What is a eurogame?
Settlers of Catan, Power Grid, Carcassonne, El Grande. Eurogames are one of the most influential styles in the history of board games. Originally from the last two decades of the 20th century, this German-born movement is responsible for the hobby’s current popularity. But what is a eurogame, exactly? And how did they come to be?
Eurogames have two precedents. The first is the German family market, which had been publishing new designs since the end of World War II. Unlike other countries, where boardgames were seen as being exclusively for children, the German public saw them as having a wider appeal. This created a fertile ground in which designers could hone their skills.
In this sense, the turning point for eurogames was the 1995 release of Settlers of Catan by Klaus Teuber. A massive hit, it catapulted the popularity of the medium both in and out of Germany. It brought a horde of new players into the hobby who, in turn, looked for more games to play. This created a target audience that eurogame designers would keep in mind in their designs.
The second precedent are a diffuse group of pioneers such as Sid Sackson (Acquire), Francis Tresham (18XX, Civilization), the EON Designers (Cosmic Encounter, Dune), and a handful of one-off titles such as Diplomacy. These designers created games of much higher standard than the mass market and often had to invent mechanics from new cloth. Many ideas we associate with modern games, like asymmetric player powers, had their start here.
To the modern eye, the idea of these long, highly combative games being predecessors of eurogames seems ridiculous. But if you look close enough, you’ll see auctions, simplified area control, complex but elegant mechanics and very little randomness. Eurogames took the design technologies developed by these piooners to create their a new style.
Eurogame designers would differentiate themselves from both the pioneers and the mass market as a professional class. In 1988 a group of German designers led by Reinhold Wittig signed a coaster agreeing to demand front-box credit on all their games. This development was key to eurogames as a movement and would enable the iterated designs we see today.
The core tenet of eurogames is elegance. The style strives to provide an approachable, clean experience that presents few barriers to the player. Every concern, from balance to player interaction, is subordinated to this need. The ideal eurogame is simple, clean, with no unnecessary features yet also deep and engaging.
Since eurogames target a wide family audience, they have to be accessible. They need to be easy to follow for people who play casually and don’t have a lot of experience. This means a shorter length and a kinder learning curve. Eurogames take steps to keep all players involved, putting stricter limits on how badly a player can perform in comparison with others.
The search for elegance, as well as the influence from the pioneers and the poor quality of mass market titles, led to eurogames being heavily focused on their mechanics. It’s an apolitical movement which does not subscribe to any wider ideology. The focus is on the craft, not innovation or sending a message.
Aesthetically, eurogames are sober so as to differentiate themselves from children’s titles. Historical themes, often generic and easily replaceable, provide an easily understood background. Violence is non-existent, as is any other theme that could cause a row at the table. Again, the goal is to focus on mechanics and minimize the barriers of play.
Eurogames tend to feature very little randomness. In fact, many lack it completely. Luck had proven an obstacle to strategic depth in older games and the increased focus on mechanics allowed designers to reevaluate to its need. There’s little point to creating an interesting game only to have its value swept away by chance.
Euro designers strove to improve in this area and looked for alternatives. Movement could be replaced with cards or actions points. Drafting and auctions are enjoyable mechanisms with a smaller luck factor. Rolling dice became one of many tools in the designer’s arsenal and, in the mind of many designers, not the most elegant one.
The relationship between eurogames and player interaction is more complicated. In theory, the movement is not opposed to it, as proven by the likes of Intrigue and Citadels. However, the pursuit of elegance is often at odds with the brittle, explosive situations that arise when players are allowed to fight each other.
As a compromise, eurogames separate their players through game mechanics. For example, players may trade, but only under certain circumstances. We may be able to harm other players, but only through an auction. Direct attacks are replaced by area control and negotiation is avoided when it could slow the game down.
Still, there is a belief that player interaction diminishes strategic depth. Designer Uwe Rosenberg claimed in an interview that “strategy and war are not part of games with three and more persons”, arguing that planning a strategy was pointless if another player can destroy it. This belief is rarely stated openly, but can be seen through the design choices of games like Scythe or 51st State that put strong limitations to it.
FUSION & BAROQUE
Eurogames were so successful that their innovations became part of the medium. The style eventually transformed into a whole framework that could be applied to all sorts of genres. This gave rise to hybrids, like Chaos in the Old World, Eclipse or Mage Knight that combined the advancements of eurogames with the trappings of other styles.
Even Twilight Imperium, one of the crown jewels of the “Ameritrash” movement, became more euro-like over time. The first edition, released in 1997, was a fairly traditional multiplayer wargame. By 2005 its third edition had added Puerto Rico-style actions, simplified “command tokens” and victory points.
But eurogames changed as well. As the people introduced to boardgames through Settlers of Catan became an established hobbyist audience, the need for elegance faded away. This gave rise to “Baroque Euros” which follow the mechanical trappings of their predecessors, like low player interaction and non-existant luck, but not their principles. In that sense, baroque euros are genre work, like steampunk, apocalyptic survival or super robot anime.
They are variations on well-established tropes. Where older games would focus on a single mechanic, baroque euros like Keyflower combine several. And, like the rest of the gaming landscape, eurogames haven’t been spared from the upward pressure of Kickstarter and its insatiable demand for larger, flashier games. The eurogames of today have increasingly little in common with the German designs of the 90s.
As the line between eurogames and other styles disappear, it may be safe to say the movement is over. The principles that launched it to dominance are no longer a guiding force in the medium. Its influence remains, but it will be up to other styles to follow on it and bring new types of games, whether as rejection or a continuation of it.