My induction to boardgaming began early in 2004, when I started playing The Settlers of Catan. I’d played plenty of other traditional ‘boardgames’ before that point, such as Monopoly or Risk or the Game of Life, but after Settlers, I quickly realised that these weren’t real boardgames – they were ‘boardgames lite’. They were ‘roll and move’.
‘Roll and move’ is a disparaging but perfectly descriptive term given to games where you roll some dice and then move your piece. To the vast majority of people, that’s what a boardgame is – you’re represented by a counter and you move around the board by rolling. Occasionally you get to make a decision, like buying a house or changing course or answering a question, but it’s basically all ‘roll and move’. Why, most would ask, is that a bad thing?
Boardgame players would respond that ‘roll and move’ games are all about chance, and not about strategy. They would – and I would – say that they aren’t even that fun, not compared to other less popular boardgames, and in the case of games like Monopoly, just not fun at all. They’re overly competitive, pitting friends and families directly against each other, producing awful grudges, and often players will be knocked out of contention early on, leaving them at the sidelines for hours. How could that be fun, other than for what you get from the good company?
The solution, my friends, is Euro games. Euro games, as they’re termed in the boardgaming community, refer to ‘European style’ or ‘German style’ games (which means that many ‘Euro games’ are in fact designed by non-Europeans). Euro games are characterised by play that is not directly competitive, featuring deeper interaction and co-operation between players, and a higher emphasis on strategy. That does not mean that they are all impossibly difficult to play, or not fun. In fact, a recent Euro-style boardgame I played only took about ten or twenty minutes to learn – just about the same as any other boardgame.
That game was Ra. Ra is one of the most popular Euro-style boardgames and was designing by a guy called Reiner Knizia. As with most Knizia games, at its heart, it’s a bidding game, even though it pretends to be set in Ancient Egypt. The game is divided into three equal epochs, and every epoch, each player has three or four bidding tokens. The tokens are ranked, so no two are the same, which means that bidding is never deadlocked.
What you’re bidding on are tiles. At the start of each turn, a player will usually turn over a tile and add it to a pile in the centre of the board. The tiles are things like gold, or monuments or pharoahs. Individual tiles, or sets of tiles, are worth points. When someone decides the pile is appropriately big, they can call an auction, which everyone can take part in. This is where you use your bidding tokens, and basically, whoever places the highest bid wins and gets all the tokens.
Mixed in with the tiles are ‘Ra’ tiles; when you pick one of these up, an auction is called and the tile is added to the ‘Ra line’. When the Ra line is full up, the epoch ends, everyone adds up their points, resets their tiles, and starts the next epoch. And that’s it, basically. There are obviously other rules and subtleties – for example, every epoch you usually end up changing some of your bidding tokens – but it’s essentially a bidding game where you’re trying to get the best possible tiles in order to get the most points.
While the rules are just as simple as any other game, the reason Ra is so fun is because of the dilemmas and strategy that emerges from the rules. For example, when you bid for tiles, you obviously want to get as many as possible. However, if you don’t hold a high ranked bidding token, you’ll almost certainly get beaten if you try to bid on a huge stack. What to do? Well, a favourite tactic of many is to call auctions when there are piddling numbers of tiles available. In those circumstances, you are basically daring the other players to use their high ranked tokens. If they don’t, you can just scoop the tiles up for a pittance, and if they do, they waste a good token.
Another dilemma involves the use of your tokens. You only have three or four, depending on the number of players, so you can only win three or four auctions every epoch. When do you spend your tokens? Do you wait until everyone else has spent their tokens, in the hope of picking up some good, uncontested bargains at the end? If you do, then you run the risk of the Ra line being filled up and the epoch ending before you get to spend all your tokens, making things a complete washout. Or do you spend your tokens at the start, in the hope that a lot of Ra tiles will emerge and all the people hanging back will be forced to hurriedly spend their tokens on poor deals before the last Ra comes out?
In my games against my brother and his wife this Christmas (they got me the game!), the game would whiz by for the most part, but occasionally someone would become hesitant, look at everyone’s tiles and tokens, look at their own, and linger in a torn dilemma about whether to spend their ‘good token’ now or save it for later. Now that was fun. Importantly, Ra is short! A game only lasts 30 to 45 minutes, as opposed to the exhausting marathon-like durations of Monopoly or Risk. To be sure, there are Euro games that are longer, taking 90 to 120 minutes, but they almost always have set limits that ensure they don’t drag on forever.
The other thing fun thing about Ra was that everyone had fun right up until the end – no-one is ever knocked out in the game, and while a couple of front-runners might emerge early on, it’s always possible for lagging players to surprise everyone else and win right at the finishing post.
Now, when was the last time you played a boardgame like that? And imagine if every game you played was like that… Welcome to Euro games.
If you want to read more about Euro games, check out the Top 50 list at Boardgamegeek. It’s a great site for reviews and discussion of all boardgames, but inevitably most energy is directed to Euro games, since basically that’s what all the users like.