Analog Gaming: The Cardboard Curtain

Hobby games are often called “Eurogames” because they are, for the most part, created, developed, produced, and sold in Europe. Even more specifically, they’re sometimes referred to as “German Games,” which makes sense when you hear the names of some of the most popular creators: Reiner Knizia (Tigris and Euphrates, plus a host of others), Klaus Teuber (The Settlers of Catan), Wolfgang Kramer (The Princes of Florence), Friedemann Friese (Power Grid), etc. This style of strategy game got its start in Europe and remains popular there; the worldwide industry convention is held in the fall in Essen, Germany.

In Europe, families tend to interact with each other more, and it is not unusual for them to sit down together and play games. Because of Germany’s problematic history with warfare, these games tend to have innocuous themes, as well as little direct player conflict. They are usually designed around the idea of creating for one’s self rather than destroying what others are doing. Balance is valued, with “catch-up” and “punish-the-leader” mechanisms built in; end scores are often very close.

But how did Europe become the leader here? America seems to have a stranglehold on most entertainment. Our movies, music, and television is largely the rest of the world’s movies, music, and television. Next to Japan, we’re kings of the video game world. How did we give up this territory to a bunch of funny-talking socialists?

The typical Eurogame designer.

For the most part, we happily ceded it. America has had a rich boardgame history and is the source of most of the best-known games. However, by the eighties or so the bulk of games being produced here were cheap “roll-and-move” (roll the dice, move your piece, draw a card) affairs based usually on some cartoon or TV show. When superstores such as Wal-Mart and Target became the primary place for shopping (especially Christmas shopping), the emphasis was placed more on what would sell rather than what was innovative.

It turns out, what sold well was NOT what was innovative. What sold well was the tried and true, the friendly and familiar. At this point, boardgames were “enjoying” the same conditions that comic books were in America. Both were seen as activities solely for children, and the thought of adults playing boardgames was laughable. (Like comics, boardgames for grownups began moving to specialty stores, out of the eye of the public.) They were purchased for kids, with the parents hoping they wouldn’t be asked to play them. When bought as gifts by adults, the purchasers gravitated to what they already knew and “loved” — Monopoly, Clue, Life, Risk — instead of anything on the shelf they didn’t recognize. For a while there the licensed tie-ins also sold, but soon it was discovered that, rather than create a whole new game, a license could be applied to an existing model and voila! Pocahontas Battleship!

You can probably get this on deep clearance.

The major exception during this time was the Trivial Pursuit fad. This was a game for adults, and it and a couple of others — Scattergories and Pictionary — set the model that the only games adults were expected to play were trivia and party games, not any kind of strategy games.

This has continued to the present day, where overscheduled (and overstimulated) kids “don’t have time” for boardgames anymore. Neither American parents nor kids have the patience to learn new rules or do much reading, so games have to be fast and obvious. Hasbro, the largest American game company, has been competing with itself to distill its famous games down to snack-sized morsels that this market will tolerate.

Within the boardgame hobby, America is still represented. Martin Wallace (Age of Steam) and Alan Moon (Ticket to Ride) are two highly respected boardgame creators, though their designs are still considered “Eurogames.” Even creators at Hasbro such as Rob Daviau and Craig Van Ness are getting credit for their attempts to liven up the stodgy line with some interesting designs (such as HeroScape and new Risk versions). American companies such as Fantasy Flight Games and Days of Wonder are sending American games by American designers to Europe for a change. Pandemic, Dominion, and Chaos in the Old World are games that have gotten a lot of attention recently, and all are by American designers.

In addition, there is a movement within the hobby praising what is lovingly referred to as “Ameritrash” games, games from the seventies and eighties that walked the Earth before the American mainstream market petered out. These games, such as Fortress: America, Survive!, and HeroQuest were loud, violent, and chaotic, the exact opposite of the “elegant,” refined Eurogames.

While Europe remains the center of the boardgame world, America is still fighting to hold a major place in it. What’s more, the release of boardgames on the XBox, the iPhone, and now the iPad could be a development that makes both camps have to re-think their strategies.

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4 thoughts on “Analog Gaming: The Cardboard Curtain”

  1. Good column! Though I think Martin Wallace would be quite surprised to find himself representing America…

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