Regular readers will by now be familiar with my personal tale of the woe which, as a nascent board game hobbyist, arose out of the difference in what I’d been lead to believe Eurogames represented, and what they actually are. I’ll wager that many users on this site could tell you a similar story of disappointment so I won’t go over it again in its entirety. But one of the key things I took away from learning about early Eurogames is that, potentially, they were family games that most people could learn, play, and enjoy.
I was very excited about this prospect. Like most gamers, I don’t feel I get enough gaming time and getting more friends and family involved from time to time seemed like an obvious solution. And back in those early halcyon days, I put the concept that these were easy games to learn and play to the test time and time again. First it was Settlers of Catan, which seemed to me an absurdly straightforward game but which appeared totally mystifying to all and sundry who crossed my path. They were perplexed that it had no moving pieces, couldn’t grasp the basics of trading strategy and found the rules governing what you could buy and what it did overly complex. And so the box went back in the attic, to be reserved for trips to see friends who gamed.
Over the coming months, a variety of other titles crossed the dining room table. Ticket to Ride: Europe, Carcassonne, Lost Cities, Battle Line, Dominion, Ra, Galaxy Trucker and a variety of other simple, non-violent Eurogames. Of this varied line up, the only ones that made the grade in terms of ease of learning were Lost Cities and Carcassonne. Indeed it’s worth noting that the latter games’ flexibility in terms of audience and player numbers is a key part of its charm in my opinion. All the others were found confusing, difficult and rejected by one or more family members, even Ticket to Ride: Europe in which people balked at the stations and tunnels.
Naturally, I was intrigued by this enormous gulf in perception. And it seemed to me to stem from two different points, both of which are missed by an awful lot of gamers when they claim that particular games are simple or easy learn and to play.
The first is that German games don’t conform to the stereotype a game that most people grew up with. That’s partly what makes them so interesting to gamers, of course, but to those unfamiliar with the hobby, when they see a board game they’re almost always expecting something with moving parts. All the classic family board games such as Life, Monopoly, Risk and the like involving moving pieces around either a map or a stylised route printed on the board. In terms of European hobby games this is actually a fantastically rare arrangement: in many of them the board is just a useful information recording device, and even in those that have a spatial element, that usually revolves around building up fixed positions rather than moving stuff around. So strong is this preconception that people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that a Eurogame is actually a game when it looks nothing like any one that they’ve come across before. As a result, the rules appear dreadfully confusing even though they may be very simple.
Of course, most people are familiar with the idea of abstract games such as Chess or Draughts or indeed pretty much any game played with a standard 52 card deck. But this leads into my second point, which is that German games are usually not presented as abstracts, but as thematic games which represent something in the real world. We, of course, know that is a lie, and that the theme is often paper thin. But the illusion of theme over what’s effectively an abstract presents a further barrier to the non-gamer. In addition, the presence of a theme leads people to quite naturally look for mechanical and strategic tie-ins to whatever real-world activity or concept the theme is supposed to represent. When they find that these parallels often don’t exist, it leads to further confusion and frustration.
Furthermore, without a handle on how the rules relate to the theme, people often find themselves lost in terms of how to go about improving their position. If you’re looking at a map, and the aim is to wipe someone else off it, then you instinctively understand that the key to doing this is almost certainly going to be defending your weak points and concentrating your force for maximum impact. If you’re plunging into a dungeon looking to kill a dragon and loot its horde then again, everyone knows from childhood literature that you’ll be exploring dark corridors and encountering horrible monsters that want to kill you. Faced with the card line-up of Dominion, how is it going to be obvious to most people that a key part of the strategy is avoiding all the lower value VP cards? It certainly has nothing to do with the theme of kingdom building and neither, in fact, does most of the game strategy. I worked out the requirement for high VP cards to avoid clogging up your hand on perhaps my third game but I’m a gamer, that’s what I do: most people, regardless of intelligence or education, are going to struggle to spot that simply because they’re not used to looking in the right places.
It’s worth noting of course that while I’m busy bashing Eurogames for being rather less family-friendly than their reputation claims, I’m not suggesting for a moment that wargames and ameritrash games are somehow better. While they have a closer relationship to traditional games, and thematic parallels that people can understand relatively easily, they’re often very aggressive and confrontational which many find off putting, and they tend to have a lot more rules than European games which is just as much of a barrier. Rather, I get annoyed by the claim that they’re somehow better suited to snaring people who are basically not interested in games into playing. In my experience it’s the enthusiasm that matters: if someone is interested in playing a game, they’ll make the effort to deal with the rules. If they’re not, they won’t and you’re best off not playing the evangelist for them as it’s a waste of effort.
Where this truly becomes irksome is when you see gamers deriding people or (more often) mainstream journalists and celebrities for not “getting it” because they found a particular low rules weight Eurogame impenetrable. That’s not bad journalism, it’s elitism amongst gamers. I have encountered a similar attitude because without a thematic hook to start on, I often find figuring out the strategy behind a Euro Game difficult. Other people tell me I’m being obtuse and that that’s the charm: there’s no point in playing a game where you can figure out the strategy from the off. But personally I find the prospect of playing a game for a couple of sessions where I have precisely zero idea of how to achieve my ends because it’s a spreadsheet game in which the strategy is entirely mathematical and non-spatial utterly dismaying. I think there’s a useful analogy with art. My favourite books and works of art are those which can be enjoyed without effort, but offer the viewer some reason or invitation to look deeper, and start to uncover hidden meaning or metaphors within the work. It’s up to the individual whether they choose to look, or how deeply, but the key is the initial, effortless appreciation drawing them in. Same with games: I want to enjoy my initial play sufficiently that I get a taste for wanting to delve into the strategy and improve my play. Without that starting taste, usually bolstered by a theme I can get into, obvious light strategy and a bit of randomness to make me feel I can compete with more experienced players, I’m put off.
All this matters because until gamers can start to understand what it is that makes people who aren’t interested in the hobby get into certain games and reject others, that long awaited cross-pollination between hobby and personal life simply isn’t going to happen. There is a vast gulf between casual gamers, friends who have a passing interest in games and might own a few but don’t have the same burning desire to collect and play as we do, and people who aren’t really interested and play to humour you. The former will play pretty much anything if you introduce it correctly: I’ve had people in that category digest relatively demanding games such as Titan and Imperial without a second thought. The latter will certainly enjoy a game but need coaxing, and above all an understanding that what’s obvious to you isn’t obvious to everyone. What they get instead is condescension and an elitist attitude. Unless that improves, laudable efforts to improve the image of the hobby such as Play in Public are doomed to fail.