The Eurogame is Dead! Long Live the Eurogame!

I’ve been seriously playing eurogames for about 15 years now. The Settlers of Catan was my gateway — both because it was the first euro that I owned, back in the ’90s, and also because it was the game that got me interested in the rest of the euro field, in the early ’00s. My first month of recorded games in October 2003 is a set of classics: Domaine (2003) x2, High Society (1995), New England (2003), Serenissima (1996), Starship Catan (2001), and The Settlers of Canaan (2003). It shows how heavily the special Ks of Kramer, Klaus, and Knizia impacted me in those early days of gaming.

In the fifteen years that I’ve been eurogaming, the field has transformed pretty notably. I mean, change is a constant; I tried to talk about the ongoing transformation of the field in yearly reports for 2005 and 2006 but I eventually decided that the board gaming field was too slow moving for that type of yearly reporting to be meaningful. 

But now it’s 15 years past my entry to the field … and you can see a lot of change in 15 years!

So, to close out this year, I’m going to talk about what I see as some of the major changes in the eurogame field between the start of this century and … today.

A good way to begin an overview of changes in the last 15 years is to see what games were popular at those time. The following table is drawn from BGG archives. Some of these changes over time may be due to changes in BGG’s ranking algorithms, but they nonetheless give a good indication of what games have been popular over time:

#1Puerto Rico (2002)Puerto Rico (2002)Twilight Struggle (2005)Pandemic Legacy Season One (2015)
#2Tigris & Euphrates (1997)Power Grid (2004)Agricola (2007)Gloomhaven (2017)
#3The Princes of Florence (2000)Twilight Struggle (2005)Puerto Rico (2002)Through the Ages 2e (2015)
#4The Settlers of Catan (1995)Tigris & Euphrates (1997)Through the Ages 1e (2006)Twilight Struggle (2005)
#5El Grande (1995)Caylus (2005)Power Grid (2004)Star Wars: Rebellion (2016)
#6Carcassonne (2000)El Grande (1995)Eclipse (2011)Terraforming Mars (2016)
#7die Macher (1986)The Princes of Florence (2000)Le Havre (2008)Terra Mystica (2012)
#8Acquire (1962)Shogun (2006)Brass (2007)Scythe (2016)
#9Modern Art (1996)Age of Steam (2002)Dominion: Intrigue (2009)7 Wonders Duel (2015)
#10Paths of Glory (1999)BattleLore (2006)Caylus (2005)The Castles of Burgundy (2011)

So what are some of the conclusions we can draw from this lists of games?

Eurogames have become international. The 2002 list of top games includes eight games by German designers and two by Americans. Five of those top ten were by the special Ks. The 2017 lists five games by American designers (depending on how you count them), one by a Czech, one by Frenchmen, one by a Swede, and, yes, two by Germans.

This doesn’t seem to be just a quirk in the preferences of BGG. The Eurogame market has truly gone international. We saw it expand out first to France and Italy, but now our so-called eurogames are just as often published in the United States as in Europe and just as often are created by American designers. Fifteen years ago, there was a real feel that we were importing all the top games from Germany. Today, Germany still has a dominant place in the market thanks to the SdJ and to Essen, but American companies like Stronghold and Stonemeier have made big inroads; while the industry’s top publisher is French company Asmodee, which has two major American appendages, FFG and Z-Man. On the flip side, companies like Queen and Ravensburger are directly selling into the US, further destroying these old barriers.

So, the Eurogame is dead. (Long live the Eurogame!)

Auction and majority-control games are dead. The eurogame field has always been pretty varied, but there was a time when auctions and majority-control were the dominant mechanics. From 2002, The Princes of Florence and Modern Art were both predominantly auction games. The majority-control-focused games are a little harder to assess, since Carcassonne (and to a lesser extent El Grande) are about more than just majority control.

Today, it’s hard to believe that we’d see any of these games as new entries on the modern-market, with the possible exception of Carcassonne. Pure majority-control games are a thing of the past, while auctions tend to have lost a lot of favorability as a mechanic, except as a very small part of a larger game. (And why would Carcassonne survive? Because from the start it wasn’t just majority-control; instead that’s a somewhat small part of an imaginatively creative game focused on tile placement.)

Current mechanics include worker placement, cardplay, and war. So what’s replaced those hoary mechanics? The most obvious answer is worker placement. Way back when Caylus (2005) came out, I recognized it as a pretty big thing, but I’m still surprised that twelve years later its core mechanics seem to represent the core mechanic of eurogames generally. A lot of eurogames now seem pretty focused on letting players chose an action from a menu, and worker placement is a very desirable methodology for action choice because it introduces tension and scarcity.

Cardplay also seems greatly increased in eurogames. Certainly, cards are used for a variety of purposes in games like CatanEl Grande, and The Princes of Florence. But today, games like 7 Wonders (2010) and Terraforming Mars shows the importance of cards as drivers of actions. It’s not as ubiquitous as worker placement, but it’s a lot more common than it used to be.

The third mechanic on the rise? Warfare. Classic eurogames were never about war; even back in 2002, the single war entrant, Paths of Glory, was American. Today, because of the internationalization of eurogames, we’re seeing war games meld into the field, with games like Scythe and Gloomhaven being quite popular.

Simple games are dead. There was also a simplicity to classic games that is now gone. Look at Tigris & Euphrates, one of the heavier games in the 2002 listing. Despite that, it still has a core simplicity (and, yes, abstractness): you place a tile or a disc that was one of four colors. Compare that to a game like Scythe, and you can see all of the difference in the world.

And, this change isn’t just in our heavier games. At least in the US, the filler games have also gone heavy, with heavy fillers like Race for the Galaxy (2007). Even the new genre of microgames feels like it packs in a remarkable amount of complexity for its size and length.

Abstract games are dead. Hand in hand with that is the fact that abstract euros are also dead. And by that I don’t mean true abstracts, like the GIPF series of games (1997+), but instead the super-lightly themed euros of days gone by, such as Tigris & Euphrates, which I once upon a time called black-blue-green-red. I think if you compare the top five of Puerto Rico Tigris & Euphrates The Princes of FlorenceThe Settlers of CatanEl Grande to the top five of Pandemic Legacy Season One / Gloomhaven / Through the Ages 2eTwilight Struggle Star Wars: Rebellion, that says it all. Today there’s a greater emphasis on building out evocative backgrounds, primarily through card text, artwork, and appropriate mechanics.

This isn’t no say that there are no longer any euroabstracts. I just played the very abstract cube pusher Century: Spice Road (2017), but they’re certainly much less common than they used to be.

Variability is the new key. The increased complexity of our modern eurogames shows up in yet another way: their high level of variability. I trace this trend back to Dominion (2008), which showed how to use different sets of cards in each game, though a year earlier Race for the Galaxy (2007) demonstrated a different model for only having some cards show up in each game (by also using those cards as currency).

Any number of deckbuilders continue to follow this trend, however I think Ethnos (2017) shows it writ more large: it’s a simple set-collection game, yet it focuses on different sets of cards coming out every game. This trend could certainly fizzle out, but right now it seems like a growing design pattern, and that we might be seeing even more games like this in 2018.

TL;DR? So what’s the summary for how I feel that the eurogame design has changed in the last fifteen years? In short, it’s been influenced by the rest of the world. We’ve seen designers from across the globe come into the movement, and they’re brought with them more complexity and more color. Though mechanical changes are sometimes short-lived, itoday’s mechanics of worker placement and deckbuilding nonetheless follow this trend: they’re implicitly more colorful and deeper than yesterday’s mechanics of auctions and majority control.

Yet throughout this all, the eurogame field has managed to retain its core strength of tight mechanics that allow for meaningful, thoughtful, and strategic play. Personally, I wish the gameplay time weren’t creeping up (as is a natural result of some of these other changes), but I’m thrilled to see the strengths of Eurogames and Anglo-American games merging, bringing together great mechanics and great themes.

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4 thoughts on “The Eurogame is Dead! Long Live the Eurogame!

  1. Interesting. I recently played Azul, which is both simple and abstract. It pleasantly reminded me of those earlier games. I usually ‘blame’ Agricola. (I like Agricola very much, but after that a lot of designers thought: “More cards = better game”.)

  2. You’re late to the party.

    This + discussion below the article:

    The argument goes, German games of late 1990s were about one thing, euros of 2000s were a different thing. They originated from the former but by late 2000s became their own thing. But this new euros – they’re the same from early 2000s to now, minor cosmetic differences notwithstanding.

    My working hypothesis frames this as – German games are made to be played by families, hence some design choices were different than Angloamerican gaming of 1970-90s which was hobby gaming (many rules, heavy on theme). German games simplified theme and mechanisms in order to make games accessible to anybody withing a family (or casual gamer group). However when these games came to US, hobbyists interpreted them to be something else than they were, in them they saw themeless (they weren’t) winning machines. And as Barnes says (link above) it started with Princes of Florence. While it has auctions, PoF doesn’t have shared incentive structure of Modern Art or players driving the game’s economy (PoF’s problem is that worth is calculable). It’s a far smaller jump from PoF to recent Workerplacement/drafting cardavaganza than from PoF to Modern Art.

    So what you call shift in euros, is simply a shift from games made from everybody (which at the time included casual gamers and hobby gamers) to games made for hobbyists. That’s it, all the rest is just consequence of this – hobby gamers are focused on games not on people playing them, public events where people play with strangers is a common way to play. Hence instead of “player driven” games where designer just lays down the arena and gives players tools to shape the game space, we got “designer controlled games”.

    Designer control games have several features:
    – main interaction isn’t player-to-player, it’s player-to-boardgame. Players “explore” game space – i.e. find pre-baked multiple paths to victory designer planted there.
    – player to player interaction is verboten, possibly because “unfair” “my feelings are hurt” “does not compute” and other things related to playing with strangers on public events. Strangers that care much more about a game than players playing the game with them.
    – designer controlled games are “idiot proof” – unlike volatile, potentially fragile player driven games that will fall flat when players can’t comprehend what they should be doing. These games will offer the same experience with anybody, which also means lower ceiling.

    Additional consequences:
    – there’s a ceiling to replayability. Usually replayability comes from players, but they’re not allow to influence the game state anymore. Hence it’s either expansions, or variability variability variability (because the game has to simulate complexity of a human opponent and ultimately fails). Or cult of the new – buying new games that play exactly the same as the games you have. Action selection allows design by the numbers – just throw some actions in the box and let people choose them via worker placement or drafting and voila. When people get tired of this puzzle, you give them another one, same architecture, different puzzle bits. (and uhm WP and drafting are just variants on same idea)
    – main relationship the player has is to publisher not to other gamers. In a way designer controlled games are games made for minimal effort/investment. You’re executing rules, solving the puzzle made for you, maybe add minis and pictures if you want to emote while juggling mechanisms. Basically it’s buying addiction.

    That’s just looking at bgg popular games – a small niche of hobby gaming which is a small niche in gaming. German games are still big. In Germany (where else?). Check spiel des jahres, check kinderspiel des jahres, some amazing, creative and innovative kids games made in germany in recent years. And they’re simple. And they would be called euros in early 2000s. God knows what they are now? No, simple games are not dead, they’re just not on hobby gamer radar, that’s not the same thing. (oh, and explain codenames to me, then)

    Thing is – in europe at least – causal gaming is bigger than hobby gaming. Simple games rule gaming events. That’s my other working hypothesis – main divide isn’t ameritrash-euro, it’s hobby gaming VS causal gaming. Hobby gaming became arcane – because when they eliminated people from games, mechanisms had to compensate, and on top of this mechanisms junkies get emotionally excited about all those bits and clockwork wheels they’ll have to juggle. Shrug. On the other hand, causal gaming went simpler – party games (Codenames, Dixit), microgames (Coup, Love letter), resistance-werewolf-and-clones. Heck, I don’t see anything in these more social games that would make them not euros in early 2000s. Kakerlakenpoker – very simple, symetrical card game, some theme, elegant, hence: euro. Oh and it’s all about lying to others.

    P.S. I suggest you look not at BGG top games rankings by ratings, but BGG top games by number of ratings. They tell a different story and tell you where the industry is at. (Catan still sells shitload. Dobble/Spot it! sells tonnes!).

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