A Primer on Tabletop Gamespeak - Part 1: Genre
Go to any game store or hang out with some hardcore players long enough and you’ll be likely to hear strange phrases to describe or sell certain games.
“Oh, this game is a dungeon crawl that uses deck-building mixed with a euro style resource management system.”
“OK, cool. Sure. Uhm, what does that actually mean?”
Good question. So let’s kick things off by diving into common terms and jargon used by tabletop gamers and online reviewers when describing games. There is a lot to cover, but for my readers' sanity, I'll break it up into three posts.
One thing to note is the difficulty that comes with making categories and providing examples. There are gray areas, crossovers, and subjectivity, and in no way am I claiming this the authority on matters. It’s just my learned interpretation and should be considered in the context of simplification.
A good place to begin is the definition of theme and mechanisms in game design. The theme is what the game is about. Are you 17th-century nobles building grand châteaux in France for fame and glory? Or maybe future astronauts on Mars trying to survive the harsh environment? Or pirates racing around a Caribbean island, trying to collect treasure while dodging those intent on stealing your plunder? Mechanisms is how the game works. The castles in France are built by obtaining tiles that are put on your player sheet. You advance around the pirate island by choosing from a hand of available action cards and move your ship accordingly.
Over the last thirty years, an apparent dichotomy between theme and mechanisms has emerged through the rise of American style vs. European style strategy games.
One defining feature of the eurogame, or eurostyle, or euro, as you will, is often the management and trading of resources to build economic engines and earn victory points. Conflict, if any, isn’t deterministic. In fact, there may be little interaction between players, being that winning may hinge on just making more efficient decisions. The themes can be, well, pretty dry, depending on your taste. If the box cover art shows a dour-looking fellow surveying a landscape or a city by a bay, chances are it’s a eurogame. In fact, often theme could be changed without affecting the central mechanisms. That castle in France could also be an orbiting space station.
Examples of eurogames: Catan, Agricola, Puerto Rico, Castles of Burgundy, Lords of Waterdeep, Terraforming Mars
Ameritrash, or amerithrash, or ameristyle game, since the original term can be seen as pejorative, is the transatlantic counterpoint to the euro game. The focus is heavy on theme and immersion, often coming with piles of plastic miniatures, possibly dice to add a bit of randomness to conflict resolution, thick rulebooks, and maybe even a particular narrative or storyline. The theme is intrinsically part of the mechanisms of the game; it would be difficult to re-theme the game without changing or overhauling the gameplay.
Examples of ameristyle: Arkham Horror, Runewars, Space Hulk, Axis & Allies, Descent 2nd Edition
However, some designers had the idea of mixing euro style mechanisms with American production to introduce the hybrid, for lack of a better term. For example, Eclipse, at its sci-fi heart, is essentially an economic game of managing resources, not unlike many other euro games, but amps up player interaction using the uncertain threat of dice-based space combat.
Examples of hybrids: Eclipse, Scythe, Robinson Crusoe; Adventures on the Cursed Island, Twilight Imperium 3 and 4
Abstract strategy games are older than the hills. Traditionally, the theme is eschewed for a pure strategy experience. Recent abstracts have been implementing more theme, such as the mythical interventions in Santorini and the movement card interactions in Onitama.
Examples of abstracts: Chess, Go, Checkers, Pentago, Tsuro, Santorini, Onitama
I would safely bet the fastest growing board game genre has to be the cooperative game. It is not player vs. player (PvP) but players vs. the game; everyone wins or loses together. A co-op game will often have a card-based mechanism that serves as a timer, a way to escalate the challenges, and a trigger for the endgame. Efficient teamwork is the goal here, but a tricky aspect is that a more experienced player could resort to telling everyone else what to do rather than working as a team, aka, the alpha player syndrome. Some cooperative games have introduced methods to reduce that, like the traitor mechanic in Battlestar Galactica and Shadows Over Camelot. The idea is that, at the beginning of the game, a player or players may be tasked to work against the group or be given hidden goals, and to win the traitor(s) must thwart the progress of the other players. Other co-ops implement hidden information or timed phases to encourage more teamwork.
Examples of co-ops: Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Battlestar Galactica, Hanabi, The Grizzled, Mechs Vs. Minions
Another fast-growing genre is the party game. Though party games have always been around, the rise of the “You pick, I judge” concept of Apples to Apples - which eventually saw the onslaught of Cards Against Humanity - and the social deduction games of The Resistance and Werewolf have kicked it up a notch over the years. Social deduction games usually follow the same formula: a person or a few people in the group is secretly chosen, and the others have to determine who is the spy or the werewolf through a ritual of voting and consensus, The outsider(s) wins if the group can’t determine who they are in a determined amount of time or event.
Examples of party games: Wits & Wagers, Exploding Kittens, Concept, Superfight, Codenames, Spyfall
A typical way to introduce people to modern board gaming is the use of a gateway game. It isn’t a genre, per se, but basically, shorthand for a popular strategy game that is easy to setup, explain and get going. They will have simple or highly manageable rules, but offer new players a solid experience. These are the games that may get your grandma off Canasta for a while, or finally, convince your friends that Monopoly is well and truly outdated.
Examples of gateway games: Catan, Ticket To Ride, Carcassonne, Dominion, Splendor, Century: Spice Road, Lords of Waterdeep
In part 2, I’ll take a deep dive into some common mechanisms you will find in games, so you can surely impress the folks down at your FLGS (friendly local game store) with your gamespeak. And in part 3, I’ll highlight a few more categories of games with such austere names as 4X, legacy, and sandbox.