In the year 2018, at a convention in Perth Scotland 9 people came up on stage, arguing in groups of 3 why their particular pet peeve with gaming should be thrown into the infamous Room 101; locked away to be forgotten till the end of time. Hosted by the excellent folks of the Unlucky Frog Gaming Podcast it was a good laugh and much debate and heckling was to be found.
I was victorious in my particular round, on gaming culture, and I had chosen the terms Ameritrash and Eurogame to consign to the gulag.
Let’s start with this one because the reason I consigned it to the fiery depths of room 101 should be pretty self evident. Imagine this:
New person to the hobby: Hey, I’m just getting into boardgames and I really like (insert name of heavily thematic game with elements of randomness).
Veteran of hobby: Oh yeah we call those Ameritrash.
New person: Thanks, I feel really valued. (Goes off and burns boardgames)
In the dim and distant past it may have been useful to distinguish between the more American design sensibilities and those coming out of Europe. The former tended to be games with a lot of theme, high degree of randomness and a lot of player interaction. Somewhere along the line certain segments of the community started to refer to these games as ‘Ameritrash’ and the term has unfortunately stuck. These games aren’t trash, are they? Some fantastic games would fall under this category, most of FFGs output for example, and to dismiss them as ‘trash’ is just thoughtless and insulting to those who like them.
These heavily thematic games can be great route into the hobby for those, like myself, who enjoy seeing a story come together as they play, enjoy the emotional highs and lows that random elements can provide and love to see mechanics strongly support theme.
There are so many better things to call these games than ‘Ameritrash’. Call them thematic, talk about varying levels of randomness within the mechanics, talk about mechanics supporting the theme, dive down into the differing levels of player interaction. Maybe, just maybe, if we do that, we can find new games that we will like and new people to play them with.
Although Eurogame may occasionally be used in a derogatory way, to describe something dry and with little direct player interaction, that is not the reason that I shackled it forever in a deep dark hole in the ground. In this case it is the lack of specificity that annoys me.
Imagine walking into a bookshop and the entire place is only split up into fiction and non-fiction, with no other categories at all. How do you find a cookbook, something on africa or the latest sci-fi novel? You don’t. You would walk straight back out again and go and find it online. Eurogame and Ameritrash are like this for me, apart from being insulting as outlined above. They are so wide ranging as to be utterly meaningless when it comes to helping people actually find the games they might like to play.
Now for sure there is an argument to be had that Euro game is a good wrapper term to start a conversation about a certain genre of boardgame, but beyond that it is rather unhelpful. Especially from the criticism point of view we need to go deeper than ‘it’s a euro’. We have such a wealth of language to use : worker placement, hand management, area control and many more terms all of which can be used to inform and guide players of all levels of experience.
This one I did not assign to Room 101 but it equally annoys me in it’s dismissive use. My own personal tastes in boardgames have changed radically over the years and in terms of playtime my collection is definitely on the shorter end of the spectrum. Many people don’t have the time to play Game of Thrones or Twilight Imperium, revelling instead in the smaller compact experiences that can be shared with friends over a lunchtime. A lot of the time we dub these players and games as ‘casual’ as if to dismiss this as not ‘proper gaming’. However I believe these people to be the future of the hobby and their enthusiasm should be fanned, not dowsed in terminology that dismisses their interest as not serious enough.
I love small box games that do something really clever and leave me wanting more. I enjoy watching people pick up a lighter game, finding it easy to understand and cheering in their first victory. That games can be short or lighter mechanically is not a detriment to them, it is a strength. This lightness of touch in a game can expand to bigger experiences as well. Colt Express or similar sometimes fall victim to the casual label, but a game like that is such an eye catching thing that it is perfect for introducing people to the hobby.
Those games we might dub ‘casual’ we can use different language for: call them short playing, call them light, call them gateway. There is no shame in liking lighter games, nothing bad in having only those games in your collection and absolutely nothing wrong with a desire to play shorter games over hours spanning epics that many of us simply do not have the time for. We must stop using language that implies that there is.
Words as keys, not locks
We could choose to keep using these terms, to look down on those who don’t like the same games as us, to attack what we see as bad games but where does that get us? A bunch of shut off cliques playing games behind closed doors because they have the ‘correct’ games and everyone else is wrong. That does not sound like a healthy hobby to me.
The veterans in the hobby, and even that word carries with it a certain pomp and ceremony that many may lean into. In fact let’s change this up as well. Those of us who have been round the hobby for a while shouldn’t lock the gates to keep out the invaders. Games are getting more accessible, more themes are being used and more and more we are seeing boardgames filter into the mainstream: boardgame cafes, inclusions in our favourite TV programmes and even being discussed openly by people whom millions follow .
When boardgaming was just starting its meteoric rise, probably around the time Settlers of Catan first hit the shelves, it was useful to distinguish between the European and American schools of design. The lines have become so blurred, so indistinct, as to require us to be better with the words we use to determine what we like about one game over another. Sometimes this may mean using many words where one may have been before, but that is not something to be concerned about. Better, deeper and more nuanced talk around games will help everyone find what they are looking for and appreciate what they have, even more.
Using welcoming language with no hint of judgement allows us to introduce so many people to the hobby. We have to be clever with our words, thoughtful with our writing and open minded in our guidance. Even when coming across games we personally dislike, we are better able to recommend games we enjoy if our language is open, engaging and judgement free. I for one will be trying to do better in the future and I hope many of you will join me in this effort.