Interaction is a concept that isn’t discussed much with regards to American games, since they seem to take it for granted. In most American games, the players interact with each other as well as the game. That is, in Monopoly, if I land on your property, I pay you money. You can upgrade that property to hurt me even more when I land on it. In Sorry!, landing on my piece sends it back to start. In Risk, your armies are directly attacking mine. These are pretty basic methods of player interaction: providing hazards, ruining plans, and direct conflict.
As you might expect, things are different in Eurogames. conflict in Eurogames tends to range from nonexistent to light, with few games getting much more confrontational than that. This is partly because of the emphasis in Europe of these being family games, but also because it’s an incidental feature that has become a defining one; Eurogame fans tend to like low-conflict games.
In most Eurogames the players merely do their thing without many avenues with which to screw with each other. There are two main mechanics used to provide enough player interaction to fulfill any legal obligation to have some:
1) Auctions. Jesus, Eurogame designers love them an auction. You will almost never just plain purchase any kind of item in one of these games, instead you will have to bid on it. Even if it makes no sense for there to be an auction, there will be an auction. (This is partly because of the interaction thing, but also because it saves the designer the trouble of figuring out how much things should cost. Instead the players decide.) There are Eurogames such as Modern Art and Medici that consist of nothing but auctions — that’s how much fans love these things.
2) Limited resources. Another trick that designers like is this: if there are five players, there are only four dingles available! (And if only four people are playing, remove one of the four.) Oh no, someone’s not going to get a dingle! Conflict!
Some games don’t even bother with these basic levels of conflict. The popular card game San Juan allows you to interact with your opponents in only a small way. There are five roles to select from each round, which each player can take advantage of, but also for which the person selecting the role gets some added bonus. It doesn’t take long to realize that you can cramp other players’ styles by selecting roles that help you but don’t help the other players (for example, selecting the Trader — which allows players to sell goods — when nobody except you has goods to sell.) It’s not much, but it is a way to turn up the conflict in this game.
One of the most popular card games right now is Race For the Galaxy, which is very much like San Juan, only set in space. There are some changes from the previous game, but one of the most important is that the ability above to choose roles in ways help only you and not others is gone; in this revision, each player can choose whatever roles he wishes at any time. You can never use the process to thwart your opponents’ goals, so even that tiny level of conflict is lost.
For many gamers, this is presented as an improvement over San Juan, since the other players can’t “mess up” your plans. These players, if they have to lose a game, want to lose only through some failing of their own, not due to “randomness” or “interference” from others.
As a result, a lot of these games get criticized as “multi-player solitaire”. There are games for which this is literally true: Ricochet Robots, Take it Easy, and Cities are all games in which there is no interaction at all. (Well, that’s not completely true. In Ricochet Robots you’re trying to be the player who solves a puzzle first. In the others you’re trying to be the player who solves it best.) I personally hate these games and this past week played a new one in the field, Don Quixote, which adds an extra level of randomness to the mix to make it possibly my most hated game ever.
For the most part, I like some level of conflict in my games. I like for there to be a reason to have other players at the table. I admit, though, that there are some games where I don’t mind low or nonexistent interaction, because the game itself is so damn brutal I’m glad to not have to look out for others as well. The game Antiquity, for example, features almost no interaction between players whatsoever, but that’s something of a relief; if I’m getting attacked by a leopard, I don’t really need someone also hitting me with a bat.
This is not to say that all Eurogames are pleasant hugfests where we can all just get along. Last year’s critical darling Small World is nothing but conflict, and one of the quintessential Eurogames, Reiner Knizia’s Tigris and Euphrates, is one of the meanest games I’ve ever experienced. And conflict is also finding its way back into Eurogames in smaller, but still pretty direct ways. Another hit from last year, Endeavor, is, for the most part, a pretty standard game except that it allows you to shoot at the other players with cannons.
That is truly a step in the right direction.