In Defense of American-Style Games: 3 Good Reasons to Play Ameritrash as Seen by a Grognard

With the popularity of Settlers of Catan in the 1990s, Eurogames have exploded onto the American gaming landscape. The emphasis of Eurogames on indirect competition, hidden scoring, broad themes, resource-driven game mechanics, and balancing mechanisms to keep all players “in the game” has proven to be popular, particularly with younger players.At the same time, American-style Games, often denigrated as “Ameritrash Games”, have been criticized, panned, and abandoned by many of these newer players. The critique is that Ameritrash games are either based too much on luck (think Talisman), too much on direct competition (e.g. Advanced Squad Leader), too complex (e.g. almost anything by Avalon Hill or SPI), too theme specific as to not be appealing to the average gamer (e.g. Air Assault on Crete), and too long to play (e.g. The Campaign for North Africa).

Well, as a Grognard (look it up kids if you don’t know what it means), I am here to defend Ameritrash Games with 3 good reasons you should be playing them:

1 – Direct Competition Can Be More Fun Than Multiplayer Solitaire

One of my critiques of Eurogames is that often the game is thinly disguised multiplayer solitaire (in other words, each player plays alone and the end-game scoring determines who played solitaire better). Players really cannot directly confront, impede, attack, etc, each other. Thus, each player’s “strategy” is not truly an interactive strategy, but really solitaire. Good examples are Race for the Galaxy by Rio Grande Games or Cities by Z-Man Games. Often a Eurogame adds one element of direct confrontation, such as card drafting (think 7 Wonders), that isn’t really “direct” confrontation as the emphasis is on denying an opponent a resource rather than taking it from them.

Direct competition in an Ameritrash title is more than just denial, it’s seizure! Take the classic game Dune by Avalon Hill (or the new variant Rex by Fantasy Flight Games). Your units (tokens) will move quicker if they have access to Arrakeen or Carthag. Taking those strongholds gives you an advantage and removes it from an opponent. The battles that I have seen in my 4 decades of gaming in those Dune strongholds are legendary! In a similar vein, Small World by Days of Wonder encourages aggressive acquisition of territory–at another player’s expense (much like Risk). Nothing more fun than making your opponents’ units disappear from the board.

And if you haven’t played Enemy in Sight by Avalon Hill, you are missing out on how much fun direct competition can be. There is nothing more enjoyable than screaming “Breaking the Line” to the tune of Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law” as you wreck an opponent’s line of ships. I have seen grudges held for years (actually it’s two decades now in one instance) over a well-played Breaking the Line card! Taking the battle to your opponent can be very fun–and memorable!

— you don’t eat the worm, it eats you!

And here is the kicker–luck is NOT involved in battle in any of these games! The common criticism that Ameritrash games are full of luck can be untrue.

2 – Randomness Can Be More Fun than Repetition

What makes Talisman work? The random discovery of what monsters, treasure, etc, lie in every space! Why do battles in Star Wars Rebellion feel exciting–because you have to chuck dice and live with the results. Let’s face it, many things in life are random, and randomness in games is a good thing not a bad thing. Now, we don’t want so much randomness that we are playing Monopoly, but adding a random element can help make a game less predictable, repetitive, and boring. Even the classic Settlers of Catan has two random mechanisms (dice rolls for resources and random bonus card draw).

The main problem with Eurogames is that they are so repetitive due to a lack of randomness. And repetition can be boring. Really good games with repetitive play (for example, Lost Cities by KOSMOS) are fantastic (much in the vein of Rummy, Solitaire, Pit, etc) but a good number of Eurogames are not fun when repetitive. In particular, I find Carcassonne to be really boring due to it being the same game over and over.

— nothing says generic, repetitive play like these components from Carcassonne

3 – Strong Themes in Ameritrash Games Make for Evocative Gameplay

Okay, one thing I despise about many Eurogames is that the “theme” seems to be an afterthought. The game is so abstract that literally any number of broad themes could fit. The classic Puerto Rico by Ravensburger or the more recent Terra Mystica by Feuerland could realistically be titled and themed anything. The games are all about the gameplay “engine”, Puerto Rico has nothing at all about it that is truly Puerto Rico–other than the tacked on place names, currency, etc.

Strong creative or historical themes build evocative gameplay. When I play Dune, I can envision that Sandworm eating my units (even if they are just little round cardboard tokens), I can see the Baron Harkonnen backstabbing me with a traitor, etc. Eclipse by Lautapelit is a rather complicated game, allowing for players to customize their spaceships. Guess what? This detail adds to the space 4X theme and gameplay. Arkham Horror by Fantasy Flight is so thematic that when I play it I can actually feel the Elder Gods returning to Earth.

— Arkham Horror by Fantasy Flight, a million Cards, chits, tokens, bits, etc, but well worth the hours it takes to set it up and take it down


So in short, there is a lot to love about American-style gaming, so don’t believe the “Ameritrash” label and get out there and play a dice chucking, card drawing, heavy themed game today!

Visiting the Game Store Part Two — 7 Wonders Anniversary Packs

So, I was on the other side of town today and stopped in to Old School Games. I am glad I did! What did I find?

The Cities and Leaders Anniversary packs for 7 Wonders! Each has 15 new cards. Somehow I missed these packs when they were released in 2017… but now I have them!

Game on!

Top 5 Multiplayer Strategy Tips

As everyone knows, a multiplayer game is a completely different animal from a two-player or solitaire game.  In a two-player game everything is zero-sum: a gain for me is a loss for my opponent and vice versa. Strategy typically revolves around finding (in Game Theory terms) dominant strategies that will lead to victory.  In other words, each time you are presented with a choice, finding the alternative that maximizes your utility.  In layman’s terms, finding the choice that strictly is better than all the other choices.

Typically, in multiplayer everyone is your adversary, but they also can be your friends.  This dynamic makes strategy in a multiplayer game more of a mixed strategy.  In others words, there may not be a single dominant strategy, rather strategies are also a gamble based on the choices made by the other players.  No strategy is inherently always going to be maximal.  As such, in a multiplayer game you must “read and play” your opponents more than just analyzing the board situation.

What follows are my Top 5 Multiplayer Strategy Tips that are applicable to any and all competitive multiplayer games.  Please note that I am not talking about cooperative games (e.g. Pandemic, Ghost Stories, T.I.M.E Stories, Grizzled, etc.) or multi-person solitaire (e.g. Race for the Galaxy) but rather truly multiplayer games where one player’s actions directly impact another player.  It can be a typical strategy game where you take something directly from an opponent (e.g. Risk) or a game where you fight for resources and territory (e.g. Settlers of Cataan) or even where the only interaction might be drafting a card from a shared hand (e.g. Among the Stars).

#1 Hide in Second Place

Okay, this one should be obvious to most casual and serious gamers.  Basically, you can read this tip as “Do not race into first place too early.”  If you sprint out to a clear lead, everyone else starts gunning for you.  If you put up the first City in Settlers of Cataan, expect that Bandit/Baron/or whatever you call it to be placed on your most productive hex.  Capture the North American continent in Risk?  Watch the attacks on Fortress America commence.  And don’t even think about building that biggest fleet in Enemy in Sight!  Your masts are going to get blown apart by every other player in the game!  Have tons of health in Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards?  You won’t for much longer as every spell gets thrown your way!

So what is a keen player to do?  Stay in second place and keep your quest for victory hidden.  Grab a Special Card in Settlers and try for a Victory Point, or maybe keep your long road just one segment less than the guy with the Longest Road.  In games with a lot of victory points awarded at the end (e.g. Among the Stars), do not build space station blocks that have immediate points, rather build the ones with points counted at the end–such a sneaky way to grab victory from 2nd or even 3rd place.

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Keep these beauties hidden so your opponents can only guess at how many victory points you have.

#2 John the Weaker Opponents

When my brother and I were kids, during holidays we always got in a long game of Risk with our uncles.  Uncle Bruce was clever and tough to beat, but uncle John always used a particular and quite powerful strategy.  He would convince one of our younger cousins that either my brother or I were winning the game.  He would argue that if the weaker player didn’t do something about me or my brother, no one else could.  So after a bit of logic, intimidation, and persuasion, my younger cousin Bruce Jr. would launch suicidal attacks against my troops.  Bruce Jr. couldn’t beat me, but he did weaken me enough for Uncle John to win.

Johning your opponent means to convince a weaker opponent to attack another opponent–thus weakening the stronger one and making your “emerge from second place to win the game” strategy pay off.  It is a very effective strategy that you can use in most multiplayer games where opponents can either pick their targets (e.g. Epic Spell Wars, Enemy in Sight, Dune, Seasons) or in games where geography allows for players to attack a multiple number of “near” opponents (e.g. El Grande, Risk, Eclipse, Kemet, Smallworld), to interfere with “near” opponents by denying them resources (e.g. Settlers, The Golden City), or by making resources more expensive (e.g. Power Grid).  Note that Johning can also be used in card “drafting” games by trying to get other players to deny cards to the “leader” or true target of your Johning strategy.  Try to John players in 7 Wonders so that you can draft a useful card while they draft a card that your key opponent needs.

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Who should those Amazons attack?  If you are the Skeletons, John that Amazon player and make him go after the Humans–convince him that clearly the Humans need some paring back!

Johning is a strategy that you should use much like voting in Chicago: do it early and often.

#3 Do Not Leave the Table for a Slice of Salami

When we were playing those childhood games of Risk, I learned a very hard lesson: never, ever leave the table to get something to eat.  I come from an Italian family and we always had multiple sticks of salami around at each holiday. The temptation of grabbing a few slices would pull me away from the Risk board often.  And what awaited me when I returned…a new alliance among two or more players hellbent on destroying my empire!  Of course, some members of this new alliance appear to have been victims of Johning, but that wouldn’t make their troops fight any less effectively.

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What the?!?  I left the table to get a slice of salami and now my Fortress Europa is under attack from all sides!  I fear an alliance has been made against me!

The moral of the story is that if you leave the table, other players can plot against you.  I recommend stacking up the food and drink within easy reach of wherever you are seated.  Oh, and develop a strong bladder.

#4 Run with the Pack/Dodge the Pack

Some games are set up to reward players who follow the same strategy and punish the lone wolves.  For example, in Eminent Domain if you try a Produce/Trade strategy by yourself, you will not win.  If no one else is leading Produce/Trade, you cannot follow.  Thus, you will have to do all the work yourself by consistently leading Produce/Trade.  Meanwhile, the other players who are all leading AND following a Warfare strategy are smoking you like a cheap cigar!   Running with the Pack will not insure that you win, but you certainly will not come in last.

Drafting games follow the opposite rule: Dodge the Pack.  Because drafting forces players to focus on accumulating one or two types of resources, each player has to ignore/pass along the resources that they do not want.  For example, how many times have I played 7 Wonders and seen the Scientific structures keep circulating?  If no one wants them, you can be sure that you can grab them all!

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So many scientific cards getting passed to me.  What to do, what to do?  I think its time for some scientific discoveries!

#5 Limit the Strongest Opponent

I know that when I sit down to play a strategic game that my brother Stew, the West Point Graduate, is going to play to win.  He likes strategy games, he is good at strategy, and he is ruthless.  Thus, I look for ways to keep him in check.  This can be overt, such as not trading cards with him in Settlers or drafting cards that he wants in games like 7 Wonders or Among the Stars.  Or it can be covert, like when I try to John the other players into hemming in Stew in Smallworld or Eclipse.  The point is to not let Stew run amok over the weaker players. Stew already would consider me to be his strongest opponent, so I can’t expect help from him.  Thus, returning the favor is the best strategy to pursue.  Sure, sometimes we end up negating each other and somebody else wins, but better the occasional loss than the beat down that an unchecked Stew can unleash.

As an example, when I play Dune (or the Fantasy Flight copy, Rex) and I have to pick a traitor at the start of the game, I always pick one from Stew’s leaders.  Why?  Because I know that if I have to battle Stew, he is going to be prepared with a weapon, defense, good leader, etc.  I will need the traitor to turn the battle my way.  Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that he has taken a traitor from among my leaders too!

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Hmmm, 4 possible traitors.  Stew playing the Bene Gesserit?  My only choice is to make Princess Irulan my traitor.

Conclusion

I hope these tips help you win more of your multiplayer games.  Remember, the main difference between multiplayer and 2-player games is that in the former you must remember to also consider the other players and their strategies.  John them, focus on the top player, run/dodge the pack, hide in 2nd place, and never ever leave the table for a slice of salami.

 

Post Thanksgiving Game-o-rama!

Just after the Thanksgiving holidays we got in more gaming that usual.  On various dates we managed to delve into some 7 Wonders: Duel, Pandemic Legacy, 7 Wonders with the Babel expansion, and T.I.M.E. Stories.

Here are the photos of the fun!

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Stewart contemplating what to do in 7 Wonders: Duel.  I had him at a severe disadvantage and eventually I nipped a victory by a few points.

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Getting ready for some 7 Wonders with the Babel expansion (and of course Cities and Leaders expansions too!)

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Stewart and Bob during Age II.  Stew had played that darn leader (the name escapes me at the moment) who returns -1 military tokens to the other players.  So annoying!  Note the Babel tower in the middle of the table.  Stew won the game thanks to mucho scientific structures.

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Stew, Bob and I getting ready to start our 2nd November playthrough of Pandemic Legacy.  I will get a post out about that game soon.

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Lee, Stew and Katie getting ready for a game of T.I.M.E. Stories.  Katie really likes the game but when we got to the maze cards, Stew and I spent like 10 minutes figuring it out and she got bored!  Btw, note in the background left the shield that I made for Stew when he was big into SCA at West Point.

Oh…and I will give out a not genuine “no prize” to whoever who leaves a comment correctly naming the most games (either from the boxes/books or the minis, boards, etc, used in particular games) that they see in the photos.  Note, there are also RPGs in the photos.  Don’t forget to look on the bookshelves and under the folding table too!

Good luck!

Announcing Toledo Tuesdays Gaming Club Blog

Do you love games?  We do!  Toledo Tuesday’s Gaming Club (TTGC), or ToledoTuesdays for short, announces its new blog.  TTGC meets every week to play board games, card games, and role-playing games (RPG).  Look to this space for weekly reports on our sessions, including run downs of gameplay, strategy tips, and comments from TTGC members.  Every so often one of us will post a review of a game, an extended strategy guide, or perhaps just a wild rambling or muse on something game-related!

In the spirit of that latter sentiment, here is a short list of four must-have games as determined by Neal (see our About page for a thumbnail sketch of the four TTGC members):

Dune-Avalon Hill-A beautiful game that can be won by multiple players on any and every turn.  The board, cards, and player aids all drag the player into Frank Herbert’s spice-fueled world of Arrakis. The constant battling for key strongpoints focuses gameplay on aggressive action and tense face-offs that can end with spectacular success or devasting betrayal and disaster. If you can’t find the Avalon Hill version, Rex by Fantasy Flight Games is an update of the rules and a transposition of the theme into the Twilight Imperium universe without much loss of the charm of the original game.

7 Wonders-Asmodee-A tableau card building game that is intuitive and easy for anyone to play. Thematically is is civilization building along with all the usual components: recruiting military, trade, civil, and scientific advances.  It might look like Civilization lite, but for all its simplicity, there is a remarkable depth of play and no single dominant strategy. I am sure that if you are reading this you know about 7 Wonders, but in case you don’t, go get this game and play it.

Call of Cthulhu RPG-Chaosium-First, don’t get the d20 version, find the original d100 system. The classic Chaosium d100 rules make combat and character improvement realistic and intuitive and those are key parts of CoC.  The insanity rules cleverly deliver on the promise of the H.P. Lovecraft mythos. The combination of horror, mystery, and otherworldly science fiction makes for a unique RPG experience where your character’s combat skills are nowhere near as important as their Library Use skill.

Shadowfist CCG-Inner Kingdom Games-Cybernetic monkeys, shaolin masters, a sinister and secret society of transforming animals, and heroic Kung Fu  fighters all battle for control of feng shui sites–what is not to love!  There are no fireball-channel janky combos and no simple beat down strategies.  Games are strategic because victory is only possible through long-term build-up of faction resources and a well-planned strategy.  Top-decking is much less important than creating subtle synergies between multiple cards (and the drawing back to hand-size mechanism usually means all players have good cards in hand most of the time).  You might never have heard of this game, but you haven’t seen how good a CCG can be until you have played Shadowfist.

Hopefully this short teaser list gives you some idea of the breadth of games that are part TTGC sessions.  Again, look to this space for a weekly report on our activity–including our most recent attempt to successfully subdue out of control diseases in Pandemic: Legacy!