If you hear someone refer to something as a “Eurogame”, it most likely means that it is a multi-player strategy game with a peaceful theme, such as farming, building or trading. Conflict within the game will be indirect, with players competing for scarce resources rather than fighting or otherwise eliminating each other. It probably also includes meeples, or wooden cubes of different colours.
Eurogames do not necessarily have to have been created in Europe, they just have to be in the European style. Indeed, some people prefer to use the term “Euro-style,” or even (though less commonly these days) “German-style”.
Yes, Germany is the country that usually gets the credit for inventing this genre. The generation gap in Germany has long been smaller than in the UK and the USA, and family board game nights are much more common. And perhaps, after the horrors of World War II, German families were keen to raise their children in a way that promoted peaceful competition, rather than glorifying fighting, and this created an environment where trading games could flourish. I have heard that idea speculated, and I don’t know if it this is true or not, but to me, it seems likely, because just about everything that happened there in that era must have been influenced by the war one way or another.
For several decades, German families had their board game nights, quite happily, without anyone else in the world paying much attention. However, in the 1990s, as I have mentioned before, the German game Settlers of Catan became a huge hit all over the world, and lots of people noticed for the first time what was happening. The Eurogame genre was born.
In the early days, most of the Eurogames that were successful outside of Germany (such as Carcassonne and Alhambra) were relatively short and simple games. Indeed, if you looked up any definition of the word “Eurogame” ten years ago, it would almost certainly include “short and simple” as defining characteristics. Over the years, though, this has changed, and many complicated Eurogames have appeared, to satisfy the demands of enthusiastic gamers who want something meaty to sink their teeth into.
Nowadays, the simpler Eurogames tend to be referred to as gateway games, and the very complicated ones are called heavy games. The games I will be focussing on for the rest of this chapter though, are the ones that are in between; some people call them medium-heavy games, others use the term “gamers’ games”, but for me, these are simply the games that I think of when I hear the term Eurogame.
One of the most popular sub-genres of Eurogames, is the ‘worker placement game’. Now, I guess that some of you reading this will have never heard that phrase before. The first time I heard it, I presumed it was a genre of corporate games in which the theme was running a busy human resources department.
Worker placement (sometimes called action drafting) is actually a game mechanism where players allocate a limited number of tokens (or ‘workers’) to multiple stations available to all players, which provide various defined actions.
No … wait … come back! It’s fun, honestly.
The first game of this type that I came across was Stone Age. This fantastic game has a gorgeous board filled with great artwork, and a gameplay system which was unlike anything I had ever played before.
The rules were a little daunting at first, but after watching a YouTube video, and playing for just a few minutes, it all became clear.
In Stone Age, players take turns placing members of their meeple tribes into locations such as forests, hunting grounds, and quarries; there, they claim resources for their tribe (by rolling dice), which they combine to build huts, or otherwise enhance the civilization. Not all players will be able to get everything they want though; there is only so much of everything to go round. So you have to choose your priorities, and also block locations to prevent opponents from taking them.
I loved this game when I first discovered it. I remember the satisfaction I felt in working out that one of the key tricks to doing well in Stone Age (and, I later discovered, in many modern games), is to create an efficient “engine”. That is, early in the game, you focus on creating something (in this case, farming expertise) that automatically generates resources (food) for you each turn, so that later in the game you will automatically have the resources you need without having to do anything. In this case, the farm will produce enough food to feed your people, so you don’t need to send your workers out hunting any more, and can use them for something else instead.
I also loved the way it came with a little leather cup for rolling the dice in. I have no idea if they actually had leather cups in the stone age, but I loved it anyway. I do worry however, that the presence of the cup means my vegan friends will not be able to play with me. To be honest, this is not a massive problem for me as I do not actually have any vegan friends; but who knows, maybe one day?
Although Stone Age was the first worker placement game I was ever aware of, it was by no means the first one ever created. According to my source of information (Wikipedia, obviously) the first worker placement game was a 1998 game about medieval professions, called Keydom (later remade as Aladdin’s Dragons) by an English accountant called Richard Breese, who, I have just discovered, lives in Stratford-upon-Avon, just ten miles away from my home town!
So I went to see him.
I got in my car, drove down the A46, and … no, I am messing with you again. I just sent him an email, and asked him if what I had read was true.
Richard replied, which was nice of him, and confirmed to me what Wikipedia had said, that Keydom is generally recognized as the first of the worker placement genre of games, and he told me where he got his inspiration from.
“The idea for worker placement flowed from the publication in 1995 of Klaus Teuber’s seminal game Settlers of Catan. I enjoyed Settlers. However I was not over fond of the luck factor inherent in the dice rolling. I decided I wanted to achieve the same effect but without the dice, just by direct placement of the workers on the board.”
I asked Richard if it was he who had coined the phrase ‘worker placement’, and he told me that although the Keydom rules refer to the counters as both villagers and ‘workers’ and also talks about ‘placing’ the counters, the actual phrase ‘worker placement’ is not specifically used. He told me he had forwarded my question to his gaming magazine publisher friend, who thought the phrase was first used on a gaming website, but did not know who by.
Keydom enjoyed modest success when it came out, but the game that really popularized the worker placement mechanic was Caylus, in 2005. With its theme of medieval city and castle building, it was awarded the first ever Spiel des Jahres special award for ‘Complex Game’ in 2006. There have been many other hugely popular worker placement games since, such as the farming themed Agricola, and cathedral construction game Pillars of the Earth.
Richard himself though, has gone from strength to strength. Since Keydom he has released a series of games through his own company R&D Games, all set in the same medieval world, and all with names beginning ‘Key’. They are all worker placement games, but each has twists to the mechanism .The 2012 entry in the series, Keyflower (which he co-designed with Sebastian Bleasdale) has been his biggest hit, and has been incredibly well reviewed.
When I asked Richard what was the best thing that had come out of his invention, he told me that, just like the rest of us, he has had many enjoyable evenings playing Stone Age, Agricola, and Pillars of the Earth.
I like that answer.
So, by now, I hope that I have whet your appetite, and made you want to go out and play a worker placement game for yourself. But which one?
Well, Agricola and Pillars of the Earth, the two that Richard mentioned, are both classics of the genre.
I remember reading a newspaper article about the phenomenon of modern boardgames in the noughties, and Pillars of the Earth, which had just come out, was the centrepiece of the article. After reading it, I badly wanted to play, but I knew I would not be able to persuade my friends to switch from poker night to worker placement game night, so I never bought it. By the time my situation had changed (i.e. new friends) the game was out of print. I still have not played it to this day. It looks fantastic in the photographs I have seen, though.
Agricola, on the other hand, I have played. When I did eventually get around to playing Eurogames, a few years later, it was the one that everyone seemed to be talking about. Its status as a classic is well deserved, but it is quite an unforgiving game, in the sense that if you make a sub-optimal move early on, it is difficult to recover, and your farmer’s family could well end up starving to death.
Games like these go in and out of fashion (and in and out of print) over the years, and new worker placement games appear all the time. Nowadays there are hundreds of alternatives out there to choose from, and you would probably get a lot of satisfaction out of any of them.
For most people, perhaps the most important thing would be to choose an agreeable theme. So, I will just mention a few of the most popular current games, with their themes, so that you have somewhere to start looking:
- Viticulture – wine making and running a vineyard.
- Lords of Waterdeep – swords and sorcery, dungeons and dragons.
- Manhattan Project – building an atomic bomb.
- Manhattan Project: Energy Empire – keeping the lights on for a global superpower.
- Champions of Midguard – vikings and monsters.
- Dinosaur Island – a dinosaur theme park on an island. Not Jurassic Park though, definitely not.
- Lowlands – sheep farming in perilous floodplains.
- Dark Domains – dark fantasy and evil magic.
- Troyes – a city of the Champagne region of France. I am just glad this is not an audiobook and I do not have to pronounce it
- Nusfjord – running a Norwegian fishing village.
- Russian Railroads – Railroads. In Russia.
- Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar – ancient tribes … and cogs.
When I first started playing these games I used to think that the terms worker placement and Eurogames were synonymous, but that is not the case. Worker placement is, as I said, probably the most popular mechanic in Eurogames, and the one that most often has the game built around it. But there are many Eurogames that have worker placement as just one of many mechanics, and many that do not have it at all.
Other mechanics available include area control, set collection, card drafting, auctions, tile placement, deck building, and the list goes on.
Concordia is a Eurogame with no worker placement – it is a peaceful strategy game of economic development in Roman times – a very well-balanced game, and one that makes you think ahead to plan out your moves. The same is also true (except for the Roman economic development bit) of Orléans. Both of these games often feature highly in Eurogamers’ top ten lists.
One of my personal favourites is Istanbul, the game which beat Concordia to the Connoisseur-gamer Game of the Year, in the 2014 Spiel des Jahres. In Istanbul you send your people around a Turkish market, wheeling and dealing, trying to collect rubies. It’s quick and lively – a fun puzzle to solve – and it looks great on my table.
Another game I have recently fallen in love with is Village, the 2012 Spiel Connoisseur-gamer Game of the Year. In this charming game you control several generations of meeples from one family, who make their way through life in a medieval village; perhaps they will be famers, or join the church, or even travel to other villages, before dying and going into the family book of remembrance. It makes me nostalgic for a time long before I was born, and it is so fun to play.
There are so many other great Eurogames out there: Francis Drake, Dungeon Petz, New Amsterdam, Merlin, Fresco, Grand Austria Hotel, …
You might have noticed that a lot of Eurogames have historical or fantasy themes, but if you fancy a bit of futuristic science instead, 2016’s Terraforming Mars is very well regarded. Also, the Kickstarter smash hit Scythe is a traditional resource-gathering Euro, with added fighting mechs.
Whenever I am asked what my favourite board game of all time is (you would be surprised how often this happens), I usually say the 2015 Ystari game Shakespeare. I love the theme, the gameplay, and the production, and I feel it should have been a much bigger hit than it was. It is not always easy to find this game in the shops, as it is often out of print, but if you can locate a copy, I recommend it wholeheartedly. In Shakespeare, which is set in Elizabethan England, the players each run their own theatres and have to put on the best plays possible by employing actors, building sets, and making costumes, all while keeping up morale and making enough money to pay the staff. No acting is required – it is not that sort of game.
However, if there is one game that stands out as being the most popular and most enduring medium-heavy Eurogame of the 21st century, that game is Castles of Burgundy. It is not the most beautiful game to look at, consisting almost entirely of simple printed cardboard, and dice, but it is around half the price of most other Euros. The gameplay is so well balanced and so elegant, that it has rightly become a classic, and many people’s entry point into the world of Eurogaming.