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!

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Merchant of Venus Memorial Day Spectacular

Memorial Day is a perfect time to get everyone together and play those games that you can’t get to normally.  You know what I am talking about, those games that take like 4+ hours and you just can’t fit them in to a normal work night gaming session.

So, we managed to bust out Merchant of Venus from Fantasy Flight games, a re-imagining of the classic Avalon Hill game.

Merchant of Venus 01

Merchant of Venus as redone by Fantasy Flight Games

Basically if you haven’t played it, each player flies around space exploring 14 systems.  You look for goods to trade, passengers to ferry, new civilizations, etc.  You improve your ship and piloting abilities as you go.  Whoever has the most credits at the end of the game wins.

Merchant of Venus is a typically Fantasy Flight game…in other words, it has a lot of counters, cards, etc.  It also is kind of an “Ameritrash” game in that you roll lots of dice, there is a lot of randomness, and in the end the random behavior usually makes a bigger difference in the outcome than any true strategic and/or tactical decisions.  In short, it plays a bit like Talisman–move around and hope for good luck.  But it is quite fun if no one takes it too seriously.

Merchant of Venus 02

A typical start to Merchant of Venus.  My ship card is on the bottom with lasers set to 1 and shields set to 2.

Anyway, Bob, Stew and I got in a pretty fun game.  Stew started by heading toward the Nebula which slowed him down.  I took advantage of some favorable placement of passengers and Bob started trading everywhere he could.

Merchant of Venus 03

My ship after I increased my pilot level to 2.  I am transporting the Diva and have added the Zen Paint Job and Throttle Boost.  I also have discovered two civilizations, upgraded my lasers, added cargo space, and sourced a Yellow Drive.

Through about 20 or so turns, Bob and I were raking in the credits while Stew slowly caught up to us.  The game lasts about 2-4 hours on average, and since we hadn’t played it in forever, it took some time to set up.  So after 3 hours and 21 turns, we decided to go eat and call it quits.  We didn’t figure out who won because it was just fun to play.

Merchant of Venus 04

The game board when we decided to quit.  Stew (with the Green ship) is trying to find the undiscovered civilization of the Humans.  His pilot was Human and we never found them so Stew couldn’t use his racial discount.  Bob (the Red ship) was in that system so Stew was hoping that the Humans were not there but in the system with his Green ship. 

Merchant of Venus is a fun game but you need time to play it.  If we had played to the 30 turn limit, we would’ve easily taken another hour.  So maybe on the next holiday we might finish a game…

Stew’s Rant Corner:Magic Realm

In this Second Edition of Stew’s Rant Corner, Stew discusses a classic 1979 Avalon Hill Bookcase Game: Magic Realm, a game that was ahead of its time in many, many ways, but suffered from a fatal flaw.

Magic Realm 01


 

Have you ever had that game where you love the art, like the basic premises of the game, enjoy the attention to detail, and the storyline takes you away to that awesome place, but the rules trip you up and leave you wanting to love a game that you just can’t? If you have ever tried or played Avalon Hill’s 1979 release of Magic Realm, then you know what I mean.

The Game is SOOOO Cool!

Before I dig into the details, let me make it very clear, I SOOOO want to love this game, but I just can’t. Ask me if I like Magic Realm, and I will say, definitely, “Yes!” Ask me if I like playing Magic Realm, and I will say, “Yes!” So, why can I not love this game; read on and find out.

Magic Realm was released in 1979, and as you can see from the cover art, it is a fantasy game of adventure, individual battles, and magic. Truly, Magic Realm appeared to be Avalon Hill’s attempt to capture a role-playing game in a board game. Magic Realm contains various playable heroes, many dangerous monsters, magic items, spells, enchanted locations and random encounters. What more could any one person want? Let me be fair, I think Avalon Hill did a splendid job with Magic Realm, and here is why. I loved the art work from the moment I saw it. I loved the random game board. I loved the combat system. I loved the random encounter system. I hated that some of the character adventurers could run into certain monsters and simply had no chance: your game was over. Read on and let me explain more.

Before Its Time: Campaigns, Double-Sided Tiles, Character Cards, and Random Monsters

First, Avalon Hill laid out Magic Realm into seven playable campaigns, meant to be played sequentially, teaching any potential players the rules a few at a time. Avalon succeeded brilliant with this, as the rules make sense, are easy to follow, and you learn them a small portion at a time: beginning with searching, then fighting, they monsters, treasurers, spells, etc., until the you are playing the entire campaign game looking for victory points to prove that you are the most experienced and fame worthy adventurer. In order to facilitate this, Magic Realm had, at the time, some new and innovative mechanics. First, the hexagonal tiles provided an ever-changing landscape, different with each game. Also, these tiles representing woods, caves, and mountain passes, could be “enchanted” and flipped over to a side where they not only changed the direction paths and roads led, but they also supported one of the three different colors of magic. I can not say if Magic Realm was the first game with hexagonal tiles that could be laid out randomly to create a different map every game, but it certainly worked and we all have seen that same random map structure used in many games today.

Magic Realm 02

The Hex Tiles.  The top 3 are examples of the “normal” side and the bottom 3 examples of the “enchanted” side.

Magic Realm also had Character Cards with the statistics, powers, weapons, and spells for each adventurer that a player could choose. These character cards also contained four levels that each player could be in their development of their craft, starting with a brand new adventurer to a seasoned campaigning veteran. Magic Realm also used a unique way to randomly introduced monsters onto the map by providing “Warning” and “Sound” counters that could be laid out at random, which when revealed interacted with the “Appearance Chart”. Other counters, laid out at random, would reveal the location of different buildings or places that could contain either more monsters, treasures, spells, or natives that could be hired to help. All of this was wonderful, easy to play, and quite enjoyable. Now, let’s talk about combat.

 

The mosaic above shows clockwise from top left: the campaign “Personal History Pad”, the “Treasure Set Up/Monster Appearance” Chart, the plethora of counters, and the Character Cards (examples in top row of art on the front and examples in bottom row of stats on the back).

A Truly Good Idea: The Combat Matrix Chart…

One of the best, and perhaps worst, mechanics was the fighting chart with the “Move” and “Fight” counters. The idea was for each combat the adventurer would choose a fight and a move counter; placing them on the combat chart into one of three locations. The monster would then randomly be placed on a place on the battle chart as well. This created a rock vs paper situation where two rules applied; if the speed of the monster was faster than the adventurer’s move, the adventurer was struck, the monster could also hit the adventurer by being placed opposite the location of the adventurer’s move counter. The attack for the adventurer on the monster was the same. Armor, weapons, and spells were then taken into account. This created a unique combat system, where sometimes no one was hit, and others both were struck. However, if the first strike killed the character, no strike on the monster would be made, and of course, vice versa.

Magic Realm 07

The Combat Matrix

…That Went So Horribly Wrong!

Here, however, is where Magic Realm broke down completely. Take the “Black Knight” character. He wore armor, wasn’t very fast, and used a mace that was hard hitting, but not overly so. Now take a certain “Tremendous” troll. It struck faster than the Black Knight could possibly move, did the most damage possible in the game, and was too tough for the Black Knight to hurt it. What resulted was a situation where the Black Knight was struck every time, and if he had tremendous armor on, could survive one such strike, but the Black Knight could not kill the troll, and the troll was too fast for the Black Knight to run and get away. This combination ALWAYS resulted in the death of the Black Knight. And here lies the fatal flaw of Magic Realm: no one likes to play a game that they can just randomly lose. If the Black Knight runs into other monsters, everything is ok, but if he ran into the Tremendous Troll, he was dead. Sort of made me want to run the random encounter at the start of the game, just to see if their was any point in playing it.

 

This flaw, and a major flaw it is, does not exist for all characters, just some, but enough to make you not want to play. The more times I played Magic Realm–and I played a lot of Magic Realm, because I SOOOO wanted to love this game! I loved everything about it, but the random fatality of certain characters–the more I gave up on the game. So, in a nut shell, do I hate Magic Realm and wish I had never played it? No. I just wish it had been play tested better ahead of time. I encourage all of you to find this game in a hobby shop, or online, and give Magic Realm a try. You will fall in love with it, and you will be frustrated by it, all at the same time. It is a good example of why play-testing is so important nowadays, and obviously, back then.