I'll admit it. I succumb to the natural human tendency to want to categorize things. Types of movies, genres of music, you name it...
The fun part is, of course, when you have something that straddles genres, or even better, transcends them. For example, how do you classify the song "Farewell Myth" by Made in Mexico (and featured in Guitar Hero I?) The song is filled with strange, off-tempo rythms, a meandering lyric line, and quickly changing drum patterns. I suppose that makes the song stand out, and it has many strong reactions from Guitar Hero players (some love it, others hate it with a passion).
Some players are resistant to classifying board games, claiming such pigeonholing is "divisive". They also claim (rightfully) that we all play different types of games, so what's the point classifying them?
I don't want to retread Robert's great and humorous post on metal, but his point is valid...such classification serves mostly to facillitate conversation. Language is all about finding common terms to more easily convey ideas to one another. Words have meaning because people agree to assign that meaning to them. Sometimes that meaning has a negative, hateful history--look at how just a few words can ruin the career and personal reputation of someone like Michael Richards. His words were hateful, and infused with the power of collective history; they were more than just words, they were poisonous daggers loaded with the insipid, wretched context of things that have come before.
But sometimes, words can be co-opted, can be changed. Let's take "Ameritrash", for example. Though I've read several people proclaim that there was never any bias towards American-style games (and on a large macro sense, they're probably correct), there was a vocal minority who would slam such games every chance they got. When I took a first stab at trying to pool these games together under a common banner, I tried to co-opt a negative post I had read, where someone bashed an American-style game as "Ameriplasty trash". I ran with the "Ameriplasty" part, and months later Robert Martin leaped on a post proclaiming Michael Barnes to be an "Ameritrash apologist".
These words were meant to demean, to marginalize, to push aside. A ludicrous gesture, considering the fact that to outsiders, we are all involved in a childish hobby. "Boardgames?" someone will ask inquisitively. The tone is there....shouldn't you have grown out of childish hobbies such as these?
So Robert took that terminology, spun it around, and boom--it stuck. "Ameritrash". Whatever your reaction to the term is--it's clear that when something came forth to help pull these games together, it actually did gamers a service. I realize that some folks (even those who profess to really like AT-style games) don't like the term, and it's true that something less negative could've served, but the term sprang from perceived derision of these styles of games, and for whatever reason...it stuck.
But hey--that's a good thing. Regardless of what the term is, what it has done is to facillitate conversation between gamers. Now I can sum up in one term what it used to take a small paragraph to convey. Instead of, "games that have heavy theme, random elements, often have plastic bits, usually sci-fi or fantasy, blah blah blah", I can just say, "Ameritrash".
The term is of course still under refinement. Much was made of the fact that it was difficult to classify some games as Ameritrash (never mind the fact that other genres often suffer the same problems of classification--such as wargames--especially when faced with particular games that have elements from multiple genres). And as the gaming industry moves toward more and more hybrid-style games, it's possible that the term itself will only be relevant in terms of what particular titles borrow from that particular aesthetic.
Personally? I like Euros...at least some of them. I will gladly play Carcassonne, Ra, even Ticket to Ride (DON'T SHOOT ME, BARNES~!)...as people say, we are gamers. Some will play certain types to exclusion, but to me that is fallacy. It would be just as silly to dismiss a game for being "Euro" as it would for those who bashed games for being "Ameriplasty Trash". It's obvious that game designers certainly are taking a larger view of all of this, pulling the best elements from other game genres to improve the overall gaming experience.
The bloated, six-hour Ameritrash game fests from the 80s have given way to the same style games that can be played in 1-3 hours, and those who do stretch toward 6 hours have given us more to do than just push our piles of plastic at each other, toss the dice, and hope for the best. Production quality has increased to the point we're paying the same or LESS for games now...with better bits...than what we would get fifteen years ago, and that's including inflation!
Look at some Euro designers who have turned to the heavier themes of Ameritrash games to try to shake off that "dry" moniker and appeal to a broader--or at least different--audience. Take Runebound, designed by none other than Martin Wallace...it's hard to say that the game is anything but Ameritrash, but it has refinements to the game that attempts to pull it towards a cleaner system than the older Ameritrash fantasy games (such as Avalon Hill's Wizards or Wizard's Quest).
Look at Reiner Knizia, who may put out some straight Euro pap at times, but it's obvious he too has an eye for trying to come at the Ameritrash aesthetic from a Euro perspective. Euprhat and Tigris is obviously the Euro take on a civ/wargame, and it has been followed by other attempts to do the same.
Take a game like Vinci, which is a game that itself likes to try to defy strict classification (it has civ-building, but it's abstract; it has combat, but it's deterministic; it has randomness, but a point-balancing system to that randomness; it's about conquest but uses a Euro VP system).
As games evolve, I think that the "heart" of the market, the lion's share of development, is going to continue to move towards the hybrid theory of design. Euros will incorporate more theme, Ameritrash games will look for cleaner rules and shorter playing times, wargames will move towards more accessibility...and all of us, I think, benefit.
But whatever idea you may have of the term "Ameritrash", it does serve its purpose. It takes a genre of games and allows us to use shorthand at points to make conversation easier. Plus, for gamers and game designers to begin to see these type of games as falling under a genre or umbrella may make them easier to quantify, to evaluate, and most importantly to take them as a group and search out the best elements of them for moving forward while cherishing the history of them all the same.
Next Time: In Part II, I'm going to take a stab at laying out the common elements that many Ameritrash games share, and look at a few examples to see where they pass or fail such categorizations.