My Life with Games (part 13)–Eurogames

Okay, yes, technically Settlers of Catan was my first Eurogame. But when I was exposed to Settlers, I was unaware that it was part of a larger movement. I just thought it would be a game that Crystal would enjoy that would get me out of playing Monopoly. Besides, Settlers doesn’t represent the best parts of Eurogames…or, at least, the parts that I really love.

So, I tend to consider Ra to be my first Eurogame. It was definitely my first exposure to Reiner Knizia.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In June of 2002, Crystal and I packed up our family and all our worldly possessions and moved 600 miles to Peoria, Illinois, to take a job. We needed the money, and the job was definitely a good thing. But still, it was hard to leave everything behind.

It wasn’t a totally blind move. Crystal and I had scouted ahead that April, which had included a tour of the local game stores. It was a disappointing tour, truth be told. One of the stores was actually in the owner’s basement, which was (oddly enough) beneath his house, which was in the middle of nowhere. Though, as I was poking through the dimly lit room, I stumbled across a hidden treasure: a copy of the Whispering Vault roleplaying game. I was pretty excited about this, as I’d heard nifty things about the game. So I snatched it up.

Upon returning to Erie, I happened to mention this particular expedition, and I received a private message from Ralph Mazza, wanting to know why we had visited Peoria and not stopped in to say hello. I was confused. Ralph lived in Maryland…right? Apparently, my information was out of date; work had taken him to Peoria.

So, when we arrived in Peoria, we eventually worked out opportunity to meet up. As I recall, we all got together sometime around Labor Day at his apartment. Ralph and Ruth inviting us with our three small children into their apartment was an act of bravery that I still appreciate. That evening, we reassembled at our house after children were in bed, along with Keith Sears, another of Ralph’s friends, and we all played Vinci. (Vinci has since been released in a slightly different form as Small World.)

Ralph started running a game of Pendragon with Crystal and I, which was a lot of fun but required chunks of prep time that weren’t always available. To be fair, parenting three young children and settling into a new job aren’t easy either. So, one night, when things hadn’t come together quite right to allow for roleplaying, Ralph pulled out a copy of Ra.

I was hooked. I was fascinated by the clever design, how an apparently lightweight game system could produce such intricate results. I wanted to see more.

So, the games continued to roll in. Carcassonne, Tigris and Euphrates, Puerto Rico, Princes of Florence, Blue Moon, Samurai, and more. Many, many more.

I’ve heard someone tag Eurogames as an art movement, similar to Impressionism or the like. I think it’s a valid point. There’s a certain theory of design wrapped up in Eurogames that links them together. Competition is usually indirect, akin to a race where you attempt to outperform others instead of a sport where you actively interfere with the other players. Efficiency is often the prized virtue. And then there’s the clever bit.

Not every Eurogame has the “clever bit” feature, but I find it is usually a feature of the best of the breed. This is the one rule that takes a game that would be relatively pedestrian and flips it on its head. For example, in High Society, the players are competing in a series of auctions to acquire possessions that are worth points. The clever bit is this: whoever has the least money at the end of the game automatically loses. This one rule drives much of the gameplay. Another example is Tigris and Euphrates. In this game, you are scoring points in four different categories. At the end of the game, though, the category with the lowest score becomes your score for the game.

Eurogames have been good for me as a designer. They are unapologetically driven by mechanics instead of theme, which means that clever and elegant design sits at the forefront of a quality Eurogame. Throwing rule after rule at a design until it all adds up to a desired effect is not acceptable practice in a Eurogame. Instead, each rule needs to carry its own weight, often in unexpected ways. There’s a sense that a Eurogame designer needs to be asking, “Can I have fewer rules and still make this work the right way?” American design traditionally moves in the direction of more rules, which particularly impacts thinking on roleplaying design. Eurogames have injected some needed counterbalance into the discussion.

Yes, there are weaknesses of Eurogames, which I’ll end up discussing in a later installment, but I’m still fond of the classics of the period.

This went on for several years. Gaming meant Eurogames and Forge RPGs. Then, at a strategic moment, we decided to make another game.

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