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The Essence of Euro-style Games

Lewis Pulsipher

February, 2006

Another Attempt at Definition

The "Euro" or "German" style game phenomenon was in full bloom when I came back to the gaming hobby after 20 years away (I played Dungeons & Dragons and nothing else during that time). One of my "quests" has been to understand what makes a Euro game Euro, or to put it another way, what has attracted a legion of game fans to these games, where most of those people have not been attracted to traditional wargames. In the end I am trying to understand a phenomenon in order to learn how I can make wargames more appealing to those who like Euro games.

What I am going to try to do is briefly describe the characteristics that have made "German" or "Euro" style boardgames so popular. In the past when I have done this, people have tried to stretch definitions to include one or another game that they like, whereas I'm trying to find a more narrow definition. What I think happens is that people who regard themselves as fans of Euro-style games, come to regard any game they like to play as a Euro-style game, and try to find a definition that can encompass whatever they like. My view is that there are many games that have some Euro characteristics and not others, and we need not try to include those other characteristics in the Euro definition. For example, a game that lasts longer than an hour or so fails the strict definition I am describing, yet it could still be an excellent game with many Euro characteristics. If you try to stretch a definition to encompass all of those games, you end up with no definition worth discussing.

In the end, many would say that Euro games come from Euro-style publishers, and so in a very real way almost any game from a Euro-style publisher is called Euro, and then people try to come up with a definition that covers all of those games. To put it another way, there may be little in common between a tile-laying game and one of Martin Wallace's semi-wargames, but as people tend to call them Euro-style games, people try to find common ground. I suspect that's not practical.

So what makes a Euro game Euro?

  1. Rarely take more than an hour to play.
  2. Simple rules.
  3. Only a few plausible or reasonable choices each turn.
  4. Uncertainty of information.
  5. No player elimination.
  6. Very pacific.
  7. Player interaction without overt conflict.
  8. Short intervals between playing ("down time").
  9. There are not many pieces—cards, counters, etc.—for a player to manipulate in a given turn.
  10. Great visual interest.
  11. Abstract to the point that the "theme" appears to be tacked on.
  12. A dislike of dice.
  13. Positive scoring mechanisms.

Hourglass1. Euro games rarely take more than an hour to play. This sometimes means relying on intuition rather than logic, as intuition comes quickly, while logic generally requires information-gathering and long thought (sometimes resulting in "analysis paralysis"). Moreover, modern attention spans continue to become shorter and shorter for many reasons. Many people simply won't play a long game, or think they won't. (They often find that if the game is satisfying, they'll play two or three hours, at times; but many aren't willing to try.)

In contrast, traditional wargames are usually two to four hours (sometimes much more) in length.

2. Rules of Euro games are simple, though this does not mean the games have no strategic depth. Go, after all, has simple rules, and many people would say that Chess has simple rules. It is usually pretty easy to teach someone how to play a Euro game. In contrast, traditional wargames usually have complex rules, in part to represent "reality".

3. Players want a few plausible or reasonable choices at each turn; each will be the best choice at some times in the game, but in most cases it won't be clear which choice is best at any given time, and there won't be any way to make it absolutely clear (that is, information will be hidden, or owing to having more than two players, intentions will be hidden). Too many choices just obscures things and take too long.

Many Euro-style games are multi-player (more than two). The very nature of multi-player games introduces uncertainty, because players must estimate the intentions of more than one independent variable (each other player). In contrast, most traditional wargames are two-player games.

Typically a Euro game doesn't need to be a deep game with hidden strategy, surprises and multiple layers because the players aren't interested in playing a game over and over to reveal such depths. (There are certainly exceptions.)

4. Uncertainty of information discourages Game Theory/minimax/mathematical thinking. Players want choices to be made quickly; they don't like long games. Uncertainty means you can't calculate—you can mainly "feel", use intuition. The modern world is very much in a period where intuition is preferred to logic, after all. "Use the Force, Luke; listen to your feelings" (Star Wars paraphrase). At one point, in a card game I played at PowWow04 in Charlottesville, Alan R. Moon explicitly said (paraphrased) "I don't want to know everything". The uncertainty manifests most often in cards, rather than in dice: cards have more character, more variety, more visual interest, and can sometimes be "managed" in a way dice cannot.

In contrast, traditional wargames often limit uncertainty to dice throws.

5. There is no player elimination in Euro games. Moreover, in many cases (but not enough for me to make this part of the definition), the game is designed so that most players have a chance to win at the very end of the game. For example, there may be a progressively increasing scoring scale, or some mechanism allowing a "surprise" win. Insofar as Euro games have grown out of family games (some people refer to them as "family games on steroids"), it is not surprising that there is no player elimination, as that would leave someone out of the fun. In contrast, traditional wargames regard player elimination as the norm, if there are more than two players.

Peace symbol6. Euro games are very pacific. At PowWow04 Stephen Glenn stated (paraphrased) "if this were a Euro game, you would prevent someone from building up, rather than tear them down." Not surprisingly, this leads to a solitaire aspect (almost inevitable if you don't want to allow tearing down). When direct conflict is limited or non-existent, it's inevitable that many Euro games are somewhere in the nature of multi-player solitaire or a race. Settlers of Catan includes the robber in order to give players some way to negatively affect other players; yet this can be seen as a kind of kludge, perhaps added on when the game seemed otherwise too pacific. Euro-aficionados might put this differently, saying that the games use indirect means of influencing other players rather than the direct means common in wargames.

Given the simple mechanics that are common, you could view Euro games as psychological games, where you influence the other players more than the positions on the board. On the other hand, military history people will tell you that success in war is more psychological than physical; but this doesn't always transfer to wargames.

Obviously, traditional wargames involve constant conflict, even if the conflict is not strictly military.

I'm told by a publisher who ought to know, that German game players are not against wargames, as shown by sales of video wargames; rather, the owners of boardgame stores are an older generation who believe they should not offer wargames in family game shops. Nonetheless, I have encountered numbers of Euro gamers who are simply opposed to any mechanism that is an overt "attack" on another player.

7. Euro games try to introduce mechanisms that require player interaction without overt conflict. Such mechanisms include bidding, tile-laying, piece placement, trading, and selection (of roles or resources) from a limited pool.

8. The intervals between playing ("down time") in Euro games are short. Although the interaction between the players is not necessarily high, players at least don't have long to wait. In contrast, traditional wargames often involve long periods of inactivity as one player waits for the other to move a large number of pieces.

9. In Euro-style games there are not many pieces—cards, counters, etc.—for a player to manipulate in a given turn. This is a typical corollary of having few choices. There may be many pieces and cards in play, but not ones that the player can manipulate at a given time. For example, tiles have been placed and their location cannot be changed. In contrast, traditional wargames usually require a player to track and move several dozen pieces (and occasionally many more).

10. Great visual interest is a characteristic of a Euro game. Hexagonal grid boards, which tend to be both uniform and unappealing, are very much out of fashion. Pieces in Euro games are often three-dimensional and quite colorful, with great variety. Cards provide much visual stimulus. In contrast, traditional wargames usually consist of square cardboard pieces and no cards.

11. Euro games are abstract to the point that the "theme" appears to be tacked on, something that rarely influences how the game plays. There are games with many Euro-style characteristics where the game function follows the theme, and cannot be divorced from it. The question is, what is typical? Today, I'd say that abstraction is typical. In contrast, traditional wargames are usually tightly connected to their themes. To put this another way, players tend to admire Euro games for their clever mechanics, while admiring wargames for the clever ways that they represent their theme (history).

No dice12. A dislike of dice. This is not so much a dislike of chance, which is often expressed through cards or random draws, but a dislike of the use of dice. Perhaps it is a backlash against traditional American family games that use dice to control movement, and also against wargames where dice are often used to resolve combat. I would be quite surprised to see a Euro game that used dice to control movement, and fairly surprised to see one that used dice as part of conflict resolution.

13. Positive scoring mechanisms. Many Euro games use point systems: people score points, and everyone "improves" over time, though some improve more than others, until the game ends. This is related to building up rather than tearing down. Moreover, there are often several ways to score, providing both variety and uncertainty (how are the other players going to try to build up their scores?).

My thanks to many people, in particular Alan Paull, for their comments on earlier versions of this article.

- Lew Pulsipher

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