Hello and Welcome!
"Parts is Parts" is a venerable, pervasive quote that is forever coined
in our collective memory by a series of unexpectedly successful
80's-vintage Burger King commercials. In the commercial, the fast food
worker says "parts is parts" in an effort to convince the customer that
the contents of the meal aren't really as important as the taste.
The same could be argued for a successful game: who cares what the
constituent mechanics are, as long as the game itself is good? Knowing
all about the "pieces parts" that make up the game shouldn't be required
to enjoy playing it. And on a related note, knowing all about the
pieces and knowing that they are good individually does nothing to make
a poor game better - sort of like having a losing sports team full
players, sometimes the pieces just don't "click" together and make a
While all this is true for the most part, I would argue that for some
(myself included), knowing a lot about what makes a game good can do
three things: a) satisfy my idle/insatiable curiosity; b) increase my
enjoyment of the game; and c) help make me a better game designer (see
below). Point (b) is especially poignant--some games improve
dramatically when you understand more about them, and the play
experience can be markedly different when playing in a group of people
who understand what makes the game tick. Poker is a great example: it
can be played, enjoyably, by a bunch of rank amateurs just tossing chips
around. Or, it can be played with excruciating drama and amplified
depth by experienced players who can read tells, calculate hand
percentages, throw a bull-moose bluff, and the like.
This column is all about just that: dissecting games to show the
sometimes pretty, sometimes ugly innards. And then, discussing how
knowledge of those innards can help us enjoy good games more, avoid bad
games more, and understand all games more.
It is my hope that the column will appeal to a wide variety of you
faithful OgreCave readers. Those who are just curious about games
should enjoy it; those who like game recommendations should enjoy it;
and those of you who are practicing or aspiring designers will hopefully
find some thought-provoking topics in it as well.
Above all, though, this column is mutable. If you want to see more of
something, say so! Likewise, if you want to hear less of something,
give a shout. Your (civil) comments are appreciated, and will be heard.
So get a-typing, and send your thoughts to: parts (at) ogrecave (dot) com.
At the end of the day, we have a lot of entertainment choices available
to us. Gagillions of PC games, handheld games, board games, miniature
games, card games, physical games (sports), movies, books, TV shows--the
list goes on. If there's one final goal of this column I'd like to
state, it's that I hope to distill some of the morass of choices and
leave you each month with a few hand-selected goodies that are virtually
guaranteed to deliver. Let's face it, we don't have time to play cruddy
games, do we?
So, without further ado or fanfare, I bring you installment numero uno:
Though most columns will be narrower in scope, for this first column
we'll broadly explore the mechanics of a whole class of game that's been
gaining more and more momentum in North America each year: the
"German-style" is an odd moniker, but it is the one used most
consistently to describe the raging market of European board and card
games that are now raging in the United States as well. Many (but
not all) of the games are designed and printed in Germany, which gives
rise to the name (duh).
In the last few years, these games have achieved significant penetration
into the North American market thanks to importers such as Rio Grande
Games, Mayfair Games, Fantasy Flight Games, and more. If you graphed
the number of "German-style" games that have been sold in the US in the
past eight years, it would probably resemble a stock-price history chart of
While none can deny the rising popularity of the German-style games
on this side of the pond, they are a curious class of game because they
have achieved a fairly strong reputation that results in oft-polarized
views about them. Many people quite simply categorically like or
dislike them, and the straightforward comments "I love German-style
games!" or "I hate German-style games!" is something you can pick up at
pretty much any convention. As a game-fanatic and a game designer, I
find this fact puzzling, because when it comes down to it, there is
nearly as much variety among German-style games as there is among any
other stereotyped class of game. But deserving or not, the
"German-style" category has defined itself, just like "wargames" or
"party games" or "LARPs".
However, in the spirit of this column, I'd like to break down what
exactly makes up this German-style stereotype, and discuss why this
class of game has taken on its own identity that either resonates or
irritates, depending on the consumer. For those of you who don't know a
German-style game from a Wal-Mart game, this will serve as a
round-about intro of sorts. For those of you who already know of the
German-game phenomenon (and likely already feel strongly one way or
another about them), this column will hopefully provoke some more
thought about the category of game and what you've found you like or
dislike about it, besides just the name.
As I mentioned earlier, there is as much variety in German-style games
as there is in any other category one can go about stereotyping: race,
sex, profession, movie genre, etc. But, the term German-style does
serve a purpose, namely to describe games that mostly feature the
following mechanics and qualities:
Typical Properties of a German Game
1) High production values both in layout and materials
This one can't be downplayed or underestimated. German games typically
have fabulous production values. The chipboard is thick and textured,
the playing cards are first-rate, the pieces quite often wooden. I've
met more than one German game enthusiast who started playing the games
based on materials alone, and only then discovered the games were
actually fun! Aesthetics add to a play experience, and the consistent
coupling of great art with quality materials really distinguishes the
The reason such high quality printing and manufacturing can be used is
because, quite often, the games are not "niche". Boardgaming in Germany
does not have a stigma about it like the hobby does in North America.
It's a family pastime, suitable for kids on up to grandparents.
Errr...the same is true in any country, I should say, but in Germany it
is accepted as a family hobby.
At the end of the day, higher print runs means lower per unit cost.
That means a game can feature nice materials and still be at a
reasonable price-point where consumers will consume it!
2) Relatively short play time (90 minutes max)
German-style games are session games. A group of family or friends can
sit down and fit a few games in during the course of the evening. No
blowout 12-hour gaming days required.
In fact, German-style games are often subclassified based on playing
time and complexity. A light game that plays in 30 minutes or less is
an "appetizer", "appertif", or "filler". A heavier game with a play
time of 45 Ð 90 minutes is a "feature". Any gaming evening can be
broken down into one or more filler games and one or two feature games.
3) Unobjectionable themes
As pointed out above, gaming in Germany is a family activity.
Objectionable themes are rare.
4) High player interaction
Sitting around a table with other people is hard to top in terms of pure
possible interaction. German-style games capitalize on this and
typically encourage significant player interaction. Said
interaction sometimes puts the players in opposition, sometimes in cooperation.
5) No Direct Combat or War
For cultural reasons, German games almost never feature direct combat,
and especially don't feature outright war. There is often direct player
interaction in opposition (see #4 above), but that rarely takes the form
of outright combat. Euphemisms for combat abound: "struggles for
influence", "achieving Victory Points" (for defeating opponents), and
6) Low player downtime
German-style games typically have either very little down-time between
turns, or mechanisms by which players are constantly involved even during
their opponents' turns. For example, in Settlers of Catan, you can
with other players during your turn. In Puerto Rico, players take
choosing roles (e.g. Mayor, Trader) but every player gets to perform an
action after that role is chosen. And in Medici, each player's turn
consists of offering a set of goods up for an auction in which all players
may bid. Keeping all players involved keeps the table energy high, and
helps prevent "unengaged gamers" from wandering off.
7) All players
survive until end
There's no quicker way to kill a player's enjoyment than to dump
him out of a game entirely while everyone else is still having a raucous
time. German-style games are usually built around a Victory Point
tracker, or a similar mechanic wherein the player with the highest score
at the end of the game wins. While you need to outwit, outplay, and
outluck your opponents, there are few cases where a player's game
experience will end before the others.
Additionally, many of the better games are balanced to ensure that all
players are in striking range of winning throughout the whole game.
This keeps the players engaged, and the tension in the game high.
Finally, the one quality of German-style games that provokes the most
ire (and can probably be most debated):
8) Mechanics over Theme
Many would argue, myself included, that German-style games feature
mechanics over theme. However, this is a subject of a future column and
won't be elaborated here. This flippant comment is not meant to say
German-style games don't have fabulous, well-integrated themes. Many
do. However, ultimately, the true German-style artisan game is a
masterpiece of gameplay, which is not always dependent upon theme.
Mechanics preempting theme is The Biggest ReasonTM why many people
have developed a fierce dislike of German-style games. Abstraction
offends, sometimes, despite the fact that all games are basically
abstractions (especially if the game is high in theme!).
The Long-windedness Aireth Out
So what does all this blabber mean? Well, that depends on you! As I
stated in the intro to this new column, the primary purpose of it is to
deconstruct games (sometimes individual games, but in this case a whole
class of game) and see what the shiny bits inside look like.
If there's one other thing I'd like you to take out of today's column,
it's that the class "German-style game" is just like any other game: it
should be judged by the properties and mechanics that make it up, and
not by its name alone. If you don't like the eight properties I've
listed above, then it follows that German-style games aren't your bag,
baby! On the other hand, if you like the idea of short-duration,
high-interaction, bloodless games with quality components--by all means
give some games a go, and don't worry about the whole
pro-German-style/anti-German-style arguments. Labels are just labels.
Play games that are fun to you; that's the goal at the end of the day,
A small list of German-style games I can easily recommend:
There are many more, but the above will put you in good stead.
- Carcassonne (filler or feature)
- Lost Cities (filler)
- Puerto Rico (feature)
- Medici (feature)
- Settlers of Catan (the deserving Ambassador of all German-style games) (feature)
- Bohnanza (filler or feature)
- Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (filler)
- Tigris and Euphrates (feature)
That's it for this first installment. Now go out there and game like you mean it!
Tyler Sigman is a freelance game designer and author, with work
published by Eden Studios, Alien-Menace Games, Sphinx Spieleverlag,
Wingnut Games, and more. In addition, he is a full-time Game Designer at
Backbone Entertainment (formerly Digital Eclipse) in Vancouver. He
invites your comments to parts (at) ogrecave (dot) com.