I think we gamers and game designers can jump too quickly to scoffing at mainstream games. But we owe a lot to them. Monopoly really is a bridge from the world of no games to the world of hobby games. If we are to grow our industry, we must be willing to sit down with people who love Monopoly and enjoy a game of Monopoly with them. When we start where they are comfortable and show them we can have fun on their turf, they will be more likely to try our "gateway games" and enter into the world of clever design and cool mechanics.
My first reaction was denial. They were completely wrong. I've been working on this for a year, and they've only played it for a few months. Never mind the fact that since there's a whole team playing, they've probably put in almost as much play time as I have, if not more.
Existing commentary on eurogames is most often written by enthusiasts and rarely by scholars, though academic interest seems to be on the rise. What we will see is that, though all can agree that thematic abstraction is a hallmark of eurogames, there is dissent among both enthusiasts and scholars about what to do in the face of that abstraction.
In the only extant monograph on the genre so far, Stewart Woods provides a history of eurogames that concludes that their thematic abstraction — while distinctive — is not of great interest.2 This postulation of eurogames' effective lack of theme is demonstrably aligned with the widespread enthusiast perspective that theme is often a negligible quality of games (even outside of wholly abstract games like Blokus
). For example, popular board game reviewer Tom Vasel said of the eurogame Vasco da Gama
, "Don't come into this looking for any kind of theme." But — far more so than with many eurogames — Vasco da Gama
is very plainly about something real: its namesake is a particular historical figure and the gameplay embodies this person's biography in non-trivial ways. Yet Vasel forbids us from looking for theme in this game, insisting that there is nothing there.
Conversely, Will Robinson describes Vasco da Gama
in far more situated terms, noting that the game's abstraction erases the violence of the game's thematic referent. Robinson looks at the virtuality of the game and subsequently directs his attention to the reality of the history depicted. He writes:
"Taking violent histories and turning them into resource management/worker-placement games for family audiences creates an ideological fairy tale. Vasco da Gama
reinforces a clean and unproblematic interpretation of the Portuguese empire with each play."
Indeed, the question of "what is being abstracted out" is vital, particularly when the theme is so specifically historical and that history's violence undermines the supposedly non-violent interactions that characterize the genre. Ultimately, in Robinson's critique of Vasco da Gama
, it's tempting to liken it to a Foucauldian mirror test at which Vasel fails by not seeing the reality of Vasco da Gama's real actions via Vasco da Gama
Given Castles of Burgundy
's abstraction (which is typical of the eurogame genre), these animals can be interpreted as companions, wards, ornaments, or consumable resources. Given my perspective, I see them as more like wards or perhaps companions. The game — like much great art, and like Settlers of Catan
as described earlier — can function as a mirror: it shows me who I am in reality through the materiality of its unreality. In my case, I can clearly (and somewhat unexpectedly) see my real vegan convictions in the unreality of the game and its abstract and polysemic components.
My view of Castles of Burgundy
, like Robinson's view of Vasco da Gama
, is grounded in social critique. But the situation I find myself in when facing the abstraction of Castles of Burgundy
allows me to fill in gaps and virtually "re-theme" the game — without any physical modifications or concrete house rules — according to my politics.