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Parts Is Parts - December '04
by Tyler Sigman

Parts Is Parts:
The Nuts and Bolts of Games

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 of star players, sometimes the pieces just don't "click" together and make a good whole.

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: "Spiel Freak-Out!"

Spiel Freak-Out!

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" game.

"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 Microsoft.

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 German-style genre.

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 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 the like.

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 trade with other players during your turn. In Puerto Rico, players take turns 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, anyway.

A small list of German-style games I can easily recommend:

  • 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)
There are many more, but the above will put you in good stead.

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.


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