In boardgaming communities, you’ll often see people throwing about the terms ‘European’ and ‘American’ to describe a game’s style, and this site is no exception. However, these terms aren’t really useful unless you understand what to expect, so in this article I hope to elucidate some of the finer points of these two styles.
European (usually shortened to ‘Euro’) and American (sometimes disparagingly called ‘Ameritrash’) style games differ in three main ways – their approach to random chance, how conflict is handled and how big a role a game’s theme plays in its design. Frequently, a game will lend itself to being all one way or the other, but there’s nothing stopping a game from taking elements from both schools of thought – in fact, many of the best games out there do exactly this!
Chance often plays a part in both European and American games, but in different ways. Chance is an important part of games, as it ensures that unexpected situations can arise, generating new experiences with each play.
European games will typically use chance in setup and in round-to-round events, such as determining what resources are available and what actions may be taken. This allows players to plan their turns but ensures that each game will be different. Plans will require subtle changes as new situations unfold. An example of this is Scoville, where the recipe and sale cards are determined at the start of the game, and all players are able to take advantage of the same Auction cards.
American games often use chance to determine the outcome of a player’s actions. In this way, players will constantly adapt their plans, and turns of fortune will bring about unexpected and exciting situations! Eldritch Horror is an example of this, where the outcome of almost all events is decided by rolling dice.
Chance definitely has its place in gaming, as it can ensure that games stay unique and fresh. The European style tends to make any truly unexpected event impossible, which can be uninteresting to some. On the other hand, the American style makes it difficult to plan out your turns, and in some cases games will be won or lost on the back of a die roll.
Conflict is a vital part of any game; without conflict, you may as well be playing by yourself. European and American games differ greatly on how conflict should be dealt with, and is one of the key aspects that differentiate the two styles of game.
A European-style game will usually have indirect conflict – players jostling over the same resources, racing to complete contracts or controlling areas without directly fighting each other. Ticket to Ride is a typical example of European-style conflict, where only one player can complete any given route and players will need to keep their opponents’ capabilities in mind.
In American-style games, conflict is more confrontational. Players will attack other players directly, causing their pieces to be removed from the board. In this way, players will be able to directly affect their opponents’ capabilities, and if one player is too strong, others will be able to gang up on them. Risk Legacy is a typical example of American-style conflict, with armies moving across the board and eliminating their opponents.
Sometimes, European games’ aversion to direct conflict can make them feel too solitary an experience, and in extreme cases the games can feel like there is no interaction between players whatsoever. On the flip side, the American approach can lend itself to player elimination, whereby players are removed from the game entirely. Unless the game itself is short and sharp, this is frustrating and dull for the eliminated players!
A game’s theme is what attracts people to playing it before they know anything about it. People will decide to play a game based on what it’s about and how it looks – a game in a plain box with painted cubes for pieces won’t get played nearly as much as a mechanically-identical game that claims to simulate an intergalactic conflict. European and American games both make use of this, but use that theme to inform how the game actually plays out in very different ways.
European-style games are designed around the gameplay mechanisms, and the theme takes a back seat to making sure the game plays well. It’s more about the intellectual exercise of performing as well as possible within the constraints of the game. As such, many European-style games are about relatively uninteresting topics such as farming or trading. Splendor is a prime example of this; you will need to plan your turns carefully if you want to win, and the game would mechanically identical whether you were trading gems or rallying armies.
American-style games try to evoke specific emotions when playing the game, and conveying a particular theme is the biggest selling-point of many American-style games! The important thing isn’t that you have an intricately-designed set of interlocking parts, it’s that you feel like you’re trying to survive in a Zombie apocalypse, fighting off an ancient world-devouring horror, or crushing Orc skulls while saving beleaguered peasants. Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of American-style theme, where players are embroiled in the politics and paranoia of the hit TV show, not sure who they can trust.
Few people aspire to establishing a Renaissance-era postal service, but many love the idea of jumping into the shoes of their favourite characters and engaging in heroic deeds. However, American-style games often overcommit to providing theme, needing players to understand a range of fiddly rules that prevent games from being as elegant as their European counterparts, and in extreme cases the game’s balance can be adversely affected by the inclusion of one or more ‘thematic’ rules.
As you try different kinds of games, you’ll start to get a feeling for what you enjoy, and knowing the difference between these two styles will help you articulate what you like and don’t like in particular games – and with this, you’ll be better able to find the games you like, and people who like to play them with you!