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Posted for posterity: Barnes' article on 'the game that ruined Eurogames'

Martin G
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Over the years I've gone back and read this Michael Barnes piece several times. I don't agree with everything, but I find a lot of it to be good and true and brilliantly expressed. It was a crying shame that his entire archive of Cracked LCD pieces disappeared from the interweb with GameShark's demise, there's a lot of great stuff in there. I just went to the trouble of dredging this particular piece up from the Web Archive, and I want to post it somewhere so that it's easily available.

Intro from Fortress:Ameritrash

Michael Barnes wrote:
It strikes me that this game, released in 2000, was kind of the turning point where the "German game" era sort of ended and the "Eurogame" era began...and all of the really great stuff that the European designers had been doing for like, 20 years prior was suddenly undone and Eurogames began their descent into a brown morass of over-designed, linear, and anti-interactive designs.

If you go back and play some of those pre-PRINCES Eurogames, it's kind of suprising how awesome a lot of European designs were...and it's no wonder that the games attracted a new international audience because they were damn good. And original too- there was much less artistic cannibalization than there is now.

But after PRINCES OF FLORENCE, it all turned into games that look and play like something designed exclusively for grumpy, boring old men. The aesthetics, format, and gameplay styles that PRINCES mainstreamed in the hobby wound up driving Eurogames to ruination.


Main article from GameShark

Michael Barnes wrote:
Throughout the 1990s, one of the single most significant events in hobby gaming was the emergence of a type of game originating chiefly from Germany that sort of challenged the concept of what a “hobby game” was or should be. These so-called “German games” from designers like Klaus Teuber, Wolfgang Kramer, and Reiner Knizia were notably simpler than the American examples of hobby games and were often characterized by streamlined gameplay, accessibility, and a more pronounced focus on simple mechanics over simulation or detail, although some had significant levels of theme and interactive elements were not yet shunned in favor of predictability and determinism. Of course, German designers and their European peers had been turning out such games for a more family-oriented market for decades and the German game invasion had more to do with international hobbyists’ increased awareness of these games- thanks largely to the internet- than with anything necessarily “new”.

But looking back to the pre-2000 era of the European board game it strikes me as something very significant that the kinds of games that those early “German games” represent is something dramatically different than the typical modern Eurogame. In fact, I would almost go far as to say that those games- even commonly recognized and widely played titles such as SETTLERS OF CATAN, TIGRIS & EUPHRATES, RA, BOHNANZA, and EL GRANDE- are a practically separate genre than what the modern Eurogame represents in games such as CAYLUS and AGRICOLA. The aesthetics, mechanics, and conceptual paradigms were so different just ten or fifteen years ago that it’s almost impossible to class some of these games alongside their modern antecedents. It’s particularly interesting to go back and play the older “German games” and see how those games had so much more flexibility, interaction, and variety than the rigid structures and processional gameplay of the modern Euro would ever allow. And they were a hell of a lot more fun, too.

So where then is the dividing line between the “German game” and the Eurogame? Is there a point at which the genre effectively split into two separate sets of identifiers? I believe there is, and I think that there is one game that is almost single-handedly responsible for ruining everything great and truly exciting that the “German game” brought to the hobby. There is one game that is a manifestation of almost every single thing that went wrong with the idea of European board game design and lead future designers and publishers away from the fun, exciting, and accessible and toward the insular, esoteric, and rigid. That game is the 2000 Alea/Rio Grande Games release PRINCES OF FLORENCE, designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich.

The irony here is that Wolfgang Kramer had a varied and interesting career in the pre-Eurogame era, designing a lot of extremely good games like BIG BOSS, WILDLIFE ADVENTURE, MAGALON, and TOP SECRET SPIES. Even what is perhaps his most significant pre-2000 title, EL GRANDE, had more in common with RISK than PRINCES OF FLORENCE had with his earlier designs. But with PRINCES OF FLORENCE, Kramer and practically every party involved in the creation and publication of this game set certain precedents that in a very apparent way changed the aesthetic, conceptual, and mechanical direction of European game design, setting precedents that are still being influencing Eurogame designers today, and I think the game is responsible for the epidemic proliferation of the worst qualities of the genre.

Even looking at PRINCES OF FLORENCE I see how it set a certain standard for how the Eurogame should present itself visually. Games are a visual medium and our first impressions of them are inevitably based around aesthetics. Many modern Eurogames are dramatically, pathetically ugly and seem to be designed specifically to advertise the game’s most boring qualities in an attempt to appeal to boring old men. I can’t imagine anyone under the age of 40 looking at the box cover to most Eurogames today and being attracted to or interested in playing the game, regardless of how good it’s supposed to be.

Many Eurogame boxes feature a dour-looking old man scowling amid some dour-looking Renaissance or Medieval background, probably surveying the outcome of the player’s actions to determine who has impressed them the most or simply just scowling because they’re on such an ugly box. It’s almost a laughable cliché at this point, the “brown and darker brown” color palette of the Eurogame and the oh-so-important “olde worlde” fonts. Even in terms of game contents and components, the aesthetic approach of the Eurogame has become closer to a spreadsheet and sometimes it’s tough to determine if what you’re playing is a game or a flowchart. And lo and behold, the ancestry of this aesthetic approach is rooted squarely in the villa-grids of PRINCES OF FLORENCE. When I heckle Eurogames in a broad way, making fun of how they look so damn boring and brown, PRINCES OF FLORENCE is my reference point.

The format of the game, which is common among all of Alea’s “big box” games is similar to the Avalon Hill bookshelf games and there is a similar appeal to sophistication and a sense that the game is not one to be shelved along with your other board games, but rather to be put on a bookshelf alongside the works of Shakespeare, Plato, and Dante. And I think that really speaks to the overall tone of the game, which is one of dreadful seriousness (despite the presence of jesters) and an attitude that what you are doing by playing the game is not fun but very sophisticated as it is the pursuit of learned men.
It’s a long way from the look and feel of games where the back of the box shows kids throwing dice and cheering, which is likely anathema to most Eurogamers anyway. PRINCES OF FLORENCE seems to be one of the first Eurogames where this aura of self-important, faux-historical gameplay was really foregrounded, and in a way that seemed to put fun second to seriousness.

As far as gameplay goes, there’s practically nothing to cheer about at any point in the game as PRINCES OF FLORENCE really kind of set the stage for the cold, heartless, drama-less, and passionless gameplay that many Eurogames that followed have emulated to some degree or another. Players represent masters of Renaissance-era villas that are attempting to attract artists, scholars, and poets to their towns with various things that they demand and inspire them to produce great works. “Great works”, as you might have already guessed, are victory points. There is practically zero conflict in the game aside from an auction for finite resources and the game boils down to a very tightly controlled system with very limited but distinct decision points where the idea is to maximize each turn to produce one or more works every time and to increase the number of “wants” that you can fulfill for these abstracted artisans. It’s really an efficiency engine game in disguise like many Eurogames that have followed its example; don’t let all of that left-brain art talk fool you.

“Multiplayer solitaire” games had existed before PRINCES OF FLORENCE, but I think this was the game that kind of mainstreamed the idea and more significantly cemented the concept of a game where players have virtually no affect or influence on the holdings of other players in the minds of hobby gamers. This was the first game I can think of where all player interaction was reduced to a simple auction every turn.

After all, the game comes down to pure skill, which is all the better to prove your intellectual superiority, right?
The isolationism of developing an individual player board with no spatial or geographic relation or consequence with those of other players ensures that nasty things like actual conflict or competition won’t interfere with the best laid plans, so to speak. And that’s something that a lot of modern Eurogamers see today as a positive quality. It makes me wonder if something fairly aggressive like Kramer’s earlier EL GRANDE came out in today’s Eurogames market if it would be as popular as it was in the late 1990s.

Playing a game like EL GRANDE is a vastly different experience than PRINCES OF FLORENCE. EL GRANDE had process, yet it also allowed for a lot of flexibility and player engagement with mechanics to produce a volatile and fluid game structure. With PRINCES OF FLORENCE, the freedom of decisions is greatly reduced and the game practically becomes a challenge to see which players can best or most efficiently follow the rules with the occasional setback represented by a lost auction or the unavailability of an artist card. This concept is another that many Eurogamer designers really ran with, and I can’t help but think that if they had been more influenced by Mr. Kramer’s WILDLIFE ADVENTURE or DAYTONA 500 the Eurogame genre would be in much better shape today. At least those games- both simpler family games- had blocking and some sense that you have a variety of approaches and strategies to pursue instead of rigid paths and decision patterns.

The effect of all of these things that PRINCES OF FLORENCE sort of laid out as the Eurogamer Design Bible, I think, is that not only were the earlier qualities of German games suddenly forgotten, but also that all of the promises of the Euro as a simpler, more accessible, and more fun style of game were abandoned in favor of a hobbyist focus that was every bit as esoteric and inaccessible as American hobby games had been. PRINCES OF FLORENCE is not a complex game by hobby standards, but its concept is very different than what most people consider to be a “game” to the point where it is almost unrecognizable as a game by all but the enlightened and well-informed.

There is none of the usual movement, placement, or removal mechanics that most people associate with games. Even the card play element isn’t “normal” at all. It is vague, relatively theme-less, and the only traditional game element that would be recognized by most non-hobbyists is the simple TETRIS-like placement of varying shapes of buildings and landscape features into the villa grids. And strangely enough, that is one of the few concepts that weren’t brought forward by designers emulating the more discrete elements of the game.

The thing is, PRINCES OF FLORENCE as a design is pretty interesting overall, despite its accountability for the ruination of the Eurogame genre. For its time, it was innovative and it did change the way that games are played and offered new combinations of mechanical concepts that were unique. The problem is, the changes that PRINCES OF FLORENCE precipitated in terms of design approach, aesthetics, and format didn’t turn out to be for the better and I think that the great momentum that the German games had built up heading into the new millennium was completely waylaid, particularly as a rising internet community began adopting games like PRINCES OF FLORENCE as the flagship examples of the Eurogames genre. I think it was specifically the influence of this game that drove the Eurogame idea away from what it was and laid the groundwork for the success of grossly abstracted and processional games like PUERTO RICO and CAYLUS while steering the hobby toward a more “boutique game” focus.

So then, I’ve come to realize that the old German games like PRIMORDIAL SOUP, with its colorful, poo-eating amoebas or BARBAROSSA, a game where you stick plastic arrows into your friends’ awful clay sculptures, are really a different kind of game than PRINCES OF FLORENCE and its descendants. Reflecting on the past nine years of Eurogames, I’ve realized that I very much miss the idea of German games as it existed in the 1990s, before “Eurogame” meant 3-5 players silently contemplating player boards, occasionally raising a bid, and smugly grinning as they squeeze out an extra point or two from a particular play.

I miss those days when European games were a lot less brown — and when they were actually fun and exciting.
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