I have gotten to a point in my board game collecting where I can tell you pretty quickly whether a game is published in America or if it is published somewhere in Europe. It’s startling the differences in the two, and while I can see pros and cons to some aspects, on the whole European games seem to win handily. There are three major elements that help identify a European game: ratio of box size to content, game themes or genres, and solidity of game mechanics and obvious play testing.
Americans are often seen as wasteful people worldwide and our board games are no different. Our boxes are huge compared to the content inside, with very little exception. Here is an example of this in play: We purchased the game “Desperate Housewives: Dirty Laundry Game” for our library. It came in a big box, approximately six inches wide, a foot tall, and approximately four inches deep. In short, it was roughly the size of a cinder block. Want to know what was in it? A deck of cards, a spinner, and some small envelopes. The contents don’t even take up 10% of the box. In contrast, Europeans seem to make sport out of “How small can I make the box?”. We have a copy of a game called “Merchant of Venice”. The game comes in a very small box, approximately five inches wide and tall (making a square) and only an inch thick. Want to take a stab at what was in that box? A board created via tiles that click together puzzle piece style, a deck of cards, 8 pawns, and dozens of little cardboard chits.
The second defining factor is the games theme or genre. Most American games seem to be geared towards the ‘non-gamer’. They are based on television shows, or movies. They are often trivia or party games. I would be hard pressed to name a single European trivia game. These genres simply are not heavily prevalent in that gaming culture. What are prevalent are resource management games. Games which require a greater interaction between players and far more thought. Trivial Pursuit is a classic American game, in contrast Settler’s of Catan is a classic European game. Quite the contrast.
Lastly, the solidity of mechanics and obvious play testing is the final test. This is not to say that there are not good solid games created in the states, but they are not the rule but the exception. For example, Eagle Games publishes a game called Bootleggers. This game had a great premise, creating and distributing moonshine to the local speakeasies. It was also resource management, from America, and I was excited about playing it. However, after a couple of games, it was clear that the mechanics were not thought through very well. They didn’t give you enough pieces, but not because they were truly trying to limit you. By halfway through the game, 90% of the cards in the game no longer had any affect at all. Once someone was ahead, there was no way for an underdog to come back. The game, in short, was not very balanced at all. There was a lot of polish missing. In contrast, Power Grid, is extremely well balanced. It keeps the game competitive continually, it handles the removal of useless cards, and it is clear about running out of pieces and the consequences that causes.
If these explanations didn’t spell it out as to why I feel European games our superior, allow me to spell it out. Smaller box sizes are very nice for retailers. The more space a box takes up, the more money in overhead it costs me to carry that game. The themes and genres of European games are also more well liked than American games in polls. Trivia is the most disliked category of games, yet if you walk through the game section at your local Wal-mart, that is largely what you’re going to see. Also, given that European games are not themed towards movies and television shows, they are more timeless. They do not feel outdated in a year, and thus are a better investment for retailers and consumers. Lastly, because there is more pride and effort put into designing and play testing European games, consumers get a better game for their buck; a game with more replay value and gaming satisfaction.
I think American board game companies could do well to adopt some of the practices of European board game designers. It would add more value to the games we create here, and would likely draw a few more people to the hobby.
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