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Guide to Gaming: Ameritrash vs. Eurostyle–What’s the Difference?

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When you enter the world of hobby board gaming, even for a quick visit, you will hear about a few different styles of board games. And of course they are referred to by names that don’t mean anything unless you already know what they mean.

The styles and names I’m referring to are these: Ameritrash, Eurostyle/Eurogame, with the third option being Mass Market. The styles often collide and intermix, but knowing which type of game you like and what to expect from each type of game can help narrow down the choices when you’re looking to try or buy a new game. The following descriptions are generalizations to help you get a feel for what each term means; by no means are any of these hard-and-fast rules, and there are many games that either break out of the normal mold or combine elements of both  Euro and American styles of gameplay.

Mass Market

Let’s just get this one over with. These are the games that most people have heard of–Sorry, Monopoly, Clue, Life. You’ll also find an extensive surplus of trivia games, especially games targeted toward a specific popular TV show, movie, or other major franchise.

“Mass Market” really refers more to the marketing of a game or where the game is sold than to the style of the game design itself. Mass Market games are the games available in your local department store. They are games that have a wide appeal and generally very easy rules. They are also the most recognizable, at least in America. They are called “Mass Market” because of the large production runs (at least compared to hobby games). Because Mass Market games have such large production runs, they can be sold cheaper and also require more copies to sell in order to be profitable. (This accounts for many of the rethemes as well as repackages of tried-and-true games.)

This category, while it has its exceptions, is generally looked down on in the hobby gaming arena. The reason for this is simple: these games have become known as thrown together quickly and cheaply and (often) as a simple money grab. The 50 million Monopoly rethemes? The 2 billion trivia games for every TV show on the face of the planet? These games don’t really need to exist, but they do because they make money. They’re cheap to produce, and they are tied to a recognizable artifact. People who love Star Wars are far more likely to buy “Star Wars: The Trivia Game” than “Twilight Imperium” simply because they don’t recognize the latter. Games like this are often bought as novelty gifts (I’ve received my fair share of Star Trek games from Target shelves).

Part of the reason why these games are so cheap is that so little thought has to be put into them. It isn’t difficult to design a sequential path that you move along by rolling dice or drawing a card. Trivia games are easy to produce–you can crank out trivia questions pretty quickly, and throw together something that vaguely resembles a competitive experience. If you’ve ever played a trivia game against someone who actually knows the trivia, you might have realized how unfun many trivia games can be.

This category of game fills the public eye when it comes to board games. This is the image people get when they think of board games–dull children’s games, excessive trivia games, and rethemes of Monopoly.

Many party games also fall into this category, although there are some party games available in the mass market that are enjoyable to play. Of course, there are plenty of bad party games that fall under “made cheaply and quickly for a fast buck” category.

The line gets a little blurred when you start talking about playing cards, or classic games that have stood the test of time like Chess or Checkers. There are plenty of excellent games you can play with cards, and Chess has stood the test of time for reason. And it’s true that as more outlets (like Target and Barnes & Noble) begin to carry hobby games, these games may reach the “Mass Market” crowd. But in general, most Mass Market games simply don’t appeal to the modern gamer, don’t provide as good a family experience as they could, or are just plain poorly designed.

Ameritrash/Thematic

I prefer the term “thematic” for this style of game–I think “Ameritrash” has a negative connotation, especially if you don’t know what it refers to. However, you will see that term used, so I’m using it here so you’ll know what others are talking about.

Ameritrash games tend to focus on capturing a theme–such as building an epic space empire, fighting off a horde of zombies, or dueling in an underground maze with spells and magical weapons. There are a whole variety of themes that might be portrayed in a game, but probably the two most popular nowadays are space and zombies.

Zombies and dice (from Last Night on Earth)

Since the focus is on attempting to capture the feel of the theme, these games tend to skew a little more complex than their Euro brethren. This isn’t always necessarily true–there are plenty of simple and easy to learn but very thematic games. Rules are generally written to allow for a variety of options to allow players to feel like they can act out the scenarios of the game as they choose.

Often (though not always) Ameritrash games feature player interaction through combat. In addition, often (but again, not always) there are dice or other luck elements involved to add uncertainty.

Ameritrash games often feature tactical scenarios, where the positioning of your tokens on the board is important, and there are rules for movement and engaging with the environment and/or your opponents.

These games often give players unique powers (these are often called “asymmetrical” because players start on an uneven playing field with different advantages), as the players represent a specific race or individual within the game world. Often the rulebook and cards feature colorful descriptions to add to the detail and flavor of the world being portrayed. They often include plastic miniatures with a more detailed depiction of characters, instead of the more generic meeples or cubes.

Few games are as thematic and complex as Twilight Imperium.

Though some may disagree, I would consider Wargames and Miniatures games as substyles of Ameritrash. These games feature detailed and complex rules to reenact battles with detailed and colorful units.

Fans of Ameritrash games love the cool themes, the highly interactive nature of the games, and the immersive experience. These games tell stories as the game unfolds, stories which are often repeated and remembered for a very long time.

Those who dislike Ameritrash games claim that they are generally clumsy, overcomplicated, and take too much time to play.

Examples of Ameritrash games: Twilight Imperium, Last Night on Earth, Battlestar Galactica, Cosmic Encounter

Eurostyle/Eurogame

Euro games are, I believe, what sparked the resurgence of board game popularity as an adult hobby. Settlers of Catan exploded onto the scene in 1995 and quickly spread around the world and grew in popularity.  It showed people that board games could actually be fun, challenging, strategic–and yet still easy enough for families and non-hardcore gamers to learn and play. Not that Settlers was the first, but many games that came before were pretty hardcore or just too geeky for the general population to accept.

Eurostyle games focus on creating tight mechanics that function like a well-oiled machine. These mechanics are usually within a small, self-contained system, and are generally simpler and easier to learn. (There are a few pretty complex Euro games out there, but again, these are just generalities.)

High luck elements, such as dice rolls, are often completely cut out. When dice or other chance elements are brought in, they are often used in a unique way that circumvents the “roll high and win, roll low and lose” nature of many dice games, emphasizing public information and player choice.

Many Euro games are focused on economics: attempting to earn the most money or build a village/city/empire with the greatest efficiency. With a focus on tight and simpler rules, the themes of these games are often thinner–the mechanics don’t necessarily evoke the theme, or come close to any sort of simulation. The theme is simply used to bring context to your actions.

Player interaction is often limited and more peaceful than direct conflict or confrontation. In many cases, the only true interaction is when a player deprives an action or special ability from other players. Otherwise players are focusing on building the most efficient systems to reach the endgame with more points than the other players, rather than actively lashing out to hinder their opponents.

Euro games usually feature more abstract components like wooden cubes and meeples (or other wooden tokens in basic silhouette shapes) instead of detailed miniatures. Euro games usually feature more abstract goals or scoring systems as well, relying on the ubiquitous “victory points” (or sometimes “victory points” by another name).

Euro games tend to place players on equal footing at the start of the game and provide branching paths for players to gain additional abilities of their choice. Euro games work hard at achieving balance, usually giving each player equal access and opportunity to the strategies of the game.

Fans of Euro games tend to prefer the simpler, cohesive rules systems that allow strategic choices without having to remember a large chunk of rules. They like the challenge of creating efficient systems within each mechanical environment.

Those who dislike Euro games claim that they are dry and uninteresting without relevant themes and that mechanics between different games are  too similar and don’t really provide that much of a unique gaming experience.

Examples of Euro games: Settlers of Catan, Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Puerto Rico

Conclusion

Remember, this is a guide to help you understand these terms that are often thrown around in gaming conversations. There are a huge variety of games out there, and many of them combine elements of both Euro and Ameritrash styles. It can be helpful to know which type you prefer, as it makes it easier to judge whether or not a game is worth spending your money on, but you should never judge a game by whether it claims to be Euro or Ameritrash style. Both categories have great games; both have quality fans and die-hard defenders; and both, of course, have their share of lunatics and shoddy products. Ultimately, you should play the games that you enjoy the most, regardless of what other people say you should and shouldn’t like.

Also keep in mind the differences between these two popular styles, and the Mass Market category. Not that every Mass Market game is inherently bad, and more and more hobby games are showing up in big-box stores like Target (generally the preserve of the Mass Market). However, there are an inordinate amount of bad products and game experiences that distinctly lack fun. If you enjoy board games and start telling other people about it, expect that people will assume you mean Mass Market games.

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion26 Comments

  1. davidbreslin101

    Crystal-clear analysis. I realise now I’m less familiar with the American/thematic style than the Eurogame style, which I got into via classic strategy games like chess and 9 Men’s Morris. (Eurogames turned out to be more fun than those to play with a mixed-experience group of friends.) “Ameritrash” games sound almost like an intermediate stage leading up to the never-gonna-find-the-time-for-that world of tabletop RPGs and wargaming.

  2. I loved your article. I believe there might be a typo in the 5th paragraph of the Eurogame section. I believe the word deprives is supposed to be derives. It seems to make more sense that way.

    Ken

    • Thanks for your suggestion – but I did actually intend to use the word “deprive” – the thought is, if we’re playing, say, puerto rico, players don’t directly compete with each other. However, if I want to take the Governor role and someone else grabs it first, they are depriving me of that action, which is pretty much the only direct interaction in the game.

  3. I will say I have mainly played war games and American style games but I have more recently broaden my game play to include Euro games. I do find several things I like about them, but my gaming groups find it hard to go back to them. Except ones like Catan were we have played a few more times. I think what is missing is at times a level of theme you can get into or interaction with others. I would compare it to perhaps playing golf. I like playing golf were you can play your best game or worse game and then match your score with the other player. Not to say all Euro games are like that just in some ways that the way they make me feel. We played Puerto Rico a while back and besides who won the game none of us could point to a moment in the game. No one could say “remember when so and so did this.” Where as even in a game that is dreaded dice rolling that I will agree had to much to do with dice chucking luck we could at least remember how we laughed or had fun with how the dice turned up.

    • There are more and more games these days that attempt to bridge the gap – trying to nail down the solid, streamlined mechanisms of Euros with theme and interaction of ameritrash. I recommend checking out Eclipse as an epic space game with euro economics, but plenty of civ-building, expansion, and combat. Hyperborea is a brand new game from Asmodee that has some brilliant euro-style mechanisms but pits players in direct conflict and competition, and I highly recommend checking it out.

  4. i’d be interested in learning (perhaps via a follow-up article?) about the origins of the term “Ameritrash” (as opposed to “thematic,” which (to me) seems a better fit). i find it disturbing that hobby gamers, who tend (in my experience) to be rather cerebral people, acknowledged that moniker enough to let it catch on long-term (but here we are, and there it is).

  5. Great job on this article. If I might only suggest one thing in a future revision of this – I might suggest that you go from mass-market to euro as it chronologically helps the reader learn why the names are what they are. Other than that, I loved the article and recall my own learning of these terms and why some felt they were not complimentary while others embraced them. Thanks!!

    • It’s true I don’t like the term, but this post is not intended as an argument for its use. It’s intended to be an informative post to help people understand what it means when they encounter that term.

      And the unfortunate truth is, that term is out there. I can’t change that single-handedly. People will encounter that term, and this guide will help them understand what it means, and hopefully encourage them to avoid using the term.

    • These styles of long, involved, heavy, thematic, fiddly, adventure games are right in my wheelhouse and what I prefer to play. I use the term Ameritrash to describe them all the time. And I lovingly embrace the label. I really don’t see what’s offensive about it all.

  6. I like the article, but I’m not warming up to the term ‘Ameritrash’. It implies that American games are somehow inferior to Eurostyle in terms of game play, quality, etc. I have numerous of them and Eurostyle games. They are all challenging and entertaining. I agree with the poster above. ‘Thematic’ is a better descriptive term. ‘Ameritrash’ sounds elitist and derogatory.

      • American games almost always contain metric tons (sorry, cubic football field sizes) of markers, minis (god they love having minis in everything), tokens, cards etc. For the “increased production value”, theme (rightly so), or other secret reason that is incomprehensible to us Europeans.

        As an example – say hello to my little friend: https://cf.geekdo-images.com/images/pic3281351.jpg (that small thing in the middle is the board, as in “board game”)

        There always was a joke that in euros “whoever has more points at the end wins” and in american ones “whoever has most plastic at the end wins”.

        I always thought that is the source of the name, not to be derogatory to american games design (as many of them are loved here exactly for theme & complexity), but as a derogatory comment about amount of pieces that are included in them.

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  8. Great article, hate the phrase “ameritrash” though. Using any form of the word “trash” to describe games like Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness is terrible, since these are terrific games and have a huge base of players.

  9. Ameritrash is actually not elitist or derogatory to the so-called Thematic games. It’s a jab at the elitist Eurogamer genre whose players tend to be elitist and look down on “Ameritrash.”

    Anyway I disagree with this category system, simply because it’s totally inadequate.

    Most people seem to think that there’s a dichotomy in playable games (Mass Market is not really for serious boardgames as the author states) and games are either Ameritrash or Eurogame.

    And this is completely wrong. Aside from Wargames totally being a separate genre from Ameritrash, there’s at least one other category — Party Games. Games like Dixit, The Resistance, Codenames, Bloodbound, Deception, these are neither Eurogame nor Ameritrash, and they aren’t exactly Mass Market games either.

    These games tend to have simple rules and components, and focus more on social interactions as mechanics rather than Theme or Gameplay Mechanics the way Ameritrash and Eurogames do.

    • Hey there, thanks for your comment. This article is a few years old now, and you’re probably right – it could use some updating.

      At the time this article was written, “Ameritrash” and “Eurostyle” were the two most prominent style categories of games, and this was an attempt to clearly differentiate them. Wargame felt somewhat self-explanatory, and so I didn’t feel the need to delve into it as much as the other two terms. Mass-market felt worth mentioning at the time to provide some context to a reader who might not be as immersed in the hobby gaming world.

      I think you’re right about the party game category. It’s just that when the original article was written, almost none of these games existed, so this genre of “hobby party games” hardly warranted its own category. Most party games at the time fell into the realm of trivia or word-guessing games like Catch Phrase, which easily landed in the mass-market category.

      Nowadays, I would probably mention a few more categories. At the very least I’d add some sort of “family game” category – those modern hobby games with simple rules that are good for families but still have a sense of strategy and control, not just luck of the draw or dice. These aren’t quite mechanically complex as the “euro” style, nor are they as thematically involved as the “ameritrash” style of gaming.

  10. Great Article. Would you say pure card games such as MTG, Star Realms,Love Letter etc are a category of their own?

  11. Great overview, thank you! I watch shows like Dice Tower and Tabletop and they use these terms all the time, but I had no idea what they meant. Now I know I am clearly a fan of Ameritrash! I like thematic games where unexpected things can happen, like Eldritch Horror and Zombicide. Euro games like Terraforming Mars are fun for a play or two, but nothing unexpected ever happens. You spend your money, you place your tiles, you gain your resources.

    Now that I know these terms it will make it a lot easier for me to find the games I like!

  12. I disagree. I find most Euros to be overly complex in terms of rules and mechanics and boring. I prefer Thematic. In my experience the rules and mechanics are more straightforward.

    • I really need to update this post, apparently.

      I think there has been a proliferation of “heavy” Euros in the last few years with more complex rules. We’ve also seen a lot of hybrid “Eurotrash” games that attempt to merge the abstraction of Euros with the theme and conflict of “ameritrash.” Thematic game design has come leaps and bounds in the realm of cleaner, better rules that still capture the game’s universe and provide conflict.

      And there is another category of games I would add, a sort of family game / hobbyist mixture, wherein the games tend to be simpler with lighter rulebooks but still capture a theme and/or have plenty of player interaction. At some point everything becomes blurred, though.

  13. I have to admit I’d never heard of Catan before reading this – nor Euro, or Ameritrash, or “hobby games”. Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but if so my kids (in their 20’s and 30’s – and none of us are what would be considered conservative, old-lifestyle types) have as well.

    I’ve been trying to find board games I can play with them and have a single-player mode (because I live alone) that don’t take 4 hours to figure out – but it seems like every “modern” game has convoluted rules that bounce e around and no apparent “winner” goal (or end result – or something) – many appear open ended. The few I’ve bought have turned out to be so confusing that they’re all unplayed. “How to play” videos are apparently done by experienced players that use arcane language, unfamiliar terms and far too much “similar to…”language that doesn’t help those not familiar with any of the references.

    The extreme differences between “mass market” (I thought they were called “classic” – I guess that’s an obsolete term as well) and modern games have made it difficult for “new” buyers (like me) to do anything after “problem purchases” but bail out and revert to the “reviled” mass market games – which at least have clear rules and defined goals. It’s hard for those like me to understand what’s so bad about them when they make sense & modern ones don’t – or need a completely different context to understand. There’s not much help – questions regarding how to gradually move into modern games are usually met with one-word title replies or “you’re probably in the wrong era” type response – at best.

    It’d be nice to know where to start, especially since most of the modern games are not cheap. A very frustrating situation.

    • I’m sorry–that does sound frustrating, and it’s a good reminder that everyone has to start somewhere.

      Which modern games have you tried? Some games do have convoluted rules and open play, but many of them offer good decisions AND straightforward rules. However, many modern solitaire games have difficult rulebooks. It might be worth visiting a local games store (or a local meetup) to find someone who can teach you how to play. If you’re on Boardgamegeek.com, you can do a search for other gamers in your area and see if there’s a game night you could attend, or an Internet search might bring something up.

      I hope you find the community more open than you’ve found it so far, and again, I’m sorry for your frustration.

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