When you enter the world of hobby board gaming, even for a quick visit, you will hear about a few different styles of board games. And of course they are referred to by names that don’t mean anything unless you already know what they mean.
The styles and names I’m referring to are these: Ameritrash, Eurostyle/Eurogame, with the third option being Mass Market. The styles often collide and intermix, but knowing which type of game you like and what to expect from each type of game can help narrow down the choices when you’re looking to try or buy a new game. The following descriptions are generalizations to help you get a feel for what each term means; by no means are any of these hard-and-fast rules, and there are many games that either break out of the normal mold or combine elements of both Euro and American styles of gameplay.
Let’s just get this one over with. These are the games that most people have heard of–Sorry, Monopoly, Clue, Life. You’ll also find an extensive surplus of trivia games, especially games targeted toward a specific popular TV show, movie, or other major franchise.
“Mass Market” really refers more to the marketing of a game or where the game is sold than to the style of the game design itself. Mass Market games are the games available in your local department store. They are games that have a wide appeal and generally very easy rules. They are also the most recognizable, at least in America. They are called “Mass Market” because of the large production runs (at least compared to hobby games). Because Mass Market games have such large production runs, they can be sold cheaper and also require more copies to sell in order to be profitable. (This accounts for many of the rethemes as well as repackages of tried-and-true games.)
This category, while it has its exceptions, is generally looked down on in the hobby gaming arena. The reason for this is simple: these games have become known as thrown together quickly and cheaply and (often) as a simple money grab. The 50 million Monopoly rethemes? The 2 billion trivia games for every TV show on the face of the planet? These games don’t really need to exist, but they do because they make money. They’re cheap to produce, and they are tied to a recognizable artifact. People who love Star Wars are far more likely to buy “Star Wars: The Trivia Game” than “Twilight Imperium” simply because they don’t recognize the latter. Games like this are often bought as novelty gifts (I’ve received my fair share of Star Trek games from Target shelves).
Part of the reason why these games are so cheap is that so little thought has to be put into them. It isn’t difficult to design a sequential path that you move along by rolling dice or drawing a card. Trivia games are easy to produce–you can crank out trivia questions pretty quickly, and throw together something that vaguely resembles a competitive experience. If you’ve ever played a trivia game against someone who actually knows the trivia, you might have realized how unfun many trivia games can be.
This category of game fills the public eye when it comes to board games. This is the image people get when they think of board games–dull children’s games, excessive trivia games, and rethemes of Monopoly.
Many party games also fall into this category, although there are some party games available in the mass market that are enjoyable to play. Of course, there are plenty of bad party games that fall under “made cheaply and quickly for a fast buck” category.
The line gets a little blurred when you start talking about playing cards, or classic games that have stood the test of time like Chess or Checkers. There are plenty of excellent games you can play with cards, and Chess has stood the test of time for reason. And it’s true that as more outlets (like Target and Barnes & Noble) begin to carry hobby games, these games may reach the “Mass Market” crowd. But in general, most Mass Market games simply don’t appeal to the modern gamer, don’t provide as good a family experience as they could, or are just plain poorly designed.
I prefer the term “thematic” for this style of game–I think “Ameritrash” has a negative connotation, especially if you don’t know what it refers to. However, you will see that term used, so I’m using it here so you’ll know what others are talking about.
Ameritrash games tend to focus on capturing a theme–such as building an epic space empire, fighting off a horde of zombies, or dueling in an underground maze with spells and magical weapons. There are a whole variety of themes that might be portrayed in a game, but probably the two most popular nowadays are space and zombies.
Since the focus is on attempting to capture the feel of the theme, these games tend to skew a little more complex than their Euro brethren. This isn’t always necessarily true–there are plenty of simple and easy to learn but very thematic games. Rules are generally written to allow for a variety of options to allow players to feel like they can act out the scenarios of the game as they choose.
Often (though not always) Ameritrash games feature player interaction through combat. In addition, often (but again, not always) there are dice or other luck elements involved to add uncertainty.
Ameritrash games often feature tactical scenarios, where the positioning of your tokens on the board is important, and there are rules for movement and engaging with the environment and/or your opponents.
These games often give players unique powers (these are often called “asymmetrical” because players start on an uneven playing field with different advantages), as the players represent a specific race or individual within the game world. Often the rulebook and cards feature colorful descriptions to add to the detail and flavor of the world being portrayed. They often include plastic miniatures with a more detailed depiction of characters, instead of the more generic meeples or cubes.
Though some may disagree, I would consider Wargames and Miniatures games as substyles of Ameritrash. These games feature detailed and complex rules to reenact battles with detailed and colorful units.
Fans of Ameritrash games love the cool themes, the highly interactive nature of the games, and the immersive experience. These games tell stories as the game unfolds, stories which are often repeated and remembered for a very long time.
Those who dislike Ameritrash games claim that they are generally clumsy, overcomplicated, and take too much time to play.
Examples of Ameritrash games: Twilight Imperium, Last Night on Earth, Battlestar Galactica, Cosmic Encounter
Euro games are, I believe, what sparked the resurgence of board game popularity as an adult hobby. Settlers of Catan exploded onto the scene in 1995 and quickly spread around the world and grew in popularity. It showed people that board games could actually be fun, challenging, strategic–and yet still easy enough for families and non-hardcore gamers to learn and play. Not that Settlers was the first, but many games that came before were pretty hardcore or just too geeky for the general population to accept.
Eurostyle games focus on creating tight mechanics that function like a well-oiled machine. These mechanics are usually within a small, self-contained system, and are generally simpler and easier to learn. (There are a few pretty complex Euro games out there, but again, these are just generalities.)
High luck elements, such as dice rolls, are often completely cut out. When dice or other chance elements are brought in, they are often used in a unique way that circumvents the “roll high and win, roll low and lose” nature of many dice games, emphasizing public information and player choice.
Many Euro games are focused on economics: attempting to earn the most money or build a village/city/empire with the greatest efficiency. With a focus on tight and simpler rules, the themes of these games are often thinner–the mechanics don’t necessarily evoke the theme, or come close to any sort of simulation. The theme is simply used to bring context to your actions.
Player interaction is often limited and more peaceful than direct conflict or confrontation. In many cases, the only true interaction is when a player deprives an action or special ability from other players. Otherwise players are focusing on building the most efficient systems to reach the endgame with more points than the other players, rather than actively lashing out to hinder their opponents.
Euro games usually feature more abstract components like wooden cubes and meeples (or other wooden tokens in basic silhouette shapes) instead of detailed miniatures. Euro games usually feature more abstract goals or scoring systems as well, relying on the ubiquitous “victory points” (or sometimes “victory points” by another name).
Euro games tend to place players on equal footing at the start of the game and provide branching paths for players to gain additional abilities of their choice. Euro games work hard at achieving balance, usually giving each player equal access and opportunity to the strategies of the game.
Fans of Euro games tend to prefer the simpler, cohesive rules systems that allow strategic choices without having to remember a large chunk of rules. They like the challenge of creating efficient systems within each mechanical environment.
Those who dislike Euro games claim that they are dry and uninteresting without relevant themes and that mechanics between different games are too similar and don’t really provide that much of a unique gaming experience.
Examples of Euro games: Settlers of Catan, Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Puerto Rico
Remember, this is a guide to help you understand these terms that are often thrown around in gaming conversations. There are a huge variety of games out there, and many of them combine elements of both Euro and Ameritrash styles. It can be helpful to know which type you prefer, as it makes it easier to judge whether or not a game is worth spending your money on, but you should never judge a game by whether it claims to be Euro or Ameritrash style. Both categories have great games; both have quality fans and die-hard defenders; and both, of course, have their share of lunatics and shoddy products. Ultimately, you should play the games that you enjoy the most, regardless of what other people say you should and shouldn’t like.
Also keep in mind the differences between these two popular styles, and the Mass Market category. Not that every Mass Market game is inherently bad, and more and more hobby games are showing up in big-box stores like Target (generally the preserve of the Mass Market). However, there are an inordinate amount of bad products and game experiences that distinctly lack fun. If you enjoy board games and start telling other people about it, expect that people will assume you mean Mass Market games.