The Hybrid Game

by Moritz Eggert

Hello, my friends! This time I'm going to talk about one of the Holy Grails of game design. "What will that be?" you might ask, as of course the Holy Grail of any game design must be that the game is simply very good.

No, I'm talking about the marriage of Euro and American game styles, something that has been attempted again and again, and only rarely really successfully. If it works, it's great, if it doesn't, the game falls a little flat and one would probably be better off to play a normal American game or Eurogame.

I'm talking about the holy grail of modern game design, a game that is relatively simple ruleswise, that has extremely clean and clever mechanics that give players lots of choices and that at the same time is full to the brim with atmosphere and theme, something that many complain Euros are lacking (but then Euros are also lacking in inconsistencies and Take That! cards - THANK GOD!).

It has been attempted to marry these two gaming style since approximately the end of the 90's. I will give you 3 games as an example - the first 2 are games that don't come off totally successfully and the third is a game that succeeds beyond all expectations.

The first two games are "Bootleggers" and "Age of Mythology" by the now practically defunct Eagle Games.

Both are nice and in no way bad games that clearly took some ideas from Euro games. In Bootleggers the gamers represent crime lords who want to score points in Speakeasys by having majorities of their own booze sold there. The game takes many Eurogame mechanics and combines them with a strong prohibition period theme. There are lots of nice details - the players actually use little trucks that transport the booze from their distilleries to the speakeasies, and the booze itself is represented by wooden cubes, a staple of all Euro Games. There are also open cards that can be selected to perform various actions, which gives the players more choice and food for thought.

All this is nice and good. But there is one mechanic that ruins it for me, and that is booze production itself. Each player controls distilleries, and these produce booze... via die roll. If you roll a 1 you produce 1 crate, if you roll 6 you produce 6 crates. Now booze is one of the main factors in the game, even though there are event cards that can take booze of other players (which also is a bad design decision as this will always be a bit arbitrary), and as there are only a limited number rounds a player who rolls 3 6es in a row in booze production will have a HUGE advantage over a player who rolls three 1's. As you see the element of chance, which by itself is not a bad thing if handled correctly, creates a major design problem, as the game is otherwise too complex and strategic to be just a simple light beer and pretzel game where mechanics like this are probably ok.

Now to the next game: "Age of Mythology". "Age of Mythology" is - and that is widely known -clearly influenced by Puerto Rico. Each player has a little mat with squares that he tries to fill up with various buildings that produce resources with which you can buy stronger and stronger monsters. The monsters can be sent to the players to your left and right (only) to attack their buildings and further your position in the game. So what is the problem? Interaction! First of all, in a 4-player game of "Age of Mythology" there will NEVER be any interaction with the player diagonally opposite to you. I find this very weird, actually. Puerto Rico is an extremely interactive game, which main feature is the selection of various roles in changing turn order, something that is missing from "Age of Mythology" altogether.

Instead you have endless dice battles of the monsters in which only always 2 players participate while the others watch. Puerto Rico has instead absolutely no downtime and keeps you always busy.

Not that you misunderstand me here - "Age of Mythology" is better than average, and there are many nice aspects about the game, but it is not better than either a good American or good Euro game, one feels longing for more fantasy atmosphere as an American style gamer, and for more actual decision making as a Euro gamer.

Now we come to the game that I think marries the two styles in an ideal way. Interestingly enough the game was a very strange collaboration between Avalon Hill's Don Greenwood and Germany's designer legend Reiner Knizia in which Don Greenwood took a rather unknown bike racing game by Knizia and added some fantasy features taken from Avalon Hill's classic Titan game to create "Titan - the Arena". There was never actually any direct collaboration between Knizia and Greenwood, Greenwood improved on the Eurogame basis on his own.

I absolutely adore "Titan - the Arena" (or the new version "Colossal Arena" by Fantasy Flight) - it is a relatively simple and short game that plays extremely quickly, and which you can play with virtually everyone, be it wargamer, Eurogamer or Theme-gamer. In the game creatures duke it out in a fantasy arena, the players try to bet on them and use strength cards from 0-10 of the creatures to help or hinder them in combat. After each round the weakest monster dies and a lesser number of monsters continue, until there are only three monsters left. The players now earn victory points for their surviving bets, getting more for them if they placed them early in the game.

"Titan-The Arena" gives the players many choices - there are no bad cards per se, as you want to play the low strength cards on other player's monsters or play them only at an opportune moment, high strength cards can either be withheld or played for your own monsters. But the genius design idea of Don Greenwood is to introduce...theme. Each monster has a special ability that one can use if you're the highest betting player on it and play a card on it. These abilities correspond to the typical fantasy ideas - the Troll can regenerate cards, the Hydra can play two cards in a row and so on. The special abilities, even though they are actually not used as often as one might think, are the spice in an otherwise relatively abstract game, and give it the flair that the dry basic game of Knizia didn't provide. But without the sound mathematical basis of the Knizia basic design the fantastic monster abilities would be lost - they would simply be typical chrome, unnecessary detail to create chaos. But here they are deftly harnessed by a sound design basis, and therefore increase in their effect. The monster abilities are open to everyone - you don't draw a card or roll on a table, you actually can select what monsters you want to play on.

So why are there not more games like "Titan - The Arena"?

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