On Defining Eurogames
On my last post, there was a bit of a discussion in the comments section that sparked a few ideas. We began to question the term “Eurogame” wondering what it was that precisely defined the genre. We found ourselves asking why it is called what it is called, what the boundaries of the genre are, and, ultimately, well, can we define a Eurogame once and for all?
It’s one of those things where, as a hardcore tabletop gamer, you intrinsically know what a Eurogame is and some of the games that fit into that genre. Catan, Carcassonne, and Agricola are but a few. As are Lords of Waterdeep, Stone Age, Terra Mystica, Five Tribes (which every time I mention, I have to point out that it has a maximum of four players), Kingdom Builder, Power Grid, Castles of Burgundy, and even the likes of Euphoria. That being said, when asked to define what a Eurogame is, it is somewhat more difficult.
How Can We Define Eurogames?
Let’s start off by quoting the introduction to a really good “so you’re just getting into games” style Board Game book I like called Ticket to Carcassonne by Steve Dee.
These ‘Eurogames’ tended to have peaceful themes like farming, building or trading, and the conflict was indirect, with players competing for scarce resources rather than fighting or otherwise eliminating each other.
Where that doesn’t give a pure definition of what a Eurogame is, it does give some idea. Firstly, a Eurogame tends to have a peaceful theme rather than one about warfare. This isn’t always true and, as Steve Dee points out, conflict can exist but it tends to be indirect. A good example of this is the assassin in Five Tribes or the aggressive cards that steal resources in Lords of Waterdeep.
Wikipedia, on the other hand, tries a far more direct approach, and provides another interesting take on the concept:
A Eurogame, also called a German-style board game, German game, or Euro-style game, is a class of tabletop games that generally have indirect player interaction and abstract physical components. Euro-style games emphasize strategy while downplaying luck and conflict. They tend to have economic themes rather than military and usually keep all the players in the game until it ends.
Again, not a perfect definition, but one that offers a similar interesting approach. One thing that Wikipedia gets right is that Eurogames tend to emphasise strategy; however, it is a very specific type of strategy. Wargames and American Style Board Games tend to be strategy focused; however, they are not Eurogames. Hybrid games like Scythe and Twilight Imperium exist, but they are not pure Eurogames. They just use Eurogame aspects.
I think there are a few core components that constitute a Eurogame.
So, let’s take a look at a few of the aspects a Eurogame needs in order to be a Eurogame. What is a Eurogame? Well…it’s funny you should ask.
But first – here are a few examples.
Abstract Pieces in a Literal Theme
Eurogames have all kinds of themes. There are a few aspects of Eurogames, however, that do seem universal across the genre. The first is that, whatever the theme is, it is approached in more of an abstract way than a literal one. In a game like Zombicide, for instance, it is obvious what a zombie is. It is the miniature that looks like a zombie. If, you find yourself saying “you see this cube, this represents X” then the odds are you are playing a Eurogame. Eurogames use abstract components within a literal environment.
“You see this island, well this stick is a road.” (Catan)
“You see this village, well this yellow block is gold.” (Stone Age)
“You see this meeple, well this is a robber if you place it on a road.” (Carcassonne)
“You see this city, well this orange block is a fighter.” (Lords of Waterdeep)
In fact, a Venn diagram can be drawn up to demonstrate this point to some degree, showing that Eurogames kind of sit somewhere in between Abstract and Literal games.
The Themes Themselves
Of course, abstract pieces in a literal theme is not the only thing that could constitute a Eurogame. Instead, we are also (mainly) thinking about themes about things that aren’t necessarily combat based. Where there are exceptions to this, this means that Twilight Imperium, Gloomhaven, Blood Rage, Dark Souls etc. cannot be considered Eurogames. Instead, generally speaking, we are looking at themes to do with building something up, rather than breaking something down.
Catan – Colonisation of a small island.
Carcassonne – The building of Carcassonne.
Agricola – Farming and building a farm.
Stone Age – The development of a tribe.
Power Grid – Creating an energy grid across a nation.
Terraforming Mars – The Colonisation of Mars
As it can be seen, all of those games have peaceful themes at their core. They are not about conflict or combat. Instead, they are all about creation or maintenance. They are about development.
Of course, once again, there are exceptions to this rule – Champions of Midgard as an example – but they tend to be few and far between.
Interestingly, when talking to a friend about it, he suggested that in an American Style game, the theme comes first and the gameplay gets developed on top of the theme. With a Eurogame, the development of the gameplay comes first, with the theme coming second. It’s a really interesting idea with considering.
The Mechanics of a Eurogame
Now we are starting to piece together what a Eurogame is (ish), but it is still not a full picture. Before we fully look at creating a full definition of what a Eurogame is, we need to look at the mechanics behind the games.
For this, we are going to draw up a simple chart to look at the core mechanics of the Eurogames mentioned in this article so far, plus a few others we have in our collection. This means we will be looking at Catan, Carcassonne, Agricola, Stone Age, Lords of Waterdeep, Power Grid, Terraforming Mars, Euphoria, Terra Mystica, Five Tribes, Castles of Burgundy, and Kingdom Builder. For these 12 games, we will look at the different components of the games in one big table, comparing how many times different components come up.
So, as it can be seen, Hand Management and Set Collecting play a huge role (no pun intended) in those specific Eurogames. As do Area Control, Worker Placement, and Route/Network Building. These are traditionally mechanics associated with thinking games and strategy, rather than luck or wargames.
Dice and Eurogames
There is a common misconception surrounding Eurogames that Dice are very rarely used. Out of our sample size of 12 (okay, so not the largest sample size ever) 1/4 of the games used dice as a core mechanic (an additional one uses it as a minor part); however, it is important to note that the use of dice is used in a different way in each game. Catan, for instance, uses it to determine the yield of resources. Euphoria uses it to determine your workers and their intelligence. Castles of Burgundy uses dice to determine the actions available to the player each turn. Stone Age is the one that uses it as a secondary mechanic and as a part of the resource management associated with the game. These are all interesting and different ways to use dice.
Eurogames seem to have a specific mentality around them as well. They are generally easy to grasp but difficult to master. They make good family games, as the (general) lack of direct conflict and player knock out mechanics makes them perfect for ensuring all gamers feel welcome around the table. Eurogames tend not to make good solo experiences, encouraging community rather than solitude or conflict.
What Eurogames Are Not
The Wikipedia definition is a somewhat confusing one because it places emphasis in the wrong place, highlighting that a Eurogame can be called a German game. Yes, it can, but only because that is where they are believed to have originated from.
Interestingly, a Eurogame does not have to be European. This is just like an American Style game does not need to be from America. The best way to think of this is that Euro- and American- in this sense are not nouns. These are not games that belong to those places in the world. Instead, in this context, Euro- and American- are merely adjectives in order to categorise the game.
Conclusion: So, can we use what we have to define Eurogames?
Okay, so what we have learned across the course of this article is that Eurogames ride a thin line between abstract and literal games. They tend to be non-confrontational, competitive, and use several mechanics more than others. We have also discussed what Eurogames are not, which also helps.
So, with that in mind, to finish off we should be able to put together our own definition –
A Eurogame is a semi-abstract game (usually using abstract pieces in a literal theme) designed around the concepts of creating, developing, or nourishing. They commonly use strategic mechanics such as worker placement, bidding, and area control to create gameplay that is both engaging and competitive, without needing to be confrontational.
It’s not the most concise definition in the world, but it does give some idea that may be useful. It’s a bit more precise than Wikipedia, whilst also not ruling other types of gameplay out.
What do you think? Do you agree – Yes or no? What do you suggest could be a good definition? Let me know in the comments below.
Author Note (19/02/18) – Changed the title to “On Defining Eurogames” due to this piece being more speculative than an official definition.