Last week I talked about three game designers, classifying and categorizing their works. This week I want to move a step up the food chain, and instead talk about schools of game design — to once more try to categorize, classify, and index.
The central idea is that game designs can — as with most creative works — be grouped into schools of design, each with their own character and their own quirks. In the modern gaming world, I believe there are four broad schools of design — mainstream, Anglo-American, Euro, and hybrid — though each of those schools also has sub-schools within them, which I’ll be covering after my summary of each category.
Mainstream games are those ones that you probably grew up with. They appear in Toys R’ Us, Wal-Mart, and the closets of many American families. Most mainstream games: have a superficial theme or none at all; have little concern for the actual mechanics, which tend to be rudimentary or monotone at best; and have little opportunity for real strategy (with the notable exception of the abstracts).
Subschools of mainstream design include abstracts, family games, and party games.
Abstract Games: These are largely traditional games that have been around for hundreds or thousands of years. This category includes Chess, Checkers, Go, Backgammon, Othello, and others. Unlike most mainstream games, these ones are well-designed, and do allow for strategy. They’re the only real gamers’ games to hit the mainstream, and probably have only achieved their success due to their long history.
Some twentieth-century abstract designs like Alex Randolph’s Twixt have managed the same mainstream appeal. More recent games, like the GIPF project clearly fit into this categorization, but haven’t necessarily penetrated the larger markets.
Besides their other characteristics, most mainstream abstracts are two-player.
Examples. Backgammon, Checkers, Chess, GIPF, Go, Othello, Twixt
Family Games: Of the three types of mainstream schools, family games are the ones that are most likely to actually have some theme behind them. Still, it may not be much —as I think the theme for a Stratego or a Monopoly is actually much more tenuous than even Knizia’s most transparent themings. And, though the themings exist, they usually don’t have much or any interaction with the rules. This low attention to theming probably bespeaks the evolution of family games from abstract mainstreams.
Family games otherwise meet the general classifications for mainstream games, including rudimentary mechanics and low strategy. They support surprisingly large numbers of people, with Monopoly running to 8, Boggle to 6, and Mille Bornes to 6. Thus their main differentiation from party games tends to be that they require more concentration.
(I could further separate family games into couple games, family games, and kid games, but have elected not to, mainly because I don’t find the category at all interesting. The only big difference is that theming usually increases as the age of the players decreases.)
Examples. Boggle, Mille Bornes, Monopoly, Scrabble, Stratego
Party Games: Finally, party games meet every one of the criteria I laid out for mainstream games — and perhaps are the definitive mainstream game as a result. In addition they tend to have one other characteristic: they allow for — and perhaps even support — conversation.
Many of the party games support conversation by allowing no ability to plan ahead for your next turn. They’re entirely tactical. Trivial Pursuit, or almost any other trivia game, fits into this category. So do some creative games like Cranium, where each player takes a turn based solely on the card draw that turn.
Alternatively, party games may have little downtime, but instead constantly support conversation and interaction as an integral part of the game. Most of the other creative games work like this, including Win, Lose, or Draw!, or any other game where lots of people are trying to figure out what one person is doing.
Examples. Cranium, Trivial Pursuit, Win, Lose, or Draw!
Anglo-American games as we now recognize started really appearing in the sixties and seventies. Their genesis seems to have been from the hobbyist game market, first appearing from miniatures game manufacturers — and thus Avalon Hill and SPI — and later roleplaying game manufacturers — and thus TSR, Steve Jackson Games, and many others. (Miniatures and RPGs are two more Anglo-American games that I’ve avoided in this essay.)
As with mass-market games there really isn’t much emphasis on mechanics. However, the themes are often much tighter and evocative — which isn’t a surprise given that both miniatures games and roleplaying games are heavily simulationistic, and so the same companies are just offering up similar design philosophies to those they’re already familiar with.
Together these form what I call a “top-down” design philosophy: building from theming down to mechanics.
I’ve identified wargames and beer & pretzel games as two subschools of Anglo-American Games.
Wargames: I’d count pretty old games like Diplomacy and Risk as the first Anglo-American wargames. The subschool really took off in the eighties with games like Conquest of the Empires and Axis & Allies, and in the more specialist field, Kingmaker, Dune, and History of the World. They’re now seeing another resurgence primarily due to the efforts of Eagle Games.
Besides holding to the general characteristics of Anglo-American games — including good theming and simplistic mechanics — most Anglo-American wargames are fairly long (4-12 hours being typical, but they’re still shorter than the miniatures battles they descended from) and they often depend upon very aggressive players. (Some of the designs fall apart if one or more persons casually waits for the other players to eat each other.)
Examples. Attack!, Axis & Allies, Conquest of the Empire, Diplomacy, Dune, History of the World, Kingmaker, Risk, Wizard’s Quest
Beer & Pretzels: If anything, beer & pretzels games have even more solid theme than the rest of the Anglo-American genre; they also often try and be funny. There’s still not much attention to mechanics and many older beer & pretzels games are pretty fatally flawed — most often in endgame resolution which frequently drags and drags, before eventually awarding a pseudo-random winner.
The name “beer & pretzels” generally refers to the fact that these games are meant to be light and funny, the type of thing you’d play while screwing around with your friends. Although the game lengths don’t always support those ideals (since beer & pretzel games can run from an hour up to several) the mechanics often do, because they tend to be simplistic, low strategy, and somewhat random. Beer & pretzel games also often contain a “take that” mechanic where you actively attack the other players, most frequently with an arbitrary card draw. (For whatever reasons, more beer & pretzels games are card games than anything else.)
Examples. Hacker, Illuminati, Kings & Things, WizWar
Other Designs: Although many Anglo-American designs fit into one of these former two categories, there are still a large scattering of other releases. As with all Anglo-American designs they tend to be top-down designs and are often heavily simulationistic. The goal is to mirror some real-world situations, often in excruciating detail, and often without a lot of concern for game length or game design.
The main differentiation between these “other” games and the afore-mentioned beer & pretzels games is that they are by no means light and can be even longer than the average beer & pretzels. (I’ve literally never completed a game of Source of the Nile, and not for lack of trying.)
Examples. Age of Exploration, Empire Builder, Source of the Nile
Whereas Anglo-American games tend to be top-down designs, Eurogames tend to be bottom-up, starting with mechanics and building upward toward theme. Alan Moon and Reiner Knizia are perhaps two of the designers who show this tendency most obviously, since we’ve seen their games transform in different printings — or have heard stories of the same. A game of Egyptian mythology (Ra) became a gangster game (Razzia) while Through the Desert was apparently about manor grounds or somesuch before the pastel camels showed up. With Moon we can see the different variants: Clippers vs. Sante Fe Rails or Union Pacific vs. Airlines.
The Eurogames seem to share the goals of some Anglo-American games: creating real gamers’ games that we geeks enjoy to play. However, besides the increased attention paid to mechanics Eurogames also tend to be a lot shorter. Most run in 60-90 minutes. 2 hours is notable, and anything greater is way outside the norm. (However in the last year Eurogames seem to have bifurcated with designs going either simpler or longer, a trend that I’ll look at more in my yearly review in two weeks’ time.)
I differentiate Eurogames mainly by nationality. Germany, France, and Italy have all released enough games that you can see broad differentiations among them.
German Design: The Eurogame movement really originated in Germany, and so the games there most closely reflect the ideals of the movement. The themes of German games can be really thin, especially when compared to the more simulationistic Anglo-American releases, but contrariwise the mechanics can be really strong.
Though we talk about German designs, I think there are many people of other nationalities who fall straight into the category, including Alan Moon and Richard Borg, who are both American designers. Leo Colovini, an Italian designer, is also very abstract yet mechanistic (though for more on the Italian design dilemma, see below). As I mentioned in my previous article, I don’t really find the founder of the current Eurogames movement, Klaus Teuber, to be that German in his game designs. His games are too openly random and too well-themed to really fit into the category.
It’s also worth noting that games actually coming out of Germany don’t tend to be war-oriented, a pretty big change from Anglo-American games where that’s a major focus. I still think games like Memoir ’44 meet all the criteria for a German design, despite their basis in conflict, but you don’t see that sort of thing coming out of Germany itself very often, due to the country’s history.
Examples. El Grande, Memoir ’44, Ra, Ticket to Ride,Tigris & Euphrates, Torres
French Design: I’d like to believe that different countries have different national characters for the games they design; it fulfills my natural belief in order. It’s also clearly not entirely true, as evidenced by my earlier discussion of American & Italian designers who fit right into the German mold. In addition, as the internet continues to evolve, it erodes national identities, creating a more homogeneous whole.
Nonetheless, I do think French designs tend to have some features in common more often then not. First, their themes are usually sturdier and more integrated than those of German designs. I don’t know if their designs are top-down or bottom-up, but both the mechanics and the themes seem to come off pretty well. Second, their designs seem to place a much greater emphasis on randomness. You’re more likely to find dice in a French game, but you’re also more likely to find cards, tiles, or powers that allow for pretty abrupt & massive upheavals.
I think Dungeon Twister is a somewhat interesting example of the genre because it calls itself “luckless”, but there’s actually a lot of randomness based upon how blind placements occur at game start and how blind bids occur in combats. It might not be a roll of a die, but there are a lot of different types of randomness.
Finally, the French seem more willing to create wargames. If you see a solid wargame design that runs in two hours or less, it’s probably French.
As I wrote last week, though it’s a definitive German design I feel like The Settlers of Catan falls squarely into the norm of the French design movement.
Examples. Citadels, Condotierre, Dungeon Twister, Fist of Dragonstones, Mall of Horror, Mare Nostrum
Italian Design: I actually have no idea if there’s a national character for Italian designs. I feel like I should be able to spot one because I’ve been somewhere between a dozen and a score Italian games at this point, but I haven’t been able to turn anything up. Leo Colovini’s games are entirely German in design. Some of daVinci’s game play like American beer & pretzels games (Bang), some like mainstream family games (Dancing Dice), and some like hybrid party games (Ostrakon, Word Jam).
The one thing that I can say about many Italian designs is that I find a lot of them non-intuitive when I first examine them. I can’t see how they’re going to work. That goes for Colovini and daVinci designs alike. But, whether that’s a start to an answer as to what the Italian game character is, I dunno.
Examples. Bang!, Cartagena, Clans, Dancing Dice, Ostrakon, Word Jam
As you’d expect, hybrid games are those which mix together two different schools of game design.
Anglo-American-German Design: These are the most common mix. They mix Anglo-American design with German sensibilities. As a result you end up with games that are a bit on the long side (often 3-6 hours), but which have solid German mechanics, often including auctions and sometimes dipping into majority-control or other mechanics that you wouldn’t find in traditional Anglo-American games. Most of these games are wargames, but Age of Steam is an example of a more general Anglo-American game that has been built with German sensibilities.
There are two design houses pushing hard on this area right now: Warfrog and Fantasy Flight. Eagle Games may be moving in this direction too.
Examples. Age of Steam, Conquest of the Empire II, A Game of Thrones, Railroad Tycoon, Struggle of Empires
Other Hybrids: Clearly, any of these categories could be hybridized. The other pretty big category of hybrids are those eurodesigns which are actually family games or party games. I already mentioned a few daVinci gams that fit into this category. I think some of the Kramer and Knizia designs that we hardcore gamers don’t like might fit into the same category.
Examples. Barbarossa, Ostrakon
As always, I’d love to hear your comments, so please tell me what you think about these classifications and tell me where I’m wrong (or right). If you can, tell me what holds together Italian game design that I couldn’t see, and what national characters I missed.
Further down the line, I’ve already got plans for columns next year including: a review of the year 2005 in gaming; an article about winning games; some more articles on designers with Alan Moon, Bruno Faidutti, and Michael Schacht a few of the people I really want to write about; and eventually some longer articles about designers with some neat diagrams of game relationships.
Author’s Note: I feel like this was and remains a touchstone article, that really describes differences in game design around the world. If I were going to rewrite it today, I’m probably break apart mainstream games, because I’m not really convinced they hang together, except by being available in Toys ‘R Us. But I still strongly stand by the discussions of American designs and national designs. And I think I might have been right about Italian designs, as I’ve found several others which are obscure until I play them.
The only big change in the last five years is that I think we see a lot more of what I called Anglo-American-German games. Eagle Games did indeed go in that direction, as did FFG, Atlas Games, and others. —SA, 1/6/11