There’s an enigma in the board games world. Shrouded in mystery, a term people drop into conversation from time to time. Euro games. “Oh, you like board games?” you’ll ask the new colleague at work. “What kind?” They’ll shrug. “Oh, you know. I like Euros, that sort of thing.” You nod, in a knowing fashion, but inside you’re panicking. What is a Euro game? Do you know? Does the other person even know what they’re talking about?
The board game hobby has grown tenfold in the last decade or so. Certain categories have become blurred. I’m going to attempt a tricky topic, then: how does one define ‘Euro’ games? Is there a checklist a game needs to meet to become one? Where did the term originate? Have they got anything to do with Brexit? (I’ll answer that one straight away – thankfully, no.) What are some examples of Euro games? What games are not Euros, then?
By the end, you should know whether you’re a fan of Euro games or not. And if you’re new to the term, who knows? Your soon-to-be, new-favourite genre of game could be around the corner!
Fire Up The DeLorean
Let’s start at the very beginning, fire up the DeLorean, and go back two or three generations. In Layman’s Terms, there used to be four rather contrasting genres of board games. Some featured high quantities of luck, conflict and player elimination. (Or, often, both.) Examples? Titles by the American company Parker Brothers (later bought by Hasbro). Think Monopoly, Cluedo, or Risk. A far more complex version of these were ‘wargames’. These were simulations of real-life battles, by publishers such as fellow Americans Avalon Hill.
There were far older games still, passed down through history. These were ‘abstract strategy’ games. They involved zero percent luck, where all information was present on the table. Examples? Chess (in its various guises), Draughts, Go, and Othello. Many of these are two-player-only games.
Last of all: party games. These are light-hearted titles that often feature a high-player count. The whole room could join in! Often team-based, with plenty of opportunity for laughter, these are your quintessential ‘ice-breakers’. Think the likes of Trivial Pursuit, or Pictionary. (Both of which originated from North America, too.) Party games sometimes feature racing against a sand-timer, mimicking formulas you’d see on TV game shows. So where do Euros fit into all this?
A Board Game Boom In Germany
In the ’70s and ’80s, a new kind of board game category began to emerge from German publishers. Their notion was to provide gameplay with simple rules, and short-to-medium playing time. Player interaction was present, but not direct and in-your-face. As a result, conflict took a back seat. Instead, strategy held precedence, with luck playing a far lesser role. Player elimination (like bankruptcy in Monopoly) got, erm, eliminated. All players were still involved, throughout the game’s entirety.
An annual award ceremony began in 1979, to champion the best games within this burgeoning new genre. The Germans called this award the Spiel des Jahres – ‘the game of the year’. A panel of judges gave the first SdJ award to Hare and Tortoise, by German publisher Ravensburger. (Click here to read my blog about the history of the Spiel des Jahres.)
The Europeans had planted their flag within the industry, so to speak. These games grew in popularity and started to make waves across the Atlantic. The American companies began to sit up and take notice of these ‘German-style’ titles. This new style of European games were almost a direct contrast to those of an American style. These ‘Euros’ didn’t involve as much pot-luck, conflict or klaxon-style drama. Yet they gained their own fan base. And copies were flying off the shelves.
Klaus Teuber’s Magnum Opus – Catan
As time wore on, the demand for these ‘German-style’ games no longer remained within Germany. Other European countries – France, the Netherlands, and the UK – jumped on board the bandwagon. In time, so did US and Canadian companies. Before long, ‘Euros’ started to emerge from all manner of countries and continents. You see, a Euro game doesn’t need to be by a European designer or publisher to qualify as such. It’s the mechanisms, the genetic make-up of the game, if you like, that make it so.
There’s no denying the first German-style game that created this global avalanche. In 1995, Klaus Teuber’s The Settlers of Catan was the major-league success story. Now known worldwide as Catan, Teuber’s magnus opus wasn’t the first ‘Euro’ to cross German borders. But due to its immense popularity, and the millions of copies sold, it was impossible for the rest of the industry to ignore.
Is There A Tick-List For What Makes A Euro… A Euro?
Is Catan the poster child for Euro-style games, then? No, is the short answer. And the reason for this is a tad complicated. You see, board games have changed, developed, and evolved a heck of a lot since 1995. Over the years, board game designers have taken pieces from here, added a sprinkle from there. They’ve smushed various mechanisms together, making all kinds of wonderful cross-breeds. (In fact, comparing them to dogs isn’t the weirdest thing in the world. A labrador, plus a poodle. How would you categorise a Labradoodle?)
The mindset of what was once considered a Euro game twenty, fifteen years ago, has shifted. Some Euros are, without doubt, more complex than others. Not all are super-streamlined and teachable in five minutes.
The term ‘Euro-style’ is rather broad in the grander scheme of things. You can’t shoehorn it into one single category, per se. The nature of any fast-paced hobby means it has branches. Genres form sub-genres, niches-within-niches. You can’t say that a title must meet x number requirements to qualify as being a Euro. Rather, it’s more like a Venn diagram. For a Euro to be considered as such, they tend to feature some, many, or at least one of the following traits…
We’re Fighting But We’re Not Fighting
Player conflict is indirect. It doesn’t occur in the form of combat, or a military mindset. Instead, it tends to involve competing over resources, or abstracted ‘points’.
It’s Anyone’s Game, Right Up Until The End!
No player elimination. No player has to forfeit midway through the game; all players remain involved until the game ends. Often, players score accumulative points throughout the game on a scoretrack. Sometimes, end-game points get tallied on a scorepad in a big climactic reveal. (Often, a combination of the two.) Regardless: no player has to suffer the indignation of an early elimination.
Managing Levels Of Randomness
Luck plays a far smaller role. Euros involve lots of information being public, so you can make calculated, strategical decisions. You’re rewarded for those decisions, not for having good luck. That doesn’t mean there’s a total lack of randomness, though. It could come in the form of a blind card draw, the rolling of dice, and so on. The important factor here is that players get to react how best to utilise this randomness. The players tend to make their strategical decision after a random event occurs.
(An example would be Castles of Burgundy. At the start of your turn, you roll two dice to get two random numbers, 1-6. You then get to pick action selection using the outcome from each dice. That could be buying corresponding tiles from six docks. It could be placing a pre-bought tile on a space matching the corresponding number, and so on.)
From a traditional viewpoint, Euros tend to feature wooden components. Older titles tended to have simplistic pawns, and basic coloured cubes representing resources. The starfish-like silhouetted people in Carcassonne earned the affectionate portmanteau ‘meeples’ (‘my people’). Since then – 2001 and beyond – titles now boast wonderful meeples in all shapes and sizes. Agricola, for example, has an array of animeeples (animal meeples). It’s rare for Euros to include plastic ‘minis’.
Mechanisms Are The Beating Heart
Euro games always have a theme – or rather, claim to have a theme. Often, however, the theme tends to not have a vital impact on the actual gameplay. Most Euro games are not games heavy on narrative, nor simulation. The factors that take precedence are the mechanisms at play. You’ll often hear accusations of themes being ‘pasted on’ to certain Euro titles.
For example, a Euro might have a loose theme of being set in Ancient Egypt. But if you strip it down, and look at the mechanisms alone, the game could be re-themed around something polarised and still play identically. (Space, medieval France, a modern shipyard, and so on.) Sometimes, the theme is somewhat oblique. In some cases it becomes more of a setting; a canvas for the abstracted action to occur.
The mechanisms are what grip hold of a Euro and control its metronome. Analysing them, you’ll find they come from simplistic origins. Most Euros have a few mechanisms that dovetail together. They’re easy to learn but difficult to master. Even the more complex Euros take straightforward mechanisms as a launchpad. Designers twist these simple foundations to provide fascinating, nigh-endless, fluctuating strategies.
Worker placement, for example, is nothing more than action-drafting, boiled down. There’s a bunch of different actions available – often first-come, first-served. On your turn, you pick one to activate. When you place one of your workers in a spot (a meeple, remember?), you get to trigger that action.
In doing so, you’re creating indirect conflict. Why? Because you’ve denied your opponents the opportunity to benefit from that action. You’re not beating your opponent into submission. Rather, you’re halting their progress; you’re reducing their efficiency. And that’s a key word in Euros, ‘efficiency’. They tend to be a puzzle you need to solve, in the most streamlined route as possible.
More Than One Way To Skin This Cat
Of course, any worker placement worth its salt provides many appealing actions. You might deny your opponents option 1, but you leave them the equally-appealing options 2, 3 and 4. And therein lies the joy, because another key feature from Euros are that they provide multiple paths to victory. Sure, the way you win is by earning the most points, or owning a certain quantity of resources. But the ways in which you can reach that goal differ in vast variations. Sometimes, thanks to a modular set-up, no two games begin alike (juxtaposed to, say, Chess).
So After All That… Err, What Is A Euro Game?
So in conclusion, what is a Euro? The clarification still feels vague, right? I’ve tried to avoid the term ‘Ameritrash’ thus far, but it feels like the obvious yang to the Euro’s yin. Ameritrash games focus on creating tension, personified through narrative and high stakes. Crushing blows and exhilarating highs drive the gameplay. Larger doses of luck occur, but they deliver marvellous “Woah, you had to be there, man!” moments. Euros, meanwhile, focus on engaging the players using ingenious mechanisms. The rewards come from how you utilise an optimal strategy within the realm of those mechanisms.
Any time you try to categorise anything you’ll trip up an anomaly or two. Let’s look at a few examples and see if they qualify as Euros or not…
Exhibit A: Is Five Tribes A Euro Game?
Five Tribes is a popular game, published by Days of Wonder and designed by Bruno Cathala. The majority of its indirect conflict comes in the form of you competing for various set collection. Different types of resources you collect scores you different quantities of points. The core of Five Tribes revolves around bidding for turn order, and a mancala system. (For more details on this, click here to read my in-depth review.)
So far, so Euro! But there is one action in Five Tribes that causes direct conflict. Assassins can ‘kill’ an opponent’s meeple, reducing the size of their set of Elders, or Viziers. This still qualifies as a Euro, though. The reason being that the Assassin has a second function. It can ‘kill’ neutral meeples on the playing board, instead. Often, this latter option provides the active player with more points, anyway.
Exhibit B: Is Scythe A Euro Game?
Scythe, by American designer Jamey Stegmaier, looks like an imposing wargame. A beautiful yet grim-looking, alt-Europa, post-WW2 setting. Opposing plastic minis in the form of steampunk Mechs sit camped in territories. “This doesn’t sound like a Euro game!” I hear you cry… But wait.
The core of Scythe’s mechanisms is action-selection. The aim of the game is to complete objectives – which ones you opt for is up to you. Sure, one of them involves combat. But you can ignore that facet of the game and win without it. Even if you do opt for combat as a route to victory, it hurts you elsewhere for other goals. To achieve many of the objectives, including combat, you need to first of all master resource management. You play as one of seven asymmetrical factions, all driving your strategy in different directions. Scythe – and many other games by Stonemaier Games, such as Viticulture and Tapestry – is a Euro game.
Exhibit C: Is Dead Of Winter A Euro Game?
To give its full title, Dead Of Winter: A Crossroads Game has echoes of The Walking Dead. The theme is a zombie apocalypse. Players take on the roles of human survivors within a desperate, barricaded colony. Mechanisms-wise, Dead Of Winter has a mixed bag. Hidden/traitor roles, secret objectives, semi-coop, dice-rolling and action-selection. As a team, you have to achieve group set collection tasks. That sounds kind of like a Euro game… right?
I’d argue that Dead Of Winter is not a Euro. It’s a bit of a hybrid, in some ways. The theme and narrative (in the form of Crossroads cards) plays a huge role, here. It attempts to simulate a zombie apocalypse and it does a great job ratcheting up the tension. Sure, you need set collection in the form of resources, – food, fuel, medicine, and so on. But there’s a lot of die-rolling involved, and no way of mitigating that good or bad luck element. As a result its dramatic to the nth degree, but that luck element rules it out of getting close to being a ‘pure’ Euro.
Your At-A-Glance Guide…
Let’s end with a quick guide to some well-known Euro games. You’ll often find that board game publishers tend to stick to one side of the fence or the other.
Caverna – Uwe Rosenberg – Lookout Games
Heaven & Ale – Michael Kiesling – eggertspiele
The Gallerist – Vital Lacerda – Eagle-Gryphon Games
Coimbra – Virginio Gigli and Flaminia Brasini – eggertspiele
Bonfire – Stefan Feld – Pegasus Spiele
Great Western Trail – Alexander Pfister – eggertspiele
El Dorado – Reiner Knizia – Ravensburger