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.
What is the difference between a Euro and an Ameritrash game?
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.
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.
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?
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.
What is the one game you think best marries thematic and procedural design focus? Why? Let us know in the comments!