Catan, as Klaus Teuber’s hyper-profitable franchise is usually called, has many of the signature features associated with Eurogames: randomized board layouts, flexible scoring systems, an aesthetic that tends toward rustic themes and wooden pieces. But as Eklund and other Eurogame pioneers explained to me, these games’ philosophy of play is rooted in trends dating to the Second World War.
In North America, the complex board games created during the latter half of the 20th century typically took the form of simulated warfare. In Risk, Axis & Allies, Star Fleet Battles, and Victory in the Pacific, players take on the role of generals moving their units around tabletop maps. But for obvious reasons, this wasn’t a model that resonated positively with the generation of Germans who grew up in the shadow of the Third Reich. Which helps explain why all of the most popular Eurogames are based around building things—communities (Catan), civilizations (Terra Mystica), farms (Agricola)—rather than annihilating opponents. The result is a vastly more pacifist style of a game that can appeal to women as much as men, and to older adults as much as high-testosterone adolescents.
“When I was young, one of my first creations was a Star Trek–type game with humans fighting other races in space,” Eklund says. “I now realize it was more or less a racist concept. It’s been done many times. It’s just not that interesting.” In Germany, by contrast, he’s created games such as Pax Renaissance, in which players take on the role of bankers navigating the vicissitudes of war and religious upheaval in 15th- and 16th-century Europe.
But the gulf between the traditional American games of yore—“Ameritrash,” as the genre is dismissively referred to by the board-game cognoscenti—goes beyond the divide between militarism and pacifism. In Monopoly, that great bonfire of friendships, the conflict between players is direct, brutal, and zero-sum: You bankrupt me or I bankrupt you. Which is why so many rounds of Monopoly finish on a note of bitterness. The one game of Monopoly I ever played with my wife ended with her staring me down icily and declaring, without any hint of warmth or irony, “I have never seen this side of your personality.”
In Eurogames, by contrast, such naked metaphors for capitalism and predation are outré. The Spanish-themed El Grande, for instance, does not permit players to attack their opponents directly. Rather, players maneuver their caballeros around a map of medieval Spain in a bid to win the favor of local courtiers. Players don’t beat their opponents so much as thwart them. The same is invariably true in rail-themed Eurogames such as Ticket To Ride, in which players rush to claim choice routes. The action is always passive-aggressive—never just aggressive.
This mode of play is pleasant on multiple levels. There is an enormous amount of fussy micromanagerial satisfaction that comes from amassing A so you can invest in B, so you can trade for C, so you can build a D, which in turn pumps out more A. To outsiders, this churn of wood, brick, sheep, ore, and wheat always makes Eurogames seem overly complicated. (In Friedemann Friese’s masterpiece Power Grid, there is even a step called the “bureaucracy” phase.) But in practice, all the busywork keeps players immersed in their own projects, and less spiteful in regard to others’ success. Which makes for gentler competition, fewer arguments, and (in my experience) less in the way of intra-spousal recrimination.