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Designer Games 101

The board games and card games also known as German games or Euro-games

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Settlers of Catan Box Cover

Settlers of Catan

Image courtesy of Mayfair Games

If you spend much time browsing board game web sites, you're likely to notice that a lot of serious gamers have fallen in love with "designer games," also referred to as German games or Euro-games.

So... what is a designer board game?

Glad you asked.

The Settlers of Catan, originally published in Germany in 1995 and then translated to English and imported to the United States by Mayfair Games, is the game that introduced many English-speaking gamers to the world of designer games.

Settlers includes many of the elements that mark the best of the genre: relatively simple rules, deep strategy, excellent replay value, and appeal to both hardcore gamers and casual gamers.

Obviously, not every designer game is going to succeed on every level -- or with every player. There are many who love the work of game designer Reiner Knizia, for example; others might find his work too dry and prefer games with a more developed theme.

It's worth noting that while these games are often referred to as "German games" or "German-style games" -- properly noting a strong relationship to the country of Germany -- such a reference doesn't necessarily mean that a game was designed by a German. Alan R. Moon is an American who designs German-style games, such as Ticket to Ride and Elfenland. And Sid Sackson's classic Acquire fits comfortably into a discussion of such games.

For English-speaking gamers, the company that has done the most to make designer games widely available is Rio Grande Games. Company head Jay Tummelson has a passion for gaming, and his tireless efforts to import the best German games deserve special notice.

If you're completely unfamiliar with designer games, it may take some time before you start to understand why these games have caught on with so many players. But if you make even a minimal effort to learn about them, I can almost guarantee that your gaming life (and, thus, time spent with family and friends) will be much richer. (Of course, your wallet might be much poorer depending how many games you buy, but that's another story...)

To help get you started, here are my picks for the best introductory designer games.

I asked some dedicated gamers what it is they like about designer games. Here are a few of their responses:

Richard Irving: "German games represent a throwback to older boardgames, like 3M's series of games or some of the better Parker Brothers classics of the past. They also represent a middle ground containing what is missing in many American game genres over the last 20 years or so: Games that are easy to teach to people of all ages, but also have enough strategy to interest adults.

"German games don't require a large investment of time, money, or a deep interest in the subject like wargames, RPGs, miniatures and CCGs often do. You might pay $50 or more for a German game, but the game will be more or less complete and have nice components: wood or plastic pieces, nice artwork, etc. At the same price range in a wargame, you get cardboard counters. In RPGs, CCGs and minis, you are barely at the basic level of acquistion.

"Of course, like potato chips, you can't get just one!"

Ben Baldanza: "The features common to most 'German-style' games that seem to attract all (including newcomers) are:

  • "Interaction: You play the people as well as the game.
  • "Interest: The designs keep you interested even when it's not your turn.
  • "Consequence: Often moves early in the game have large consequences for your position later in the game.
  • "Timing: Most can be played in 60-90 minutes, making tham a reasonable 'after dinner' type event.

"Obviously with the wealth of games out there you can find exceptions to everything. But I think that these four characteristics are what set 'German-style' games apart from their party or puerile cousins in the U.S."

Joe Huber: "German games are really those games meant to be sold to German families. Certainly there are many aimed at the most serious gamer, commonly referred to as a Spielfreak (or Spielfriek), but the bulk of the games produced are meant to be enjoyed by older children and adults alike. As such, they tend to have a few common characteristics:

  • "Short length (rarely over ninety minutes, and sometimes as short as ten).
  • "Fast play (many utilize simultaneous play, but even among those that do not 'dead time' between turns is minimized).
  • "An abstract game mechanism with a theme pasted over them.
  • "Significant opportunities for strategy interlaced with carefully controlled luck elements.
  • "Easily explained rules.
  • "Appealing components (tokens, board, etc.).
  • "The ability to handle three to five players.

"Having grown up with wargames, Dungeons & Dragons, and the odd 3M game, I find that the theme tends to be important for me -- not what the theme is, so much, as how well the theme is tied to the mechanics. When the two don't match, I don't tend to enjoy the game as much -- even though when they do match it's far from being a simulation."

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