European Vs. American Style Board Games

In a previous post I touched on some differences between so-called “European style” board games and “American style” board games. There are some fascinating differences between the two genres and although I will try to be as objective as possible in this analysis, I will tell you now that I find the European style to encompass much better design choices in almost every respect.

Let’s take a few games to exemplify the genres. We will pick what are probably the two most popular classic American board games to represent “American style”: Risk and Monopoly. For “European style” we will consider Settlers of Catan and Imperial (two games featured previously on this blog).

So let us begin. One of the most prominent mechanics inherent to European games is that players are never thrown out of the game before it ends. Anyone who has played Monopoly enough has experienced the irritation of being the first player to go bankrupt. It could be hours before the game is over and you can reunite with your friends, so your best bet is to go cry alone in the corner while you wait. The same argument can be made for Risk: someone is bound to be eliminated sooner or later and stuck twiddling their thumbs while the rest of the game grinds to an end. THIS IS BAD DESIGN. The point of a game is to have fun, not alienate your friends. If 30-40% of the man hours put into the game is spent doing nothing, then we have some serious design issues. Settlers of Catan and Imperial, on the other hand, have absolutely no mechanic for ejecting a player (in fact if a player leaves for any reason it will seriously upset the game balance). This guarantees that all of your buddies will be hanging in to the bitter end and will all, technically, have a chance at victory. Now doesn’t that sound like more fun?

Now it’s time for a crash course in feedback systems. A feedback system is any system that can influence itself. The classic example is a thermostat system. When a room gets too hot, the thermostat senses it and controls the flow of cold air into the room. When the room gets too cold, the thermostat sends a flow of hot air. The net result is a room that is always nice and comfortable. This particular system is a negative feedback system because when the system strays too far from one state (too hot or too cold) it is pushed back toward the other state. As you can see, negative feedback systems are inherently very stable. The room cannot get too hot or too cold. Imagine now the analogous positive feedback system: the hotter the room gets the more hot air is pumped in, and the colder it gets the more cold air is pumped in. Obviously this makes no sense. It’s an extremely unstable system that will have you spontaneously combusting or freezing to death in a matter of minutes. Positive feedback systems are always unstable. 

Ok let’s apply the concept of feedback to our games. Monopoly is a great example of positive feedback (as is capitalism in general). The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The problem with this in Monopoly is whoever gets an early lead is more likely to have more money to weather disaster and invest more. This leads to more money from more investments, which leads to more money, etc. If you fall behind early on, you’re pretty much screwed by the opposite reasoning. Again, the same model applies to Risk. If you get an early lead on owning a whole continent or two, you will have more units than your opponents which you can use to capture even more territory and get even more units. THIS IS BAD DESIGN. Basically, this mechanic imposes winners and losers on the game right from the very beginning. The winners are usually going to be someone who has been winning the whole time. Hopelessness is not enjoyable.

European games, on the other hand, tend to impose negative feedback. That is, the further ahead a player gets the harder it is for them to stay ahead. In Settlers, not only does the winning player face discrimination and even trade embargoes from other players, but they will also likely be the one consistenly dealing with the robber, and losing cards when 7’s are rolled. In Imperial, the better your country is the more attractive it will be for other players to steal it from you. In fact, the winning player is going to be the one in constant fear of losing his winning status. Negative feedback is extremely important in any game system because it keeps outcomes upredictable and keeps all players engaged in the game.

There are many other factors at work here, but these two are the big ones. complete participation and negative feedback are the biggest identifiers of a European game over an American game. They are two obvious choices for a better design and ultimately produce better games. It’s a shame that most americans have grown up knowing little more than Risk and Monopoly, and tend to write off board games as a feasible form of entertainment as they get older. I can’t say I blame them, I mean after all, these are goddamned terrible games.


7 Responses

  1. I absolutely agree with your problems about Monopoly. I have expressed the same in my own review of the game. The way you explain the feedback systems is excellent, and something I never really thought about in games like Settlers, just took it for granted I guess.

    Some European games like Carcassonne are really good at keeping the players in suspense of who is winning until the end of the game.

  2. I agree to a point, but only a point.

    Both in Monopoly and Risk (especially in Risk), players who appear to be winning are not necessarily going to win. Your comment, “If you get an early lead on owning a whole continent or two, you will have more units than your opponents which you can use to capture even more territory and get even more units. THIS IS BAD DESIGN” is not accurate. If you play the game well, collecting a number of cards, you can basically come out of nowhere to turn the tide of the game. In fact, that’s happened almost every game I’ve ever played.

  3. Similar to what somebody above said, your explanations for the two forms of feedback are accurate but only to a point. Try to see it from the American gaming perspective, and let’s use Risk as the frame for my questions and observations.

    Positive feedback occurs when the results of one play or turn of events increase the effects of themselves. Your example was of the thermostat that increases the heat when the heat is above the average.

    In Risk, as you rightly stated, this can be found in ownership of continents. If a player has a continent and none of his fellows have a continent, that player is at an advantage. However, that advantage only exists from a purely numeric input/output/capability/capacity viewpoint. In any game of Risk, if three people are playing and one of those players has North America (5 bonus armies), then at first glance that player will win. However, this does not follow human nature.

    If that example were to come true, as it has at some point over Risk’s long lifespan, then the other two players would undoubtedly arrive at a temporary truce and throw the remaining player out of North America. The difference here is that rather than the negative feedback being within the rules, the negative feedback is in the players themselves.

    More later.

  4. Just because the game itself does not allow for compensations, this necessitates that players will work to depose the strongest player in any given game at whenever they are most threatened. It is precisely because of the threat of positive feedback that negative feedback comes in the form of player actions. Granted, this is not as perfectly stable as a system with negative feedback incorporated in the rules, but that lends itself to the next point.

    What I know of ‘European-style’ games comes from a gaming club at my university. I played a few of the games you have talked about, and though they were interesting, they could be frustrating and balance insistence. Americans, for the most part, are in favor of positive feedback as an established rule function because it reflects the actions they have taken and tells them how well they are playing.

    In a game of Risk, it is possible you could lose towards the end of the game if your opponent pulls two quick card sets, and this opportunity for every player to win sounds suspiciously similar to what you are lauding in ‘Eurogames’. But far more likely a player is to win or lose by their own actions. Attempting to hold Europe at the beginning of the game will set you up for destruction. Attacking everything in sight isn’t something a player in Risk can afford to do, because there is no mechanism to prevent their destruction by the hands of their poor play.

    In short, Risk players enjoy the game because, overall, their actions dictate whether or not they will win the game. This combines with the internal system of negative feedback to create a relatively stable game where players choose their own fate. When you lose a game, you can point to your own plays in the game and honestly remark that you could have done better. When you win a game, it is because you’ve genuinely beat the other players. There is no ‘we can all win’ in a game of Risk.

    Finally, losing is not an issue in these games. Okay, in Monopoly it’s no fun to see your money sapped from you (hence why the Free Parking house rule is so common), but in Risk, your loss comes with the knowledge that you are most responsible for that loss. Luck, other players, and other factors are in play, but overall it is your own fault.

    I will assume on the part of Risk players that sticking around with two or three countries as an inconsequential node in the game is not enjoyable, and forcing a player to stick around diminishes the effects of feedback, both positive and negative. Positive feedback suffers because there is no award for getting ahead, and negative feedback suffers (in Risk especially) because there’s no related positive feedback for it to check. Besides, the losing player can still stay and see the results of the game, what lasting impact their play has, or simply leave and get something to eat. I’ve done it more than my fair share of times. Also, although there is skill involved in Carcassonne, it can seem too luck-based for some players. A game that keeps around other players who all have a chance to win sounds suspisciously like ”luck-based game”.

    To briefly restate the reasons people would enjoy playing Risk or other American board games:

    1. They depend on the player’s actions for balance.
    2. Since only one person can win, other losing players will group together to instill negative feedback.
    3. Positive feedback offers the promise of reward for the skilled.
    4. Losing and winning are the result of player actions / skill. Putting players out of the game can be seen as a permanent way of putting out another player’s chance to win… luck or no luck.

    That being said, Risk is not a perfect game. I think it has some issues that have been addressed in other board games, several of which I’m taking into consideration for my own board game (Territory-based bonus points (For the Homeland) to Heroes under siege, if anybody cares to know). Also, I do enjoy European-style board games and in no small part because I think they provide a unique game type here in the United States. Your article just seemed to be missing a few points I thought should be put to the defense of American games.

    There’s a different mentality in the players of those games, and that does not mean Americans are war-bent monsters running towards global domination or that Europeans want everybody to sit down and sing peace songs. It is simply a different train of thought on how games should be designed, and what the goals of those games are.

  5. Just found this forum, I love it!

  6. Depends on who’s playing the game…when my friends and I played Monopoly or Risk, if someone was winning they’d usually find themselves facing a coalition determined to drag them down. Then eventually somebody else would start to win, and so on, etc etc. Sort of a “balance of power” mechanism. The end result is usually a very evenly matched game, with rarely anyone even winning (unless they’re able to take on everyone at once!).

    Any game involving interaction is highly dependent on who is actually playing it, really. I find the more competitive the other people are, the mroe likely you get this ‘balance of power’ thing happening.

  7. I question choosing family style games like Risk and Monopoly to represent the best of US games. I would have nominated a Steve jackson game or Axis and Allies, but many of your central points would still be valid. My sad experience with the Euro resource development/ trading games is that if you make an early error you CANNOT recover, and to be eliminated from such a game is a mercy compared to suffering on in a hopeless position. I guess I am an American weasel game style of player, and will never embrace the resource trading collaberative style of most Euro games. It has got to the point that seeing a name like Reiner Kniezer on a box begins to painfully siphon off my hit points.

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