Board Games

Designed Systems or: why I choose to play Eurogames

Have you ever found something but weren’t quite sure what was the purpose of that thing? You sat there slightly perplexed by the nature of this object and its place in our ever-confusing, ever-expanding world. You end up getting flustered before exclaiming, “What does this thing do?!”

This nature of inquisitiveness and the information you receive in response contributes to my overall love of Eurogames. What is a Euro? A Euro is a designer board game that is usually German in style. They are low conflict games that have an abstraction of mechanics from the theme. Some naysayers of the genre state that it usually ends up being “multiplayer solitaire.” A fair assessment because most eurogames play out as follows:

Each player makes moves that help advance their board or engine before wandering off into thought while the rest of the players take their turns. The mechanics of the game make your turn have little to no impact on your opponent. Sometimes you get to nudge their cubes slightly, or maybe you get to perturb a player’s go marginally. Yet there is nothing in these games that has teeth. Once you meet an arbitrary end-condition, you tally up your scores (usually in victory points), and then you announce the winner. Then all the players remark on how they enjoyed taking their turns but really could’ve gone without the other players taking up precious time with their analysis.

Food Chain Magnate in action

Take the lauded game Food Chain Magnate, for example. The game gives you the tools to completely dismantle and dispatch your opponents if you make savvy business decisions. The game has no safety features and will be more than happy to ruin a player’s chances at victory. Each game has a swerving landscape as players parry, dip, and dive out of the way of each other. The focus of the game’s system is on the other players. The players are the main board game component with which you are concerned.

With Euros, the board contains everything of interest to the players. Even in Euros with player interaction, you still tend to see other players in the lens of, “Look at this annoying gnat. Get out of here!” There is a set of actions or a map or something on the board in which you are engrossing yourself while simultaneously shutting everything else out. The hyperfocus on elements of a puzzle is what draws me to these types of games: Designed Systems (roll title).

A system, according to Wikipedia, is a group of interacting or interrelated entities that form a unified whole. Some of the more complex systems out there include public utility infrastructure, your brain, and traffic. All of these things have factors that affect the overall “health” of the system. It takes a lot of study and research to fully understand systems, like international trade or even your computer.

My interest in computation reaches an intersection with my love of board games. One of the first things you learn in school for Computer Science is what is known as a logic system. Logic systems are a type of formal system which has statements, or axioms, that you can use to deduce theories from specific rules. While logic systems are utilized mostly in mathematics, it also has broad applications in computing.

Example of a Logic System

Logic systems help me do my day to day job and debug programs. Let’s say I have the axioms: A server can have two connections, a connection can have up to two servers, there is at least one connection. Using the rules of the system, I can, therefore, write out very dry logic proofs that help prove statements like “A connection cannot have 0 servers.” While this is self-evident since it violates the established ruleset, other systems aren’t so apparent. That is where we can take this idea and run with it. If I am trying to design a piece of code that will mimic stock market trends, I would need to have an understanding of the axioms and rules in which the stock market operates. Then I could start to develop theories by studying and understanding the underlying behavior of the system.

What is a designed system? A designed system is also known as a human-made system. Human-made systems include things like board games, IT infrastructure for a company, and logic engines in code. Herein lies the intricacies in board game design and beyond with something known as system design. While a typically designed system might have some set of requirements in mind, a designer board game has the objective of entertaining the players playing it. There aren’t many other details beyond that. Boardgame designers have to consider things like inputs, outputs, the flow of data, the flow of the game, when to end the game, balancing of rules, and much more.

Board games exist at an intersection between art and pure logic. This marriage of two separate schools of thought causes mind-tickling products. Have you ever heard the phrase “art imitates life?” Boardgame designers have time and time again taken inspiration by the naturally occurring systems that exist in the “wild.” The classic Eurogame Power Grid has players vying for control over generators and power lines in America and Europe. Are these players supplying power to anything besides their ego? Of course not! The abstraction of game pieces and rules to the actual concept ensures this. But there is the stipulation that immersion isn’t necessary to have players engaged in the logic system that is defined.

Understanding a system is something known as system dynamics. System dynamics is the study of nonlinear behavior of complex systems using tools like stocks and flows. I like to imagine this part as professional engineers broadly inquiring, “What do you think would happen if I did this?” This field of study is pivotal in gaining knowledge of naturally occurring systems like traffic flows. While this is a gross simplification, I hope the concept that there is a whole field based on learning and understanding these complex systems comes across.

Boardgame designers make a living on bringing to life these playgrounds of rules. Imagine you are tasked with designing a system. It has to be teachable, you have to be able to quantify specific actions in the game, and it must be complex enough to retain players’ attention but not too complex to cause players to avoid it. The decisions that a player can make must be made apparent, and their inputs and outputs must be precise. In A Feast for Odin by Uwe Rosenburg, I can take action fully aware of what I am paying for said action (let’s say a reed and an ear of wheat) and what I am expecting to receive in response (a nice shirt). All of the possibilities that players need to be aware of is known as the decision space.

Small “functions” have to contribute to an overall goal that feels tied to the actions. Most importantly, the decisions that each player makes must be gratifying! Boardgame designers have to cater an experience but allow a plethora of options within the decision space that they create. If a game feels unbalanced, you are less likely to play it. If you think that the game doesn’t offer enough meaningful decisions for the player, that is a death blow to any board game. If the scoring does not make sense alongside the decision space, then players do not have a clear understanding of what actions are necessary on their path to victory.

Pipeline – A Euro about exploding your wallet

Eurogames, I feel, are the most intricate and exciting board games out there from a design perspective because there is little to no player interaction. A quick look at human history will show you that it is easy to create conflict. Boardgame designers can shoehorn conflict into a game without much regard for game balance. They give players the ability to moderate the collective experience instead of having their system be innately balanced. The nature of eurogames is, instead, non-reliant on people. The fluctuation of human behavior often causes wacky scenarios in games of conflict. These are where you get some gripes about unbalanced elements that contribute to situations like the kingmaker scenario. For the uninformed, kingmaking is where a player having no chance to win can influence the winner. Where there is no conflict, games offer a comforting absolute on what you can expect as you execute your grand strategy.

A game that recently reminded me of why I love Euros was Vital Lacerda’s The Gallerist. The Gallerist still has a pasted-on theme like most Euros, but at least the theme is compelling. You play as an Art Curator for a museum that promotes the artists from which you commission work. This theme is a breath of fresh air in contrast to the “German Dream,” which seems to be to have a farm in a rolling hillside with some sheep and maybe a cow.

The Gallerist took about 30 minutes to set up on my Kitchen table. Then it took me another hour or so to get a grasp of the rules. For the next two days, I played a solo game of the Gallerist. I would sit down, make a move or two, and then get up and go about my day. I had a lot of time to digest the game, study it as it sat on my table, and feel the momentum of the game as I made my moves. It was completely engrossing. When I would stop and admire the game set up on my table, it would draw me into sitting down and taking one or two more moves. The mechanics are teasing and encourage you to chain together a cohesive tactic.

Mmmm yummy tail

Have you ever seen an ouroboros? They are the snakes that are pictured eating their tail. The best way I could explain decision-making in The Gallerist is by referring to it. Every action that you take feeds into the next one. Every step also has additional elements that allow separate streams of strategy to flow concurrently. At one time, I want to take the same action I took the last turn, do a completely different action, and gain more money to spend. The system inside of The Gallerist allows a player to accomplish all three of those goals within one move. Then all of the benefits I get from those actions feed into the next step I want to take.

My natural tendency to identify what I want as an agent experiencing a system drives the gameplay in The Gallerist. If I want money, I start to identify what gives me money. I realize a lot of these are unrelated to the purpose of the action or requires a certain amount of prerequisites. I then start to form an overall series of actions I need to take in addition to what I need to spend to get there while hitting points of interest along the way. Once the rules are explained, it is all strategy and absorption. Players get lost in the sea of optimizations and actions while the other players fade into the background.

Some people overlook how important it is to create a specific “tempo” in the decision space. When players realize how many actions it takes to accomplish particular tasks, it can increase the perceived monotony of playing a game. If it is too fast, then players feel like they haven’t done anything to deserve the progress they have earned in the game. The real skill of designers allows them to breathe life into a game by tweaking the tempo. They can, from nothing, establish a system with flowing gameplay that rewards the intelligent mind that plays them. The tempo in The Gallerist felt slow but steady enough where you could feel the energy of each action building up to a climax.

Here is the stop where I usually become enamored and obsessed. When I play a Eurogame or a game with a genuinely engaging system, I immediately want to play it again because my brain has had time to observe it and adapt to the style of thinking that the designer intended. When I finished The Gallerist, I didn’t want to pack it up and take it off the table. As I said, it reminded me why I love Eurogames. I got completely and utterly lost in its wonderful cardboard bits.

Terraforming Mars is no stranger to iconography

When explaining what makes a game “fun,” it is difficult to define what exact mix of elements contributes to an enjoyable experience. When games get dense with rulesets and iconography, it becomes even more taxing to elaborate the level of care and shine that is apparent once you’ve played. However, it is a lot easier for me to say that I love systems.

Some people might cite the mechanics, other players, or the pieces of the game that contribute to its overall perceived value. For myself, give me the rulebook and show me how the parts combine to build an engine. The engine is what makes me excited. The system is what will keep my gaming love alive. The craftsmanship is what gets me excited about a new designer or game. It is akin to a watchmaker meticulously setting down gears and other elements as they snugly fit one another. If any piece of the system is weak or fails, the rest of it ceases to function beyond that. The skill, forethought, and ingenuity of designers allow seamless execution of vibrant designs.

I don’t need to rely on other players to understand the underlying mechanics of games like The Gallerist. The logic-minded part of my brain wants to ingest the axioms and rules. Once properly digested, I then can start making my theorems of explosive growth and expansion. Eurogames are the games for me. They scratch that logic puzzle itch. When I play board games with others, I don’t look at it as an opportunity to prove my supremacy in whatever game that I am playing. I look at it as an opportunity to show them a shared ruleset that is the foundation for an engaging, tricky, or inspiring system. It is a chance for my friends and I to get lost in the clockwork.

Get in touch:

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply