Ameritrash, Euros, and Hybrids . . . Oh My!
Hobbyists around the world have a burning need to classify everything. It doesn’t matter if you’re a music buff, a book nerd, or a comic geek, we as humans habitually group like things (or things with perceived likenesses) together. The board game hobby is no different. In general, we like to group board games by not only the difficulty to learn the rules, but also the type of strategy, and by style.
These days, when it comes to style there are three main categories people generally use. Ameritrash and Euro games are the two most common categories, while the least common third category is Hybrids. All three of these terms are inexact and provide only very broad definitions that are open to interpretation. What exactly a given person means by “Ameritrash” or “Euro” depends on that individual’s perceptions and preferences, but there are broad definitions that most of us agree upon.
Ameritrash games where the theme and game mechanics are linked so tightly, you can’t imagine them being separated, as if the theme was the egg and the mechanics to support the theme was the chicken (or even the other way around). Games that most people categorize as Ameritrash usually include miniatures, direct conflict, story arcs, and some amount of luck (usually dice driven). Early Ameritrash games (such as Risk or Axis and Allies) all featured mechanics centering on direct conflict resolved almost always by dice. As this category evolved though, designers began to apply other themes and mechanics to these story driven games. Fantasy Flight’s games that explore Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos provide great examples of Ameritrash games using different types of themes and mechanics that still feel tightly wedded. I wrote about these games in greater detail in a previous article.
When people categorize a game a Euro, they generally mean that the theme and mechanics generally feel disassociated from one another, as if the theme was an afterthought hung over an already complete, functional, and purely mathematical mechanic. This can especially be true with older European Games such as Le Havre, Puerto Rico, and Agricola. The innovative and often unique mechanics are the core of the experience, and little or the game’s appeal comes from the theme. (This is not to say that Ameritrash games can’t have innovative mechanics, but that they won’t unless those mechanics synch closely with the game’s theme.) A Euro game rarely features a mechanic that relies on dice or any other kind of randomizer. They are deeply strategic games, and rather than “luck” the game results usually derive from one player out maneuvering another. They often decided when one player orchestrates the situation so that maneuvers other players make actually benefit themselves equally or more than the players making the maneuvers.
Hybrid games are exactly what they sound like—an interesting mix between Ameritrash and Euro games. This new category is still being explored (and even defined) by today’s game designers. Here you’ll see a lot of overlap in people’s perceptions about the games, and a lot of spirited argument about categorizing or defining them. The games in this category don’t fall squarely into the Ameritrash category and they don’t fall directly into the Euro category. They land somewhere in between. They generally have unique mechanics that are integrated into the theme in a way that they truly capture the emotions of that theme. Current examples include Lewis & Clarke, Robinson Crusoe, and maybe even Castles of Burgundy.
As we explore the genre of Ameritrash and Hybrid games, you’ll see me use the term “mechanical integration” time and again. How well the mechanics of a game mesh with the theme is very important in Ameritrash and even more so in Hybrid games. The mechanics should inspire the same emotions the players might have if they were participating in the activity in real life.
Games such as Cthulhu Wars, Letters from Whitechapel, Lewis & Clark, Lords of Vegas, and many others that we will explore in future installments of Trash Talk successfully interweave their themes and mechanics to tell compelling stories. It’s these stories that you and your friends will remember years later, not necessarily who won or lost any particular playing of the games themselves.
Written by Jason Hancock