I’ve used these terms in many of my articles, and have proclaimed my preference for Eurogames. These two terms are often seen as one of the major divides in classifying boardgames. After playing a lot and reading a lot about games, I have a good feel for what category a given game will fit into. Despite that, they are just loose categories without any official definition. And it seems that nobody else can really agree about them, either. My overall definition has so far been more along the lines of “I know it when I see it”, but today, I’ll attempt to set some boundaries for these terms through clearer definitions.
To begin, I would like to clarify a term. American games are sometimes, and frequently facetiously, referred to as Ameritrash, and while I occasionally use the term in conversation, I’d rather avoid any connotations or the impression of bias.
The overall structure of BoardGameGeek, avoids the Euro/American distinction. BGG has eight game categories, but there is a lot of overlap between many of them. Still, many people interpret Thematic and Strategic as synonyms for American and Euro respectively. This hints at the difference between them. Of course, an American game can have a lot of good mechanics and a Euro game can have a lot of theme. And recently there have been a lot of games that have strong elements in both categories, so identifying just one as the focus can be rather subjective.
Another common way of identifying American and Euro is by associating American games with a strong theme, and Euro games with strong mechanics. But again, most games share those elements. A recent post on League of Gamemakers completely upset the idea of a dichotomy of Theme and Mechanics. This might be the most important post in game design theory in the past year. Maybe longer. Understanding the relationship between the two is an important topic I’ve visited one, two, three times before. I think the relationship between theme and mechanics is at the heart of the difference between Euro and American games, but is not captured so simply.
When I defined a game, I said that one of the most important elements is having meaningful choice. The meaning of the choice is what really sets the identity of each of these categories. In American games, players’ choices are guided by how they want events to unfold. This is sort of a “journey is the destination” interpretation. The game sets up opportunities for the player to choose a behavior. In Euro games, on the other hand, players choices are guided by how they want the game to work. In a sense, the game gives opportunities for the player to choose how the game will behave. At the basic level, American games are about what happens, while Euro games are about how it happens. This difference is reflected in many of the features that are common to each category. These features serve as indicators for what category a game is in.
One good indicator is whether the player is represented in the game specifically or abstracted. In an American game, players’ actions specifically represent a single, specific entity (perhaps a single person, but maybe an abstract entity like a corporation, a ship, or a country). A player acts in order to create specific outcomes. In Euro games, the player’s actions tend to be spread across an entire system of interacting entities. There may be a nominal character, like the governor, a builder, or a wealthy noble, but more frequently, it is several members of a family, an entire city, or no particular character at all. A player’s actions represent changes in a whole system of parts working together.
In American games, this representation can lead to a strong emotional connection between the player and the character. Games like to capitalize on emotional attachment to the theme using licensed intellectual property. Players are given the opportunity to create their own stories in worlds they enjoy. Euro games don’t engender empathy to as great a degree. Sometimes this is due to the level of abstraction, but it can also be due to the fact that the themes are chosen for interest and suitability to mechanics, while the emotional response is a secondary consideration. Along with that, the number of Euro games that draw on existing IP is much smaller.
Forms of competition tend to differ between Euro games and American games. American games favor aggression and direct conflict, sometimes between players, and sometimes with players teaming up. This points back to the emotional aspect, and to the fact that actions directly create events. Euro games have more subtle forms of competition. In fact, direct conflict is often a source of complaints about Euro games. Competition is more indirect, with players competing for the means (like collecting resources or the right to take specific actions), rather than competing for the end. This perfectly reflects the overall distinction between what you do and how you do it.
The components are another good indicator. If a game has modeled figures (miniatures, or minis) damage counters and a large number of dice, it is almost certainly American, and a game with a pile of wooden cubes, discs, and vaguely humanoid “meeples” is almost certainly Euro. This again reflects the difference between representative and abstracted. Players in American games focus on what is represented, while players in Euro games can focus on how the components behave. This is the source of the term “Cube-pusher” as a derogatory term for Euro games, implying that the game is just moving wooden pieces around without meaning.
The dice, in particular, reflect another critical element that differs between American and Euro games. I discussed this somewhat in my article on randomness and my article on dice rolling but to tie it in here, American games often use dice to randomize outcomes revealing the focus on what happens. Euro games typically use dice to create random behavior that players must adapt to. As with competition, any random factor in a euro game can be a source of complaints. This also ties back in to the emotional aspect of the unknown for American games, and a more calculational approach for Euro games.
Finally, we get to common themes and behaviors that are suggestive of each category. Themes of battle, conquest, and identity permeate the American Game market. They draw on events that are deeply ingrained in culture to evoke emotions and place great importance on outcomes, as well as popular settings that draw on players’ existing engagement. The Euro game market is filled with more mundane themes of economy, production, and building, that give players the opportunity to adjust and develop. Some of these themes in both categories are overused to the extent that their use alone indicates the type of game. (Zombies and trading in the Mediterranean, anyone?).
So let’s recap. American games focus on the experience of the player within the game, using conflict, randomness, and theme to evoke emotion from choices. Euro games focus on the workings of the game, promoting efficiency and achievement to reward good choices. It is much deeper than just a question of theme and mechanics, there is an inherent difference in how the player’s behavior is influenced and integrated into the game. And considering the two categories at this level reveals that they are not at all opposites or exclusive. They are simply useful terms to help distinguish a player’s relationship with the game. There is a lot of room for games to blend these two categories even more than they do now. I look forward to seeing how the hobby develops, as these two categories disappear.