Whatever Happened to Hybrids?

Whatever Happened to Hybrids? Hot

MattDPMattDP   October 18, 2009  
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zebrant.jpgA couple of years ago I became convinced that I’d seen the future of gaming. I was totally inspired by a bunch of recent and not-so-recent releases that seemed to have deliberately chosen to walk a path between all the common genres of games, blending the best of this, the finest aspect of that and a little of the cream of the other into something new and satisfying. Games like Imperial, Through the Ages and Shogun which remain favourites with me to this day. What convinced me that these sorts of titles were the direction that the hobby was going to take was that their shameless theft of ideas from multiple genres made them appealing to a very wide range of gamer taste. But forward on to today and no-one seems to talk about hybrid games anymore. I was obviously wrong. So what happened?

The world of board gaming seems to be incredibly bad at actually finding tight genre definitions but even allowing for that the term “hybrid” seems particularly liquid and hard to pin down. Really it’s something of a gut feeling as to whether something looks like a hybrid or not. Clearly the basic requirement for inclusion in the category is that the game must borrow heavily from the mechanical style of more than one meta-genre of game. Borrowing theme is not enough - there are endless numbers of Euros which are allegedly “themed” after science fiction, fantasy or historical conflict that mechanically have no connection to the theme at all, and they’re obviously not hybrids. But the key word here borrow heavily. A number of Ameritrash games such as Twilight Imperium 3 have clearly borrowed a few mechanics from Eurogames (role selection in that particular case) but remain in disputably Ameritrash. Likewise, although less commonly, some Euros have taken a leaf out of the Ameritrash cannon especially as regards providing variety and a little bit of interaction to otherwise stripped-down systems as exemplified by Agricola. They’re not really hybrids either. Rather, a hybrid blends big chunks of game style together rather than borrowing favoured bits and pieces. They’re usually relatively complex and long - at least compared to Euros - and almost always feature a generous chunk of player interaction which is equally almost always capped or limited in some fashion to stop it becoming the sole focus of the game. But perhaps the most accurate marker of a hybrid in my view is that they can be won either by building up your own position (as in a spreadsheet-style Euro), or by directly taking down other players’positions (as you would in a “dudes on a map” game), or by a mixture of both and that all three approaches yield a roughly equal chance of victory.

Back in 2006-2007 these sorts of games were sweeping all before them, generating buzz and winning awards left, right and center. Awards and nominations for the games of 2009 and now coming in and there’s virtually nothing in the lists that could be recognised as a hybrid - there are representatives of a number of game styles on these lists but no hybrids. Think about the biggest hype that’s been around this year and again, the contenders have been games that fit quite comfortably into traditional game categories. Why did the hybrid genre fall out of favour?

Well, one reason can be identified with relative ease. When anyone anywhere starts genre-blending in any medium the ideal result is something that will have a lot of cross-genre appeal. But the ever-present danger is that some of the ingredients chosen will be wrong and that what will come out of the process is something that will appeal to no-one at all. And it only takes a very small slip either way to screw things up - designing a good hybrid game is, in other words, very difficult. And even when it succeeds I have a nasty feeling that the fact that the result will almost inevitably be a game which is at least marginally less appealing to fans of a particular genre than a more specialised title makes it have a marginally shorter shelf-life. From my own personal experience there are only two hybrid games that I’m still playing regularly : Mare Nostrum and Imperial and in point of fact Imperial is probably the least hybrid game I’ve bought up as an example so far - it definately tips more toward recognisable Euro territory than other hybrid games. It’s worth noting that there is one designer who is still churning out games which quite clearly meet my definition of a hybrid - Vlaada Chvatil, who seems to have taken the mantle of chief hybrid designer from Martin Wallace after the latter moved on to pure Euro territory. The fact that he’s the only one is an indication, to me, of just how difficult a path it is to tread and the manner in which he’s made the hybrid style the hallmark of his game designs is very much a mark of a skilled designer.

The other reason why hybrids went into decline is that rather counter-intuitively they created a very self-limiting design space rather than, as they first promised, opening up new vistas of innovation. In retrospect this problem seems very obvious. If you’re going to create a game which allows a decent amount of direct player interaction but in which said interaction must be limited in order to allow the chance of  “builder” style players to win without aggression, you’ve got something of a choke point. It’s a very difficult trick to pull off, but 100% necessary for a hybrid to work as a game and there are only so many ways that you can go about it. Indeed virtually all of the most popular hybrid games did the same thing: they limited, through a variety of mechanics such as the rondel or a limited number of  “war” cards, the number of aggressive moves a player could make during the turn or game. This is such a limiting factor that it almost became a mark of a successful hybrid game whilst at the same time strangling the amount of mechanical variety these games could employ. Going back to Vlaada Chvatil it’s interesting to note that his hybrid designs since Through the Ages have simply by passed this problem. Galaxy Trucker has virtually no interaction and instead employs the game itself as an aggressor to tear into “builder” players. Early indications suggest that Dungeon Lords employs a similar path. Space Alert is entirely co-operative.

One area where the hybrid tradition does still seem to be going strong and indeed actually appears to be gaining traction is in the area of historical wargames. There aren’t that many wargame designers working in this area but their games are often extremely popular even with hardcore wargame fans as well as spilling over into the Euro and Ameritrash communities as well. Bowen Simmons’ game on Gettysburg continues to be eagerly awaited and his older Napoleonic games are well-feted by most who play them. Richard Sivel’s follow-up to Friedrich- which is possibly the most well-blended and genre-balanced hybrid game ever in my opinion - is generating a lot of buzz. Uwe Eickert seems to be generating a near-endless stream of plaudits for his Conflict of Heroes series. The reasons why hybrids continue to be popular here are subtle.For starters I think there’s more commonality between the Euro and wargame mindsets than is at first apparent but my experience of playing wargames suggests there’s actually quite a lot of mathematical strategy in them - you tend to spend a lot of time before moving potentially calculating odds, and of course most luck in wargames is directly modulated by a CRT. But of course wargames are also conflict-oriented which makes them appeal to Ameritrash gamers whilst their largely two-player focus makes them “balanced” in the way that Euro-fans tend to demand of their games. So perhaps the historical wargame is the most fertile design territory for the hybrid to flourish and we should not be surprised that it’s the area where they continue to grow and succeed.

But beyond all of this I think there’s been another design trend which has sounded the death-knell of what I traditionally categorise as a hybrid game. Looking at this brings us back, full circle, to the beginning of the article where I mentioned the manner is which games of all stripes sometimes borrowed small, key elements of design from different genres in order to do whatever it is they do that little bit better. Because they only take small pieces of other designs, often targeted very precisely to solve some mechanical or thematic conundrum, and don’t make a big song-and-dance about doing so as many hybrid games do, I think this design trend has rather passed people by. But it is becoming increasingly common and, perhaps more importantly, increasingly brazen in terms of how much in being borrowed and worked in. Going over the buzz and the awards list again I can see that the most popular games this year are completely awash with these sorts of games. Battlestar Galactica with its semi non-confrontational design that nevertheless promotes high interaction and a very Euro-like skill check system which is built on a very Ameritrash-style mechanic of hidden information. Dominion which is quite clearly an efficiency-engine Euro but which uses cards to promote variety, longevity, quick-thinking and some limited player interaction. Stone Age the most popular Euro with a random dice mechanic to date. I could go on: Small World, Ghost Stories, Android and others all fit comfortably into this description: games which are quite clearly genre games but which have risen above the same-old, same-old crowd by innovative borrowing bits and pieces whenever they were required.

Because all these games have started life with their feet very firmly planted in one particular stylistic, thematic, genre or mechanical camp this style of borrowing doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t need one because all the games which are part of this trend already sit comfortably inside some categorisation or another, which is the precise opposite of what a hybrid game would be trying to achieve. And yet by staying in one place but reaching outside the box wherever required these games have in fact done exactly what hybrid games set out to doin the first place, but have done so without disturbing anyone’s idea of what their favourite game genre should be or bringing in the potential baggage of mediocrity that comes with the territory of trying to design something specifically as a cross-genre game. They’ve effectively made hybrids obsolete. But this is, I think, something to celebrate. It undoubtedly creates great games. It might even, in the long term, bring us all a little closer together as gamers by making sure that we can all recongnise the seeds of brilliance in the top games from all genres, whatever our individual tastes might be.

But spare a thought for the hybrid. The very best of them are still great games even if the area of design space which they inhabit has fallen out of favour. And it seems indisputable to me that they were a necessary stepping stone toward the borrowing trend that has come to dominate the hobby and deliver some of the finest games ever designed, a dead-end that it was necessary to test in order to truly find the best way forward. So here’s to the hybrid - and whatever else may presage the next step forward in the history of games.

  Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News.

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