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!

Love Letter: To Have or Have Not the Princess Early

Deconstruction Junction: Finding Strategies to Protect a Winning Hand

In a few recent games of Love Letter (from AEG) my friends and I got into a little, mini debate. While I contended that getting the Princess early was very helpful, a few others disagreed. They argued that it was almost always a curse, because they ended up being forced to discard the Princess and lose the hand. Who is right?

The Princess is the best (in other words, winning) card in Love Letter. But, if you are forced to discard it, you are knocked out of the round–so you have to protect your winning card from discarding effects. I understood what my friends were saying: if any other player suspects that you have the Princess, they are going to target you with a Guard or Prince (and perhaps the King). Or if a Priest is used on you, then your opponent knows what you have, which is going to make it difficult to survive the rest of the round. I argued that in my experience that I could often avoid detection of my Princess card and make it to the end of the round, and of course I would win the round.

So who is right? Well, I think neither. Having the Princess early (or even in your initial draw) is a good thing. Why? There are two ways to win a round of Love Letter: knock out all other players or have the highest card when the deck runs out. If you have the Princess you are sure to win in the latter instance. And of course, you can still knock out your opponents and win. All the other players can ONLY potentially win by knocking you out (or trading their King for your Princess which almost never happens). To make this clearer think about all the opening hands that are sure not to be a wining start: Guard, Priest, Baron, Handmaid, and sometimes the Prince. These players must draw good cards combo cards (for example, Priest and Guard) but if you have the Princess some combos cannot happen for your opponents (for example, Baron then draw a Princess, Handmaid then Princess). Having the Princess gives you a head start or one or two times around the table. Moreover, the more other players use those two Handmaids and two Princes (but not forcing you to discard) the quicker you get to winning. Also, the more players in the game, the less likely someone will be able to knock you out by a good Guard guess or with the Prince just because there are so many other targets.

So having the Princess is a good thing–but you have to defend her. The Princess has two weaknesses. One, if you get targeted with a Prince, the Princess is the only card that forces you out of the round. Two, given that the Princess is the highest card, all the other players are trying to figure out where it is (and they are indeed looking, because they know that they don’t have it). If any player figures out that you have the Princess, expect them to try and knock you out. So how do you defend the Princess against these weaknesses?

Feign Weakness

Love Letter is like a game of poker, a strong hand is better than a weak hand, but bluffing and deception can help any hand. So, like poker, if you have the strongest possible hand (in other words, holding the Princess), you are going to want to bluff a bit of weakness. How can you accomplish this in Love Letter? If you get a guard accuse someone else of having the Princess! That should throw them off your track! If you draw the Baron, go after the opponent whom you think has the weakest card. When they discard that Guard or Priest, the other players won’t assume that you have a Princess. When someone discards a high card, pretend that you wish you were holding that card.

Take Your Time When Playing Your Cards

Nothing signals to the other players that you have the Princess or Countess more than quick play on your part. You need to deceive your opponents a bit. When you draw your card, look at it, put it in your hand, shuffle your two cards, and then look at both of them. Pretend that you are trying to figure out which to play. Good poker players do this as a matter of habit–you should too.

Don’t “Tell” Your Opponents That You Have the Princess

Take another cue from poker here: when you draw that Princess stay calm and don’t make it obvious how happy you are. Don’t smile, make some positive noise, don’t look happy, etc. Also, don’t sell it too much the other way. We all know when a player starts moaning loudly about his bad luck that he probably drew a good card. Also, if someone else forces you into a Baron fight, don’t make it obvious that you are going to win. If someone hits you with a Guard and guesses wrong, don’t be so eager to triumphantly say how wrong they are. And as the deck gets low, try to look as concerned as the other players who are holding weaker cards.

Confuse Your Opponents

When you get that Princess early and make it all the way to the end and win, tell them that you drew it on your last draw! They will think that you have Lady Luck on your side and that they just can’t win. Again, deception is your friend here. Also, if you used the Guard trick where you accused an opponent of having the Princess, after you win let others know about your deception. This will get in their heads. The next time you are sitting on the Countess, use a Guard, and then accuse someone of having the Princess, everyone will think that you have it! After a short bit of time no one will have any idea when you have the Princess in your hand or not.

Learn to Love the Princess

So next time you play Love Letter, remember that having the Princess is always better than not having her. Use the tips above to better protect your winning card and maybe you will collect those little wooden cubes instead of watching others collect them.

House Rules — Making a Game Fit Your Needs: Tavern Masters

DECONSTRUCTION JUNCTION

A place where I dissect rules, themes, game components, and strategies and give my thoughts about them.

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Every now and then there is a game that you like…but you don’t love it. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t really fit the style or needs of your gaming group. You’ve played it with the guys a couple times, and it was fun, but you think it could be even more fun…if it was tweaked a bit. What is there to do?

House Rules

Well, the obvious answer is to use House Rules! Make up the Rules you need to get the game to where you want it. And today I am going to give an example of a game that I recently acquired on Kickstarter: Tavern Masters by Dann Kriss Games.

It is a fun, quick game for 1-4 players. It can be played competitively, co-operatively, and solo. Games last about 25-30 minutes. In short, you build a Tavern in a fictional fantasy world and try to accommodate as many patrons as possible, earning gold in the process.

We played it a few times and it was fun and fast. But it was too fast and really, didn’t have the strategic depth that we were looking for. In fact, with the exception of the first round Tavern card passing, the players never interact. Now, Tavern Masters is a light game with evocative art, so nothing I will write in this blog takes away from the excellent work put into this game. Yet, our group wanted a longer game with more tough decisions….so we introduced some house rules.

House Rule #1: Length of Game

The competitive game normally ends on any round that a player gets 20 or more gold. Our new house rule is that games go a minimum of 6 rounds and end at a pre-determined round from 6 to 10. This lengthens the game by 20-60 minutes.

House Rules #2: First Round Changes

The first round of the game can be frustrating if your Tavern cards do not match your Patron cards. Because the Tavern cards are dealt and played before ever seeing the Patron cards, this makes mismatches purely random. Our house rule is that on the first round the Patron cards are dealt first. Each player can look at his/her Patrons and only after that, the Tavern cards are dealt and passed normally. This allows each player to try and avoid mismatches and also pass the Tavern cards with more sense of strategy.

House Rule #3: Pass the Tavern Cards Every Round

Tavern cards only get passed in the first round normally, on the subsequent rounds they are directly drawn from the deck. Our house rule is to pass cards every round, with odd rounds clockwise and even rounds counter-clockwise. This continues to provide more player interaction and more strategic choices (you know, like in 7 Wonders–do I block or grab what I want?

House Rules #4: Icon Limits

Normally any number of Patrons can take advantage of a single icon (for example, if you have 3 Patrons in your hand who want Ale, if you have a single Ale card in your Tavern, you can play all 3 Patrons). Our house rule is that EACH Patron needs its own separate icon, both when it is played and also when you keep Patrons during the Counting the Till phase. If you have 3 Patrons who need Ale but only one Ale card in your Tavern, you can only play one of them.

Conclusion

Our house rules effectively make the game more strategic and make choices more demanding. The house rules make the game longer and more tense, and also add more player interaction. House rules to the rescue!

P.S.

The Dirty Deeds Expansion is also a must. It adds a phase where players directly mess with other players’ taverns. Pick it up if your gaming group wants more player interaction and backstabbing fun!

Inverse Rule of Gaming: Part III–Early Results

Okay, the initial results are in!  I sampled 100 games at random on Boardgamegeek, recording the average rating (of all games that I found with at least 5 ratings) and assigned a salicousness score from 0 (no females depicted) to 5 (practically softcore pornography) based on the cover art/photo (nb: if there was no cover art/photo, I omitted that game).

I found games from 2017, games from pretty much all decades since the 1940s, some classic games (like monopoly), and even some games from my childhood that I had forgotten about (I’m talking about you, Chopper Strike!).

Here are the results:

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Is there a correlation between game rating and salacious rating?

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Variables:

Game rating: score on BGG 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest)

Salacious rating: score from 0 (lowest) to 5 (highest)

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Hypothesis: the higher the Salacious rating, the lower the Game rating.  

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RESULTS (from n=100, simple random sampling)



BGG=6.42-0.153*Salacious

Analysis:

The trend line is clearly a negative relationship: then greater the Salcious rating, the lower the BGG rating.  However, there are a number of issues.

  1. There are not many cases where Salcious > 0.
  2. There is not a single case where Salacious > 2.
  3. There is a single case with both a low BGG and Salacious = 1 that might be driving the estimate.

What to do?  Well, for my next analysis I am going to use cluster sampling.  I already have enough cases where Salacious = 0.  I will need to look at batches of possible cases and sample only those with Salacious > 0.  This will give me enough cases in the sub-groups to run a more robust analysis.

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Early Verdict:

The small sample (n=100) seems to imply that the hypothesis has some credibility.  However, a larger sample with more cases of salacious marketing on covers needs to be done.

Next Time: The Inver Rile of Gaming: Part IV–The Final Results

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.

5 mp tips 01

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.

5 mp tips 02

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.

5 mp tips 03

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!

5 mp tips 04

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!

5 mp tips 05

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.