Tribes of Toy Nation: The Scholars
I am making a concerted effort to gather up and publish what I consider to be important speeches that are being given on the toy and game industries. These talks have heretofore not been available to the general public.
I therefore decided to preserve an important talk given byYehuda Berlinger, “…a professional blogger, internet professional, and game designer living in Jerusalem, Israel.” He recently gave a speech on “The Eurogame Revolution” at the “Board Game Studies Colloquium 2009” in Jerusalem. The audience included board game scholars from around the world.
Why Eurogames? Well, consider the Eurogame, Settlers of Catan. According to Wikipedia, Settlers of Catan “…was the first German-style board game to achieve popularity outside Europe, and has been called the "killer app" of designer board games.” Distributed in the US by Mayfair games, it is one of the fasting growing games on American shelves. Over 15 million units have been sold globally since the game was introduced in 1995.
You may not agree with everything Yehuda has to say. It will, however, certainly stimulate your thinking. Here is Yehuda’s speech:
 The Modern Eurogame Revolution
Board and card games used to be for adults. In the last century or two, board games in the Western world became simplistic and their audience became children. With some exceptions, today’s popular proprietary board games, such as Monopoly, Sorry, Candy Land, and UNO, require no more brain power than the average six year old can muster.  Popular games for adults, such as Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, etc… are the equivalent of parlor games, used only to break the ice at parties.
 We see an endless stream of the same games with pawns, dice, tracks, instructive cards, and trivia questions. Ask an executive at any large Western-world game publishing house about a game, and he or she will describe the game’s theme: it’s about cars, it’s about Star Wars, it’s about menopause.  The mechanisms of the game (which I call “mechanics”) are not relevant to their marketing concerns.
On the other side, hobby games with serious devotees, such as war games, miniature games, and role-playing games have extraordinarily complex rules and long playing times. Classic abstract games like Chess and Go require deep thinking and a single-minded devotion to play competently.  Most of us can’t muster this much time or effort after graduating university. That leaves gambling and social games, such as Backgammon, Poker, Mah-jongg, and Dominoes, which are primarily based on luck.
Eurogames, otherwise known as German games, family strategy games, or designer games, are games for adults and families that bring innovative mechanics back to the forefront of game design.  This focus on introducing - in game after game after game - new and innovative game play is a modern revolution in board gaming. Eurogames’ 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.
In Eurogames, the mechanics are the heart of the game; the theme is icing to help market the game. I will come back to some of the mechanics used in Eurogames later on.
First, a bit more about what makes Eurogames unique.
Eurogames are not overtly, and generally not directly, focused on confrontation.  Instead of capturing other players’ pieces, money, or territory, as in many American, war, 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. Yet, 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. Many are more complex than the typical mainstream family game, such as Candy Land or Parcheesi, but most have elegant rules and require simple, yet important decisions on each turn, in comparison to war games,  classic abstracts, or complicated card or role-playing games. The average Eurogame’s complexity is on par with Monopoly.
There is rarely ever player elimination, so all players are involved through to the end of the game. 
Playing time is 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 many can also be played with two players, and a significant sub-genre of Eurogames includes two-player only 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 other players, keeping you involved even when it is not your 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.
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 rarely 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. You must then optimize strategy and tactics in reaction to these elements.  For example, in Power Grid, power plants appear on the market in random order; players take turns bidding for the ones they want, and then building a network of power supply stations and fuel dumps based on the plants they’ve acquired.
There are generally multiple paths to victory, so random elements force you to adapt 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 each 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, you receive a random distribution of bean cards out of which you must create sets by trading with other players, but higher valued beans are rarer and harder 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.
Now let’s take a closer look at some example mechanics and themes that might show up in Eurogames.
Random terrain or resources: Many Eurogames randomize the resources available during each round or each game. Note that you usually know the available terrain and resources BEFORE you take an action, and so can use this information to plan your strategies, rather than the dice, cards, or spinners occurring AFTER or AS you take an action to determine if you have succeeded.  Example: Domaine.
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, you do not win or lose based on your luck with which card you draw; instead, the cards you draw influence the strategy that you will best be able to employ. Many Eurogames let you select one of several cards when drawing, or make a selection of cards available to all players via an auction.  Example: San Juan.
Cascading points: Eurogames typically give all players a chance to win 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. 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.  For example, in Puerto Rico, most players will only be able to ship a few barrels at the beginning of the game, earning only a few victory points, but may be able to ship many barrels on the last few turns, earning many more victory points, and thus possibly swinging the final score in the last rounds.
Game ending conditions: Eurogames have a built-in limit to the game’s length. Eurogames 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 the game from dragging on, and is a necessary component when victory is not achieved only by means of destroying your opponent.  Example: Tikal.
Tile placement: Placing tiles is aesthetically pleasing - watching a map or area grow into a definite shape - thematic - as brave explorers discover new territory. Choosing where to place a tile provides you with a limited number of important choices on your turn. Since only one tile can be placed in a certain spot, the first player to get to a spot may gain a slight advantage. Meanwhile, your opponents place their own tiles in order to gain similar advantages. In Tikal, for instance, placing a new tile represents your exploration through the jungle; placing the tile adjacent to your own workers gives you an advantage in being the first to unearth the treasures the tile may hold.
Auctions: Auctions involve all players simultaneously, give all players a fighting 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 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 minimizes downtime, allowing all players to participate on all turns. Trading also 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 games. Like auctions, there are many ways to implement trading mechanics. Many Eurogames also allow proscribed types of negotiation, again something that involves all players on all turns.  Example: Settlers.
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, denying it to all the other players this round. At the end of the round, the roles are returned and first choice for a role passes 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, and is often used in place of more direct confrontation.  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: You choose where to place your pieces, generally with limiting factors proscribing where you 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 each area, and partial or no benefits to players with less pieces in those areas. This mechanic forces you to choose whether to concentrate on a few better areas or a greater number of worse areas, and whether to concentrate on a few absolute wins or a greater number of secondary wins.  In El Grande, for example, you 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.
 Modular boards that shrink one space at a time; planning routes across a map; actions and auctions whose values change over time or based on circumstance; 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 of mechanics goes on and on from game to game.
What’s important to realize is that, although area control might be an integral part of more than one Eurogame, no two Eurogames are alike, with only a change of theme. Instead, each game includes a unique variant of a mechanic or combines several mechanics in unique ways.
Themes: Eurogames are often set in historical time periods. A Eurogamer might say: “If I see one more game about trading wares in Medieval Europe, I’ll go crazy.” Typical Eurogames themes include  pre-historic (Primordial Soup, Stone Age),  ancient (Amun-Re, Tigris and Euphrates),  medieval (Carcassonne, Caylus),  renaissance (Princes of Florence, Notre Dame),  civilization (Entdecker, Through the Ages),  exploration (Lost Valley, Tikal),  industry (Power Grid, Industria),  agriculture (Agricola, Bohnanza),  city building (Puerto Rico, Alhambra),  political (Die Macher, 1960),  trains (Age of Steam, Ticket to Ride),  space (Race for the Galaxy, Mission: Red Planet),  fantasy (Battlelore, Lord of the Rings), and so on.
Eurogames are still a blip on the world board gaming market, although Settlers of Catan was in the top ten selling games on Amazon.com this past holiday season, and several other Eurogames were in the top 100. Nevertheless, they are already influencing games outside of their genre. Role playing games, collectible card games, American games, and war games are incorporating the mechanics and ideas of Eurogames to produce hybrid games,  such as Richard Borg’s card-driven war game series. Previous generations of board games based on video games were of little to no interest to players or video gamers alike. Fantasy Flight Games produces hybrid Euro/war games,  including board game versions of World of Warcraft and Doom, that are highly praised.
Hasbro and Mattel at least have Eurogame-aware executives who are slowly introducing Eurogame-style (and video game) 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 are also beginning to purchase smaller companies that manufacture Eurogames, in order to buy into Eurogames’ growing market.
Eurogames are making their way onto major video gaming platforms, such as online games, PC games, Xbox Live, the iPhone, and mobile phones, where they tend to be well-received. This exposes them 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 positive write-ups this month in Wired Magazine and The New York Times.
 The primary source of information for Eurogames is the biggest English-language board game web site, Board Game Geek. Other countries have BGG equivalents, such as Germany’s Spielbox. BGG provides user-contributed information on over 40,000 games, user forums, reviews, session reports, variants, rule FAQs, game rankings, collection tracking, a marketplace, and much more. In 2008, BGG attracted 8.5 million unique visitors, 23 million visits, and 221 million page views. BGG has 225,000 registered users who posted 1 million articles in 2008, uploaded 100,000 images and 10,000 files (rules, variants, player aids, and so on). 80 of their top 100 ranked games are Eurogames or hybrid Euro/war games. Only 53% of these visitors were from the US; Eurogaming is an international phenomenon.
 One thing BGG doesn’t cover well is news. Board Game News exclusively covers Eurogame news, while my own Purple Pawn covers news about Eurogames and other tabletop games. There are around a hundred and fifty active board game blogs, including my blog, Facebook groups, and a few mailing lists such as Spielfrieks. Hundred of Eurogames can be played online for free, at sites such as BrettspielWelt, SpielByWeb, and others. Eurogames are available at local hobby gaming stores, and online at Amazon.com, FunAgain Games (which also provides extensive information and user comments about the games), and dozens of specialty online stores.
 Industry awards exist to publicize the best games each year, including the most influential German award, the Spiel Des Jahres. One respected English-speaking award is the International Gamer Awards.
 Major hobby game conventions, such as GenCon and Origins, include tracks for Eurogames, while hundreds of smaller conventions are dedicated to Eurogames. Finally, thousands of game groups exist in nearly every major city around the globe, meeting weekly or bi-weekly to play Eurogames, supporting and pushing the Eurogame hobby. My own group, the Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club, has been meeting on a weekly basis for over ten years. My group, like many others, has spawned other regular groups, and has turned on hundreds of new families to the modern Eurogame revolution.