

Neither, but keep in mind the repercussions of your decisions.  A game too heavily mechanical may feel dry and disconnected to some players, where a game too heavily thematic may seem fluffy and insubstantial to others.  The most important thing is to guide your game to satisfy the final vision you (or your publisher) has in mind.

Design Exercise

What is the one game you think best marries thematic and procedural design focus? Why? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author

Mike Mihealsick

Mike is the founder and a senior analyst at his web service, Coalition Game Studios. The Coalition works to provide tabletop designers and small studios with professional playtesting and quality assurance. Apart from that, he is a paramedic and pro-circuit gamer, has an 8-pound dog named Ser Gregor Clegane, and he has been to all six continents that aren't covered with ice all year.


Comments

  1. The best game that I know of that incorporates both sides of the spectrum is the co-operative game Pandemic. The disease behaves very organically, and the actions you take to defeat it are very intuitive because the theme is executed in the design so well. However, the game’s mechanics are sleek and tight, creating a very solid gaming experience, even if the theme doesn’t quite appeal to you.

  2. Interesting way to look at it from the design process! I think a major difference between Euros and Ameritrash are the win conditions – the use of (arbitrary) Victory Points (VP) generally means you’re playing a Euro, and you’ve won due to cleverly manipulated the “mechanics.” Other Euro conventions include indirect player involvement, and usually a number of resources (gold, silver, stone, etc.) that you most efficiently manage and trade for certain abilities, and of course, VP.

    An alternative win condition (curing a disease, beating a final boss) is essentially a “thematic” win, which generally indicates that you are playing an “Ameritrash” game. In that case, I mostly disagree with Benjamin – I think Pandemic really excels at Ameritrash design and actually has little in common with what Euro games are known for. Pandemic has no victory points or any indirect player interaction. Being a cooperative game sets it apart even further. I’m not an expert on Euro games of course, but I think these are all mechanics that would not have come from Euros.

    I think you’re right in that the two themes are essentially useless now . While you can still use each word to give a veteran board gamer a good idea of what type of game they’ll be playing, these two terms cannot accurately describe the games that come out today. A lot of ideas are borrowed and meshed into each other. For example, Ticket to Ride very much seems like an idea that started with a theme – lets build trains! – and then some simple mechanics (set collection) were then fit into the theme. But maybe Alan Moon began with the idea of colored paths and set collection to block one another and gain victory points, and then the train theme got pasted on. Would that make it a Euro or an Ameritrash game? And does the design process, or the end result, determine its “Euro” or “Ameritrash” status?

    Thanks for posting!

    1. Hey Joe, glad you liked the article 🙂

      The observations you made about victory conditions are pretty keen. It does seem like procedural games often resort to numerical scoring, and players tend to win thematic games by satisfying an objective. However, in this case, I think it’s more correlation than causation, so I’m not sure it’s a solid grounds for classification. While I’m having trouble thinking of heavily thematic games that involve scoring points, I can think of a few procedural games that are driven by objectives (Codenames, …and then we held hands)

      As far as the Ticket to Ride questions, you’re looking at the actual inception of the game’s conceptual idea, which I don’t think is indicative of the game’s final design focus. Whether Moon first decided he wanted to build a train game or decided he wanted to make a spatial set collection and route-building game, that’s irrelevant.

      When we assess a game’s design focus, we’re looking at the overall environment in the game’s structure, and looking for clues as to what concessions were made in procedure or theme to benefit the other. There will almost invariably be concessions on both sides, but the overall trends we observe let us determine where the mean focus lies. A heavily procedural mechanism may have a less solid narrative context, whereas a heavily thematic mechanism may be less streamlined in its functionality.

      At a glance, I’d consider Ticket to Ride to be roughly a 75% procedural 25% thematic split or so. It certainly isn’t devoid of theme, or even particularly dry–assembling trains and creating a network provides an unspoken narrative, like you’re building a new world of transportation out of nothing. However, it’s more strongly procedural because of its heavy focus on clean mechanisms. I might not have any idea why this pink train is better than that orange one, or what in the world a rainbow train is, or why I’m getting these route cards…but the procedures are easy to understand, and they come together to form a stable structure without too much fluff.

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